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Rebuilding the Gulf Coast: Determination Amid Devastation
By Pamela Bozeman
Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the Mississippi coast, but not the people's faith.

Q U I C K S C A N

From All Walks of Life
Partners in Recovery
A Journey of Hope
Street of Blessings
Reaping the Rewards
Perseverance and Resilience

Win Lander, Sam Cooper and Larry Smith prepare to hang drywall at the home of Betty Judice.

PHOTO BY PAMELA BOZEMAN

AS A LIFELONG RESIDENT of Biloxi, Mississippi, I’ve had a firsthand view of nature’s unpredictability. But I stopped remembering hurricanes like George and Elena long ago—the years they visited and the marks they left. There is one storm, however, that I’ve never forgotten, the benchmark of all before and since: Hurricane Camille in 1969. Though her memories will never disappear, they are forevermore overshadowed by Hurricane Katrina. Destruction such as hers isn’t only humbling; it’s incomprehensible.

Venturing out after Katrina roared inland on August 29, 2005, I thought I was prepared for the worst. What I wasn’t prepared for was the total devastation of our bustling peninsula.

The beach I walked along and loved was now silent—littered with remnants of lives. Antebellum homes, businesses and landmarks were gone. Some places were laid so bare they seemed to have never been there at all. Memories collected over the course of a lifetime were washed away in Katrina’s rage. The destruction was complete—no one was left untouched.

Working with Biloxi’s Diocesan Office of Long Term Recovery (DOLTR)—which was started in response to Katrina—I’ve seen firsthand the resilience, persistence and determination in the faces and hearts of our residents and volunteers.

In the aftermath of devastation, the outpouring of camaraderie has been evident everywhere. The goodness of people continues to shine in the face of disaster: neighbors helping neighbors, sharing what little they have so others can be comfortable.

Students from across the country conduct charity drives to replace victims’ personal belongings. Many on spring break skip resort beaches in favor of Mississippi beaches, fighting mosquitoes, reclaiming and rebuilding. Vehicles from neighboring states move through residential areas, laden with volunteers utilizing hard-earned vacation time to rebuild the homes of families they’ve never met. Arriving as strangers, they leave as friends, giving hope of a better tomorrow.

From All Walks of Life

Students, executives and veterans come from all around—reaching out to victims, helping renew life after Katrina. Since its inception, DOLTR has been blessed with volunteers from all walks of life. During the past 24 months alone, more than 3,000 volunteers have brought muscle, resources and talents to help DOLTR’s recovery efforts.

Musician Win Lander from Omaha recently completed his second mission of mercy. His first was in the early days after the storm.

“In 1982 I was an Airman Basic stationed at Keesler Air Force Base” in Biloxi, Lander says. “I was taken by the Southern hospitality, hoping to come back someday. Though I wish it could have been under better circumstances, the people are as warm and friendly as I remember.”

Initially, news coverage gave Lander the impression of minimal damage in Mississippi. As the next few days passed, he began to get a clearer picture of Katrina’s ravages and felt he should take action.

His suspicions were confirmed when he arrived less than two weeks later. The tremendous storm surge combined with many hours of intense hurricane-force winds had decimated the once-beautiful Mississippi Gulf Coast. What was left behind in Katrina’s wake was rubble.

Lander says, “At Omaha’s St. John Vianney Parish, we loaded items into a semi-trailer and donated money. For me that wasn’t enough, so I arranged my schedule to go down for a week. I prayed a lot, and got to Biloxi on September 11, 2005.”

What Lander experienced next had a profound effect. “I was privileged to work with a medical team, driving the streets of east Biloxi making contact with survivors, giving medical care, hugs and just listening to their almost surreal accounts of the storm,” he says. “Talk about a life-changing experience. I hated to leave.”

Once he got back home, Lander experienced intense feelings which future traveling companions Larry Smith and Sam Cooper would later come to express. “During the initial trip I kept in close contact with Sam, who had really wanted to come along. It wasn’t hard to persuade him to return with me.”

