Facebook Twitter

Dire need of help — quality labor hard to find

Following Katrina, members volunteer to reconstruct city

SHARE Dire need of help — quality labor hard to find
  • Editor's note: The is the first of a two-part series on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This article is about the Mississippi coast. The next one, to be published Aug. 12, will be about New Orleans, La.

GULFPORT, Miss. — "The other night I dreamed I was looking down the beach — the water was coming up a little at a time," she said. "I was carrying a baby, and before you knew it, the water was deeper and I was running and the water was chasing me. . . ."

Lloa Beard, a widowed grandmother who lost everything in her home down to the Sheetrock when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast Aug. 29, 2005, is among the hundreds of Church members who continue to have nightmares about the violent storm. It is now referred to as the worst natural disaster in the nation's history.

Now, almost a year later, the most common nightmare is "what if?" and it provokes anxiety among some people with every incoming disturbance in the Gulf, or thunderstorm.

While Katrina, a Category 4 hurricane, is considered a 200-year-storm, the next one need only be a Category 2, which storms are a nearly annual occurrence, to unsheathe the aluminium on thousands of 8-by-28-foot FEMA trailers on lawns, parks and pavement that are housing the cities of families who lost their homes last year. August is typically the most active month for hurricanes.

Although the fears are reality based, no mass exodus is expected among this resilient people. Katrina has already winnowed the population: those with no housing, employment or who can't deal with hurricanes have already left; everyone else is staying put, evacuation plans at the ready.

"I know I don't want any of my people in a trailer in any kind of a storm," said Bishop Jay F. Taylor of the Pascagoula Ward. Pascagoula's southern front experienced a 25-foot storm surge from Katrina that destroyed hundreds of homes, including his.

"Those of us who lost everything realize our priorities," he said.

Members such as Bishop Taylor living along Mississippi's coast where the force of the hurricane caused the greatest damage are rebuilding their lives along with their homes.

The pudding muck from floodwaters in homes has been shoveled and scrubbed. Interiors have been mashed and moved. Most of the debris has been hauled away in oversize dump trucks. Near the beach, concrete pads where homes once stood have "For Sale" signs, others have trailers, but most stand vacant. In nearby Waveland where Katrina's deadly eye passed, vegetation springs up waist high where downtown once stood, as though to transform the rubble through time into a ruins.

Ten percent is the number mentioned to describe rebuilding, but to a casual observer the main difference in the post-storm era is that most of the debris is gone. A closer look reveals thousands of new roofs, businesses open and power and communication lines operating.

However, the daunting movement of rebuilding homes remains a mammoth challenge.

All along the coast, beyond the rail line that served as an unwitting breakwater, homes that are rebuildable pose a challenge. Few people have collected homeowners insurance because the area has never flooded before and flood insurance wasn't acquired. Few skilled workers are available, and few homeowners have construction ability.

Ironically, outside contractors can't find work and return home because the money and projects don't line up.

"Rebuilding, as a task for those who are willing to do their share, is less of a problem than for those who are waiting for (outside) help," said Edward Van Gass, a counselor from LDS Family Services, now stationed in Mississippi. He fills his days helping members to reduce their anxiety levels, and to persuade them that the problems of the day are only temporary. He deals with depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome, relational issues, and grieving.

Many of the families he works with are cramped inside an 8X28-foot trailer. In these narrow quarters, family problems grow fuses. More likely to burst in these stressed surroundings are increased numbers of divorces, broken families and depression-related conditions. Priesthood leaders are grateful for his work.

As August, the peak of hurricane season, has rolled around, "more and more people just want to talk," he said. Often the conversation turns to their gutted house on which little progress is being made.

To alleviate the stalemate, a second wave of skilled workers from other stakes have begun rebuilding homes of these Church members. On Friday, July 28, a large contingent of such workers arrived from Ft. Walton Beach Florida Stake and the Athens Georgia Stake. Energetic, cracking jokes, shaking hands, they seem to gain strength just arriving. Most have been here before. Their presence re-energizes the locals, a gospel symbiosis that occurs throughout the Church

but here its dimensions are so dramatic that it is palpable, like the people have received new batteries.

"I hear stories of people being completely discouraged to the point of being paralyzed," said President Robert P. Garrett of the Gulfport Mississippi Stake. "The crew comes in and starts to work, even though just for a weekend, and it spurs them on; it really boosts their spirits."

A retired Naval meteorologist, he is the former bishop of the Waveland Ward where 17 homes of 300 families are inhabitable. Many others are in various stages of reconstruction. Just bring your skills, whatever they are, he tells volunteers. "Our needs are so vast we will use you all."

Work crews look over the 15-20 priority work orders waiting on the high council room table and take those that suit their skills. They are on site by 8 a.m. Saturday — if they found their location in the winding, thickly wooded coast.

Michael McNiven, elders quorum president of the Athens 1st Ward, leads a crew putting up drywall at the home of Gerard and Shannon Gelinas. Brother Gelinas, the ward mission leader and a plumber, is in the hospital.

"They are in dire need of good help," said Brother McNiven. "It is kind of stark here, things you see a year later are kind of sobering."

The Gelinas' have the means to hire contractors, but quality work is just not available.

"It is such a blessing to see all that Sheetrock, and to see the roof on," Sister Gelinas said. She and her husband are "really ready for a routine." Their windows and doors will come Monday. "It is so thrilling for me."

At the home of fourth-generation member Irma Day, and her husband, George, who is not a member, workers install wood laminate flooring in their 140-year-old home and its add-ons. An early LDS chapel that once stood across the way was washed into a light pole by Katrina's surge, where it became a heap of debris since hauled away. The Days now live in two 8X28s "where you have to lean over the commode to get to the lavatory."

"I told my wife, 'I just don't know how much of this I can go longer of,' " said Mr. Day. "You just don't know how much we appreciate this."

At the home of a less-active member and her non-LDS husband, volunteer contractors pulled up in one of those pickups that has tool boxes on the side holding power tools. In a few minutes its doors and tool box lids hung open, and the cab light was left on. The home where much of the framing had been removed was filled with shouts and the singing of wood saws. Walls fabricated on the floor were hammered plumb and nailed. By afternoon, the last wall was framed. The woman, who had lost two family members following the hurricane, and who lives in an 8X28 trailer on the lawn by her house that had remained unchanged for long months in a row, walked around her home with beads of perspiration on her face.

"They are wonderful, wonderful," she said. "It's going so fast."

Elaine Forrest, gospel doctrine teacher in the Waveland Ward, said that a crew from Atlanta brought the first ray of hope when they cleaned out their home last fall. Since then, "We tried to do a lot of the work ourselves," but had help with Sheetrock and wiring. "We really appreciate the help," she said. "It has been such a boost."

Priesthood leaders throughout the stake made a point of expressing their thanks to these crews. They couldn't say enough. Coming at the subject of appreciation from another direction, President Garrett said: "I think there is always room for miracles. They are about us every day. These tender mercies are from Heavenly Father and they aren't coincidences."

E-mail to: jhart@desnews.com