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Tornado survivors to get new homes

Operation Home Again to construct 55 houses in Evansville.


Sherry Southgate and her family have two important dates in their heads: Nov. 6, 2005 and Sept. 8, 2007.

The dates are worlds apart in emotions. Nov. 6, 2005, marks the date when a deadly tornado tore through Evansville, Ind., destroying numerous homes - including the Southgate home.

Sept. 8, 2007, marks the day volunteers will gather to build the new Southgate home as part of Habitat for Humanity of Evansville's "Operation Home Again" - a housing program for survivors of the tornadoes.

Habitat of Evansville announced in early April that construction of the first 27 of 55 homes for Operation Home Again will be completed in 2007. The building blitz will start in June.

"It'll be wonderful no matter what," said Sherry Southgate, who added that she was thrilled at the prospect of finally having her own home and no longer having to move.

The Southgate family has moved several times since the tornado, shifting from time spent with family members to various apartment complexes - and never quite fully unpacking. Add that to the trauma of experiencing the tornado up close and personal, and it's been a rough 18 months for the family.

Sherry, her husband and their 9-year-old son were in their car in a neighbor's driveway when the tornado struck the mobile home park where they lived.

They all made it through safely, but many of their neighbors and the homes near them did not. Because of damage to the foundation of the Southgate home, it was declared a total loss by their insurance company. Southgate said they could not afford another mobile home due to her disability and because her husband's income was insufficient.

"We tried (several other options), but then we were told to try for Habitat," Southgate said. "We were shocked to get the acceptance letter in December of 2005."

Sally Gries said Operation Home Again is special because an anonymous donation helped Habitat of Evansville purchase 13 acres of land specifically for this "New Haven" subdivision of 55 homes.

"In talking with all the families (involved), we were finding a very common thread: that they all wanted to live near where they lived before," said Gries, community relations director for Habitat of Evansville.

"They were also all neighbors or knew each other," she said. "In that process we began looking for a property large enough to build homes and relatively close to the mobile home community (that got hit)."

The New Haven subdivision is on the southeast side of Evansville, not far from the tornado's path.

Gries said close to 35 families are in the program and they must complete 320 hours of "sweat equity" as part of the requirements. Some do it by working in the Habitat office while others help construct Habitat homes.

Businesses, churches and individuals are sponsoring specific family homes during the building weeks. The 27 homes will be built by the sponsors, families and volunteers in three phases from June to December.

"The families are excited and amazingly patient," Gries said. "They stepped out in faith with us when we (planned this after the tornado) and they have really stuck with us. They now see the light at the end of the tunnel with these planned dates."

Sherry Southgate was excited and thankful for the entire process.

"It's been a wonderful experience and we thank God for it," she said.

Southgate said working the sweat equity hours has helped her meet some amazing people and get to know both her former and soon-to-be-again neighbors even better than before.

"We work side by side with them and now we know all of them," she said. "It'll be a neighborhood where we'll know everybody."

Gries said being able to help others has been therapeutic for the families.

"Many were finding themselves having to accept help from a community they never thought they'd have to ask. Now they're able to give back to those that have helped them," Gries said. "It's been very valuable."

Additional help is needed to make Operation Home Again successful, added Gries, both in the form of more sponsors for the new homes and a new park in the subdivision as well as in the form of more building volunteers to work when the blitz begins in June. Monetary and construction material donations are very helpful as well, she said. She added that there are other things that people may not realize would be extremely helpful.

"As far as non-construction materials, there's another great need: we need people who can provide food or a donation so we can purchase food for the volunteers," she said. "For example, in June in the first two weeks we'll build six homes. We'll have 250 volunteers on site every day that need to be fed. Thirteen days with 250 people a day is a lot of food."

Gries said when Operation Home Again was first announced in early 2006, the office received hundreds of telephone calls from groups wanting to volunteer to help build. Because the home sites were not selected or ready, they had to all be put on stand-by, Gries said.

"Now it's time, though. We need them to all be calling in again."

Sherry Southgate said she is excited about the prospect of working on her home. Even though her son is too young to be on the construction site, he will still be able to help out later, she said.

"He's upset he can't work on the house, but I told him as soon as it's done he can go in and paint his room whatever color he wants."

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Habitat for Humanity of Evansville

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