After months of planning, they were on their way. Working in Waveland—one of the hardest-hit areas—these friends helped put a stranger’s life back together. Musicians and executives were now drywall specialists and carpenters, laboring with joy and purpose as they rebuilt the home of Betty Judice.

Back in Omaha, Lander again conveyed eagerness to return to Mississippi. “It’s good to be home but hard to leave with the knowledge of how much work still needs to be done,” he says. “As volunteers, you find every task is ripe and purposeful. Achy muscles and swollen hands at night were replaced each morning by smiles and renewal. No one wanted to leave.

“Sam and Larry related nearly identical thoughts,” Lander continues. “They can’t get their experiences in Mississippi out of their minds. Our daily routine and problems which crop up now seem so trivial. It’s exciting to see how fired-up they are about returning and their attitude toward volunteerism in general.”

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Partners in Recovery

Working as God’s hands for those unable to fully help themselves, the Diocese of Biloxi continues to search for ways to express Bishop Thomas J. Rodi’s firm belief that it is the “love of Christ [which] compels us” to do all that we do for one another, within ministry, our community of believers and beyond.

With a caseload in the thousands, DOLTR carefully evaluated ways to return families to their residences more quickly and sought partnerships with other nonprofit organizations in the area of rebuilding homes.

With limited assistance from FEMA, the Fairley family of Mississippi’s Benndale community requested help to repair their wind-damaged home. Confined to a wheelchair, triple-amputee Billy Ray Fairley found it nearly impossible to maneuver inside his home due to twisted doorways, sloping rooms and unsound floors.

Upon inspection, the home was deemed unsafe because of damage sustained when Katrina’s winds shifted the house from its pier foundation, thereby making it structurally unsound and not repairable. Greatly distressed, the retired couple was running out of hope and options.

Recognizing their plight, DOLTR began negotiations with other organizations to partner in building a home for the Fairleys. The Northwest Medical Teams of Oregon, the Mississippi Conference of the United Methodist Church, the Disaster Recovery Services of George County, the Heart & Hand Housing Ministry of Alabama and DOLTR came together and quickly set plans in motion to build the Fairleys a new home.

A diabetic, Billy Ray Fairley faces multiple challenges daily. His wife is his sole caregiver. On a fixed income and still living in their unsafe home, they felt the stress and uncertainty of their future turn to joy when told a new house would be built on their property. “I can’t believe it,” Billy Ray said as he received the good news.

“I’m truly amazed. Thank God!” Toreatha Fairley echoed through tears.

Pooled resources and additional volunteers from the Church of the Brethryn enabled the partnership to break ground on October 2, 2006. Less than four months later, the Fairleys’ new home was complete.

“That’s the most beautiful home I’ve ever seen!” beams Toreatha. “What a blessing this is to us.”

A Journey of Hope

On Easter Sunday 2006, John Bledsoe began a journey that would alter not only his life, but also the lives of the many he would eventually touch. A deacon in the Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts, Bledsoe left his home in South Hadley and drove 1,500 miles, arriving at the Sacred Heart Retreat Center in south Mississippi three days later.

His objective was to spend two weeks as a volunteer, helping in the rebuilding efforts. Bledsoe simply states, “It was an experience that changed my priorities.”

When he left town, Bledsoe worried that the weight of all the tools and supplies would strain his car to the point of breakdown. His wife, Irene, had a different concern: “She told me not to go anywhere near a roof.”

A few days later, she received an e-mail photo of him standing on the first of two roofs he would help replace. Though the work was hard, the 68- year-old Bledsoe did things he didn’t think he was capable of doing.

During his second week, Bledsoe worked in the home of 83-year-old Lois Valentine in Bay St. Louis. He installed drywall in the house Valentine shares with her disabled son.

“Lois is one of the sweetest women you’d ever meet,” he says. “She and her son were so appreciative. Lois always had dark paneling, wishing for years for bright painted walls. Now, for the first time in her life, she had insulation and walls she could paint.”

