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Caught in red tape, tornado victim finally gets new house

DAVID GREEN/SPECIAL TO THE SUN HERALDWhile building Andreka Johnson's house in Louisville, Miss., volunteers from the Christmas Home Project are forced by heavy rain Dec. 27 to move materials to a covered area of the church and assemble walls there to be transported to muddy work site.
DAVID GREEN/SPECIAL TO THE SUN HERALDWhile building Andreka Johnson's house in Louisville, Miss., volunteers from the Christmas Home Project are forced by heavy rain Dec. 27 to move materials to a covered area of the church and assemble walls there to be transported to muddy work site.

LOUISVILLE, Miss. -- Andreka Johnson stood with friends and family and watched as workers built her new house.

"I can't believe this," she said.

It had been 20 months since the house that once stood on Eiland Avenue on the south side of Louisville was destroyed by a tornado. The workers scurrying to build the new house were the answer to a prayer.

Johnson had watched as other victims of the April 28, 2014, tornado had received assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency. Hers was one of some 300 structures that were destroyed by the EF4 tornado, which cut a 35-mile swath through Winston County and Louisville.

But her property remained nothing but an empty lot where a bulldozer had pushed the debris into a pile.

She had spent nearly two years slowly remodeling the half century-old house next to her mother's home, and was ready for inspectors to grant her permission to occupy the house when the tornado flattened it. She had no record of rent or utility payments, and no insurance on the unoccupied structure, so she was ineligible for assistance.

There was nothing left to do but make temporary arrangements, keep working at her job as a driver transporting Medicaid patients to and from area hospitals, and pray.

Answering prayers is the purpose of The Christmas House Project, the brainchild of Bill Carr, a former firefighter and rescue squad member from Paducah, Kentucky.

To launch the project in 2004, Carr posed the question, "What are you giving to Christ for Christmas?"

There's not much better than to provide someone in need with a place to live, he thought.

And so he put together the project, not knowing how he would finance or otherwise accomplish his mission, but having faith that he somehow would. The project is now supported by the United Methodist Church's Memphis Conference and by numerous donors.

"It's amazing what God can do," Carr said with a smile.

Carr does year-long fundraising and uses extensive networking among governmental agencies and faith-based organizations to find potential projects. This year he discovered Johnson's dilemma.

Carr coordinated with officials of Winston STRONG, the agency formed in the aftermath of the tornado to administer relief efforts.

Winston STRONG pledged funds to bolster the money The Christmas House brought to the effort, which allowed for preliminary work, including the building of a concrete-block foundation for the new house and delivery of materials to the site.

Carr brought a caravan of vehicles to Mississippi the day after Christmas, with two box trailers full of tools and supplies and a front-end loader diesel tractor. Along with them came just short of two dozen volunteer workers from the western Kentucky and west Tennessee region.

Most of the volunteers were amateurs, not professional builders. They worked under the direction of two veteran homebuilders, David Norwood and Bob Alexander, both of Marshall County, Kentucky.

In a whirlwind five days, the outer shell of the two-bedroom, one-bath home was finished on the outside, including vinyl siding, shingle roofing, doors, windows and front and back porches. Framing of interior walls was done, and work had already begun by a local plumbing contractor. Wiring, insulation, drywall, cabinets and other interior finish work were to be completed by other crews in succession.

When those details are complete, Johnson and her son, Xavier, 12, will move into a new home of their own, next to Johnson's mother, Tabitha Hardin, whose house was damaged beyond repair when the tornado struck. She and Xavier survived without injury and Hardin, without the red-tape glitches that her daughter faced, received assistance and moved into a new, replacement house in March 2015.

David Crowson, construction coordinator for Winston STRONG, praised the efforts of faith-based organizations such as Mennonite Disaster Services (MDS), Samaritan's Purse, The Christmas House Project and others to help make the recovery complete.

Mennonite and Amish volunteers from Pennsylvania built the new house for Tabitha and Calvin Hardin, he said. Four FEMA trailers have been placed on some properties were houses were damaged, and Andreka Johnson's house is No. 129 on Winston STRONG's list of repaired or replaced structures.

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