On August 28 and 29, a group of five Indiana state legislators traveled to Biloxi, Mississippi for the opportunity to see, first hand, the tremendous volunteer effort that has been launched by northeast Indiana faith based groups to help in the post-Katrina reconstruction of the devastated Mississippi gulf coast.
Senator David Long, Senator David Ford, Senator Gary Dillon, and State Representatives Matt Bell and Marlin Stutzman spent two days together, at no cost to taxpayers, getting a tough, no nonsense education about the extent of the Katrina hurricane damage and, one year later, the reconstruction effort that is underway. What we learned was that the damage was worse than expected; that it will take years to reconstruct the region; that the people of the Mississippi gulf coast are determined to rebuild; and that they desperately need the help of volunteers to achieve that goal.
Some quick facts about the hurricane damage and relief effort:
1. Hurricane Katrina is the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.
2. 180 miles of the gulf coast, from New Orleans, Louisiana to Mobile, Alabama, was badly damaged or destroyed.
3. The damage is estimated at over $100 billion dollars.
4. Over 300,000 homes were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable.
5. Almost 2,000 people lost their lives as a result of the storm.
6. 118 million cubic yards of debris was left behind.
7. If stacked onto a football field, the Katrina debris would reach 10½ miles high.
8. More than 350,000 people have volunteered to help Mississippi’s Katrina victims.
9. Over 3,000 volunteers have come from Indiana, with 500 of those volunteers coming from Allen, Whitley, and Wells counties, and of those 500, 200 have come from The Chapel.
Under the leadership of Rick and Cathy Hawks of The Chapel, in direct partnership with other northeast Indiana churches and faith based organizations, a volunteer center has been created in Gulfport, MS, known as Hope City. Through private donations, a series of large, specialized trailers were constructed in Elkhart, Indiana and moved down to the gulf coast. These amazing trailers can comfortably house, shower, and feed a continuing flow of volunteers. This facility has enabled our area to become a mainstay in supplying the volunteer groups that are necessary to keep the relief effort going.
Make no mistake: volunteers are needed now more than ever. The reason: people with damaged or destroyed homes are finding it nearly impossible to get their insurance companies to cover more than a portion of their losses. Sometimes the insurer will make a finding that the damage was wind-related as compared to flood related, and that only a portion of the home, such as the roof, is covered. Other times, the homeowner will not have flood insurance, but will have wind insurance, and the finding will be that 100% of the damage was from flooding.
As a result, homeowners are scrambling through the use of their minimal insurance receipts, as well as with government grants and their own personal savings, to obtain the materials necessary to rebuild their home. This leaves the most significant cost, labor, as the key expense that they simply cannot afford. Here is where today’s volunteers can make the biggest impact: supplying the labor to help them rebuild.
Without a volunteer base of laborers, a significant portion of these homeowners will not be able to rebuild. It isn’t that they lack the desire or the effort; Mississippi’s residents are proud of the fact that they have “hitched up their britches” and dedicated themselves to rebuilding their homes and communities. They don’t blame the government for their problems and they don’t complain that they aren’t getting enough of a handout. However, many lack either the physical ability, in the case of older residents, or the basic skills to handle the construction work. The people of the Mississippi gulf coast desperately need whatever help we can provide them.
We five legislators, along with Rick and Cathy Hawks and two representatives of Channel 21 from Fort Wayne, were able to help a lovely lady named Evelyn rebuild a small part of her home in East Biloxi. None of us were skilled construction workers, but we cobbled together enough know-how to help erect a shed that Evelyn badly needed. By building the shed, Evelyn could have the storage space to allow her to rehabilitate a small home for her daughter and granddaughter, who could in turn move out of their claustrophobic FEMA trailer.
Evelyn has become a symbol of determination, perseverance, and hope for many of her neighbors. She lost a brother and several close friends to the devastating floods that hit East Biloxi as part of Katrina’s storm surge. Her home and many of her neighbor’s residences were essentially destroyed. Yet she was determined to rebuild at a time when most were ready to just walk away. With the help of groups led by Rick and Cathy, as well as others, her house is again the center of the neighborhood. More importantly, she has inspired others to rebuild as well, and in doing so has begun to create a spirit of genuine hope instead of total despair.
Evelyn could not have rebuilt her home without the help of volunteers. She symbolizes the great spirit of the gulf coast residents, but her situation also reveals just how desperately our help is needed in her community. It is our hope that by making this trip and reporting our findings, we can shed some new light on the needs of the Mississippi gulf coast residents, and hopefully inspire many new groups of volunteers from our area to make the trip and lend a hand.
Anyone interested in learning more about how they can help or volunteer can phone, email or write to the following:
HOPE CRISIS RESPONSE NETWORK
From the desk of
Senator David Long
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