Bledsoe felt his accomplishments during those two weeks were small, wanting somehow to continue the mission back home. Discovering the biggest need was for building materials, he immediately thought of his own Cursillo community.

The spiritual director of the Springfield Diocese Cursillo movement for the past 11 years, Bledsoe knew what a great apostolic action it would be for their active community to help the Diocese of Biloxi’s rebuilding efforts.

“Reaching out to others is what Cursillo is all about,” Bledsoe says. “How wonderful if we could raise between $25,000 and $50,000 to help those faced with Katrina’s ruin.” With this in mind, Bledsoe started a campaign, sending out over 1,600 letters to Cursillistas in western Massachusetts, creating awareness and pleading for assistance.

The owner of a successful marketing firm, Bledsoe created flyers asking for volunteers and donations, distributing them throughout the region. He contacted the corporate offices of two national home improvement stores, trying to garner matching funds to supplement the efforts of the many donors who responded.

Unfortunately, both chains declined to give their assistance. Undeterred, Bledsoe pushed forward, collecting over $15,000 from fellow Cursillistas that he joyfully presented to DOLTR.

Bledsoe returned this past September for his second “tour of duty.” He remains actively involved in publicizing the continued need in Mississippi, and will volunteer again this fall. Bledsoe acknowledges the work DOLTR does is always on his mind and in his prayers.

“Coming here has changed my priorities and my life,” Bledsoe says. As his own life has changed, so have the lives of those he’s helped and those he’s encouraged to join the mission.

In the closing statements of his letter campaign, Bledsoe stated, “If you are interested in volunteering it will be one of the best things you ever do. Reaching out to others, you will get much more out of it than you will ever give.”

Street of Blessings

Graham Avenue in Biloxi is a small neighborhood, tucked between the railroad tracks and Division Street in the “old” part of town. Hidden from the busy traffic of downtown Biloxi’s main thoroughfare, the work that quietly continues on this devastated street could easily go unnoticed.

As with most streets on the Coast, the level of recovery on Graham varies from house to house. Located halfway between the Mississippi Sound and Biloxi Bay, Graham suffered severe flooding, surprising residents who lived in this neighborhood during Hurricane Camille when the street was high and dry.

DOLTR reconstruction manager Wayne Hardy knows Graham Avenue well. Working with volunteers from as far away as Albany, New York, DOLTR has helped put families on this tiny street back in their homes.

Hardy smiles proudly as he points to the home of 85-year-old Richard “Red” White. “It’s absolutely beautiful. His home was completely underwater, and now it’s like brand-new. Walls, ceilings, floors—everything is picture-perfect.”

A quiet, unassuming man whose only transportation has always been his bicycle, Red has tears of gratitude tickling the corners of his eyes as he proudly walks visitors through his remodeled home. How appropriate that a man who has dedicated his life to the Church can now be on the receiving end.

A caretaker of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Cathedral for more than 50 years, Red can be seen at every Mass faithfully serving as head usher. His love of his parish is evident each Sunday as he mans his post, smiling and greeting parishioners at the church entrance.

Catty-cornered to Red’s house, the Hebert home sits on much higher ground. Nevertheless, Thomasina Hebert spent August 29, 2005, watching the water submerge Red’s home. Though her children tried to persuade her differently, Hebert decided to ride out Katrina in the house she knew well.

While spending hours inside during the storm wading in chest-deep water, “I never got scared,” Thomasina says. “I knew the house withstood Camille and I’d be fine.”

While volunteers recently worked inside the home, Hebert was given a surprise gift from her deceased husband, Pete. “They needed to go through the closet wall to get behind the tub and repair pipes,” Hebert explains. “When Linda [Smith] shone a flashlight through the hole in the wall, she noticed a nail with a string attached.

“Linda carefully pulled on the string until she could reach the other end, finding a decanter full of money Pete hid years ago. Besides Kennedy half-dollars, there was almost $400 in wet, moldy dollars in that bottle. If I could get my hands on Pete I’d wring his neck! He’s been gone 15 years. That money would have come in handy!”

