Friday, July 07, 2006
A Katrina Volunteer's Story
Guest blogger Corinne Berkseth recently joined volunteers rebuilding homes decimated by Hurricane Katrina in Biloxi, Mississippi. Her team, which was organized by Habitat for Humanity of Northern Virginia, rebuilt the home of “Ms. Helen.” Corinne calls the experience the “most incredible and rewarding experience I’ve ever had.”
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can
change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."- Margaret Mead, Anthropologist/Scientist (1901- 1978)
Day 1: Arrival—Beach Boulevard
The people of Mississippi are so gracious and so grateful for the help of strangers. We were still at the airport when we were first thanked for coming and helping. I’ve never heard the simple words “thank you” sound as sincere and heartfelt. So began the journey Robbie, Sam, Jaime, Blake and I would travel over the next week plus.
En route from the airport to Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church, whose convent would serve as our Biloxi home, we drove Beach Boulevard/Highway 90. I had volunteered in Biloxi in September 2005 mucking out flood-damaged homes. Though many had told me there was still much work to be done, I was saddened to see how similar the landscape looked eight months later. It’s not that work hadn’t been done--the massive debris piles that were everywhere in September were all but gone. And yet all along the drive were twisted metal remnants of restaurant signs, bare concrete foundations, apartments, hotels, homes with gaping holes and huge trees pulled out by their root balls. Many months after the storm, the enormity of the Katrina disaster was, and still is, overwhelming. I shared my thoughts with my traveling companions and then tucked them away, not knowing what to do with them,
Day 2: First Day of Construction
Robbie, Jaime, Sam, Blake and I were working on Ms. Helen’s home because our church, Good Shepherd Lutheran in Alexandria, Virginia, had raised money to sponsor the rebuilding of a specific house in Biloxi, through Habitat for Humanity of Northern Virginia (HFHNV). HFHNV estimates the cost of rebuilding a home like Ms. Helen’s—severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina and stripped to the studs and foundation—at $25,000. As we traveled through East Biloxi that next morning, heading to Ms. Helen’s home, I had much the same reaction as I’d had on Beach Boulevard yesterday. By the looks of the neighborhood, there are many other homes in need of sponsorship. But, these thoughts were quickly buried in the activity of stepping into the gutted house, meeting Ms. Helen, and commencing rebuilding construction.
Our house (construction) leader, Hap, a seasoned volunteer from Habitat for Humanity of Northern Virginia, gave us an overview and safety demonstration on all the power tools. Then, he divided us into small groups and distributed construction tasks. Robbie and I were teamed with Donna, another dedicated HFHNV volunteer, who taught us how to frame our first wall (albeit a small one) before lunchtime—wow!
Days 3-33: Construction
Volunteers came and went during a five-week period. Over the next six to 30 days, with a variety of Northern Virginians and Air Force volunteers from nearby Keesler Air Force Base, we framed more walls, sealed gaps between the walls and floors to inhibit the spread of fire (should one ever happen), reinforced floor supports, helped redo pipes and plumbing, patched holes, replaced all the windows, hung insulation and drywall, and much more. From our starts as construction novices, we learned to use a variety of power and other tools, and then were able to actually teach others.
We also got to know our homeowner. Ms. Helen is a widow and a Head Start teacher one year from retirement. She was facing major home repair costs, and soon, a fixed income. The floodwaters reached nearly eight feet high in her home and she lost everything save a few mementos she salvaged from the mud left behind. Since November, she has lived in a FEMA trailer, parked beside her ruined house.
Ms. Helen told us about her feelings of hopelessness as she saw a few houses around her being rebuilt. She raised ten children in this home; it was the only home she’d known for years. Now it was merely a shell and the prospects for rebuilding on her own were grim. But she drew personal strength from prayer and said our efforts were a Godsend. Getting to know her and being able to help in this critical, personal way is the gift we continue to receive.
As a special way of saying thank you, Ms. Helen treated us to home cooked, southern-style lunches on several days—red beans and rice, gumbo, and more—yum! It was a wonderful way of showing her appreciation. Approximately six homes were being worked on during the May construction trip, and other homeowners fed us too.
As the days came and went, we participated in the progress made on rebuilding “our” home, delighting to show Ms. Helen each day what had been accomplished. Many of us were not used to long, hot days (approximately 7:30am-5:00pm, though the time flew by) of manual labor. But it was so satisfying—milestones you could see and photograph and show the homeowner. By the time I returned home, some drywall had been installed on the ceilings and the house was ready for the open-frame and plumbing inspections. The inspections have since passed, drywall has been hung, and the paint Ms. Helen chose is going on the walls. Her home will be completed soon—I couldn’t be more excited for her or to have been a small part of the effort.
Day 5: BBQ at Jerry and Glenda’s
I’m backing up here to return to my tucked away sadness for the rebuilding progress yet to be made in Biloxi, and especially in East Biloxi. These feelings had been in the back of my mind amidst all the construction activity.
At the end of workday number five, we trekked the short distance to Jerry and Glenda’s for a BBQ. It was for me a reunion of sorts. Jerry and Glenda’s home was one of the houses my group had helped gut in September. One of their only belongings to survive Katrina was their barbeque barrel, and they had barbequed for us then too. Our small group had gathered with them on the front porch of their unlivable home where we enjoyed Jerry’s fabulous BBQ and the fellowship of shared work amidst the seemingly hopeless situation they faced back in September.
This night, on day five, was a festival. Loads of their friends and family gathered in the yard, there was a tented roof over a banquet table of food crowned with Jerry’s famous BBQ, a DJ spun music, and a celebration was brewing. Jerry and Glenda were in the process of moving back into their home, and I saw in that gathering the progress that was happening in East Biloxi.
And the progress was springing up around East Biloxi. During the BBQ, I visited with Mr. Price and could see his home across the street—renewed and neat, with a welcoming wreath hanging on the front door. His was the first home I had worked on in September—I had helped to power wash mold out of the gutted interior. It had been the day we had enjoyed BBQ at Jerry and Glenda’s. I was struck by the full circles these two homes, and homeowners, had traveled. And I was encouraged by the progress that was happening, that is happening.
Posted by Network for Good at 11:41 AM