Katrina: Morenci volunteers head south

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

Some people were puzzled when Morenci Middle School principal Kay Johnson mentioned that she was heading south to Mississippi again to work on hurricane relief projects.

After all, 16 months have passed since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf.

That’s true, she says, it’s been well over a year since the enormous storm devastated the area, but that doesn’t mean things are back to normal.

katrina.again The city of Pass Christian, Miss., where Kay has visited four times now with colleagues Jim Petry and Renae Schaffner, was once a thriving community of 7,000 people.

Sixteen months later, fewer than half the residents have been able to return. Most businesses remain closed. The vast majority of the houses are gone. Large piles of rubble remain to be collected.

“Twelve percent of the houses were rebuildable,” Kay said. “Eighty-eighty percent are either on the ground or in a landfill. Or else they just washed away.”

City hall and the police station are now located in a trailer. The library is in a pole barn. There’s a hardware store and gas station in operation.

Home Depot operates out of a shed to take orders.

There are a couple of “restaurants,” if that’s what you want to call them.

There’s a Domino’s Pizza that operates out of a concession stand type of trailer and a tamale stand, says John Martinez, who made the trip for the first time.

The middle school’s veteran volunteers see some progress since their first visit in December 2005, but that wasn’t obvious to John.

“I was surprised by how much damage is still there after all this time,” he said. “There’s a section where the houses have been gutted, but everything is still at the curbside. There are streets you can’t even go down.”

John has seen damage from severe wind here in Michigan, even as bad as roofs torn off, but this is different.

“This is just totally wiped out.”

Helping out

John, Jim and another rookie, Nate Austin of rural Hudson, built a deck at a house to support a washer and dryer.

Kay, Renae and second-time visitor Emily Austin assembled a metal shed to house the laundry equipment.

The crew also removed drywall that was either moldy or damaged and installed a window for a woman who has had a tarp instead of glass ever since the storm passed through.

“She was told many times someone would be over to help her,” John said, “but it’s been 16 months.”

That job proved to be a challenge since the window she was given was too big for the framing. The men scavenged around for material and got the job done, although it wasn’t quite what they wanted.

“There’s a lot of jerry-rigging that goes on down there,” John said, “and there’s so much to do.”

He was impressed with the residents’ attitudes.

“They’ve lost so much but they’re still upbeat,” he said. “Everything is wiped out, but they still have hope.”

John said it was a very rewarding experience.

“People really appreciate having you go down and volunteer,” he said.

He figures he might make the trip again a year from now.

Kay expects to make a return trip this summer. With the response shown by Pass Christian residents, it’s difficult not to return.

“This was one of the better trips we’ve had,” she said. “People were so excited to get our help and so thankful.”

    – Jan. 10, 2007
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