These families can attest that they live on a street of blessings. Red White best describes the feelings of gratitude from each of these homeowners: “We can’t say thanks enough.”

Hardy reassures them, “The pleasure is all ours.”

Reaping the Rewards

Though two years have passed since Hurricane Katrina struck, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Albany is keenly aware that recovery is far from complete. The group has sponsored four mission trips to date, the latest group including individuals from 12 New York cities. One volunteer in particular, Dana “Bear” Sherman, has made five trips.

Owner of Bear Electric in Albany, Sherman has been in business over 40 years. With son Dave, Sherman contracts electrical work in an eight-county area in New York. “I have a real need to be here,” Sherman says while installing electrical wiring in the home of Hai Tran, one of 25 he has wired on the Coast. “I have no qualms about taking two weeks every chance I can and coming back.”

Working in Tran’s home alongside Sherman, Dave Shafer, volunteering for the second time, suggests: “Instead of taking vacation, tradespeople should come down here and work for a week. Skilled work is really needed.

“When we were unloading materials this morning, Tran was walking down the street and recognized us from our previous visit,” Shafer continues. “He immediately came running over. Though he doesn’t speak English and none of us speak Vietnamese, we didn’t have any trouble realizing how excited and happy he was to see us again. There is no better vacation spent than seeing gratitude on the face of someone who knows you are here helping them get back into their home.”

Tran is indeed grateful for blessings received. Alone in the house when Katrina struck, he escaped through the attic when the raging waters covered his home, being pushed in the torrents until finally able to grab hold of the steeple of a church several blocks away.

There he clung to the roof until the storm passed and the waters receded, praying for his safety and that of his family in their homes close by. Now, two years later, he beams proudly as he hugs each volunteer who works to restore his small house to a safe haven.

Mary Wimberly, DOLTR’s director, shares the continued need. “Estimates indicate 80 to 90 percent of all Katrina home rebuilding so far has been by volunteers connected with faith-based organizations.

“Volunteers are critical to home reconstruction here, where the eye of Katrina came ashore and the storm surge obliterated so many houses and lives. Their work has been instrumental in returning people back to their homes.”

Sherman, for one, plans to return. “People ask what keeps me coming back. It’s the homeowners. Their perseverance, their desire to stay here and their gratitude keep me coming. Everywhere I stop, from the gas station to a restaurant to grab a burger, people come up to me and thank me for being here. Their need is my need. That’s reason enough.”

Perseverance and Resilience

The spirits of resilience and hope are abundant; from the flag-draped crucifix at the cemetery to the people offering jobs to anyone who is willing to work hard. Though the need is still tremendous, glimpses of humor peek through amidst the piles of debris and ruined houses.

One sign dares another storm to come back and clean up the trash. Another sign offers a “Home for sale cheap—bring your own chainsaw.” Another simply reads, “God Bless America.”

Once again, our citizens have risen to the challenge of unforeseen circumstances. The residents and volunteers who stand side by side with a singular vision of rebuilding demonstrate that the spirit of God and the light of America shine brightly in the love of its people, for one another and for their land.

What we have seen over the course of these past two years is best summed up in the words that a gentle, Southern lady named Frances Baum said to those who rebuilt her home: “Katrina showed us the power of God. You show us the love of God.”

For more information, please contact: Diocesan Office of Long Term Recovery: Diocese of Biloxi, 1450 North Street, Gulfport, MS 39507, phone: 228-701-0555 or 228-701- 0618. Or visit: www.mshurricanehelp.org.


Pamela C. Bozeman is community relations manager for the Diocesan Office of Long Term Recovery in Biloxi. She attended Mississippi University for Women, Delta State University and the University of South Alabama. A lifelong citizen of Mississippi, she and her husband, Mike, are the parents of Angela, Bryan and Josh. Pamela’s own home was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina.


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