Katrina volunteers rebuilding lives

House-by-house, volunteer teams bring hope to devastated communities along the northern Gulf coast.


GIFT -- As each home is rebuilt, volunteers based at Camp Hope at Vancleave UMC, leave a Bible for the homeowner with notes of encouragement and the signatures of all of the people who work on the house.
Credit: DNN PHOTO/Jon Lindberg

REBUILDING - Volunteers from Mt. Zion UMC in Highland, MD, replace the drywall in a house near Gulfport devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
Credit: DNN PHOTO/Jon Lindberg

Nearly three years since Hurricane Katrina slammed ashore along the northern Gulf Coast in August 2005, volunteers are still picking up the pieces of broken lives and trying to put them back together in something approaching normalcy.

It's no easy task. The conditions are difficult. While volunteers are often plentiful and willing to work, the money sometimes trickles in and government programs, designed to help, are sometimes unwittingly in the way. But volunteers push on. One person, one house, one street, one neighborhood at a time.

And the work is getting done. Slowly.

"It doesn't look like much has been done except if one takes a look at photos from a week after Katrina," said Scott Sundberg, director of communications for the Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS). "Of course it could be more, but sometimes fast isn't best. We're doing things slowly, but properly."

The Mennonites have concentrated their efforts in smaller cities and towns where they can establish relationships with the people and local government officials. They believe that in that way, people will get to know them and their work and will come to work with them to rebuild their homes.

In Pass Christian, Miss., MDS rebuilt about more than a dozen homes. It may seem like a small number, he said, but to those families it means everything.

"Pass Christian was devastated by the storm," he said. "There was very little left after the water receded."

The community is coming back slowly. City Hall and all other government services are still operating out of temporary trailers. It is very much a work in progress.

Victoria Goff, the national volunteer coordinator of the American Baptist Church (ABC), said most of the Gulf Coast, outside of some pockets in a few of the larger cities like New Orleans and Biloxi, look like they did a few months after the hurricane struck. The landscape is barren and quiet, save for the sound of hammers or chainsaws at isolated rebuild sites.

"There are lots of volunteers," she said, "but there is so much work to be done."

She said the best estimates she has heard is that reconstruction in the region will take as many as 20 years to complete. ABC has groups working across the region from Biloxi, Miss. to Port Arthur, Tex., on projects both large and small.

In both Pass Christian and Gulfport, for example, there are volunteers working with local groups to rebuild several houses. Local partnerships have been formed to help people get on their feet.

John Robinson of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) said PDA has several groups on the ground in the Mississippi area, and added his group has also concentrated on fundraisers for that area. He said many residents who have remained there are working paycheck to paycheck and cannot even begin the rebuilding process because they are just trying to get what they need for the present and are not able to work toward a future goal.

"We are trying to raise the financial support to make rebuilding possible," he said.

Goff said the storm washed away entire lives for many people. Not only did the waves crush their homes and livelihoods, but also their dreams. Many moved north, as far away as Michigan in many cases, or closer to parts of Texas not damaged in the storm. Without work in the Gulf Coast and with the reconstruction moving slowly, many have begun to establish new lives somewhere else.

"There are a lot of cases in Mississippi especially, where people have just moved on," Goff said. "They're not coming back."

Where whole neighborhoods once stood, there is often a crazy quilt stitched together of brand new homes, homes that are still boarded up and weed-choked lots where a house has been razed and there are no plans to rebuild. The process is slow, Goff noted, but slowly the areas will begin to come back to life and as those who have stayed rebuild, perhaps new people will begin to migrate to the area.

Sundberg said he believes the recovery efforts have hit a sort of a lull as the memory of Katrina's ravages begins to fade from people's minds. He said that some people outside of the area are sometimes surprised to hear the work is still going on.

"I think people knew how bad it was, but they didn't think it was still going on now," he said. "They think it should be done by now." But when people are aware of the work still left to do, they are ready to go and help out.

Volunteer coordinators say they have no problem finding volunteers to go to the area when they put out the call. And, they said, there is no shortage of work for them to do.

Despite the devastation, the residents of the Gulf Coast east of New Orleans are quietly pulling their communities back together. Some may never return to the way things were, but with the help of volunteers, many who stayed are hammering out a new life for themselves and their communities.

This is the first of a series of articles about the work of rebuilding following Katrina and Rita.

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What's changed, what hasn't at FEMA

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More links on Hurricane Katrina

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