Hurricane Katrina

Healing touch

In South Mississippi's hurricane-devastated communities, their presence and their contribution can be heard in the echo of hammer against nail.

Thousands of volunteers continue to answer the call to service, lending their professional skills and collective manpower to rebuild homes and assist in needed public services in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

American Red Cross, Salvation Army and AmeriCorps volunteers, as well as skilled first-responders, medical professionals, college students, faith-based groups and so many others, answered the call before and after the storm made landfall.

Sharon Lepper, a registered nurse and clinical nurse educator at Indiana University Hospital in Indianapolis, took a two-month leave in September to volunteer for the Mississippi State Nurses Association.

She traveled to Meridian to care for 62 nursing-home patients evacuated from Pascagoula and Bay St. Louis, came to Biloxi to relieve overworked nurses at Biloxi Regional Hospital and worked at a free clinic at Bethel Lutheran Church.

Lepper was back on the Coast in February with more volunteers to work on houses, and she plans to return again in the fall.

"I won't stop coming back because my heart is there," she said.

While working with Biloxi Regional Medical Center and others, Lepper saw South Mississippi residents and businesses take extra steps to help neighbors and it inspired her to share South Mississippi's story in her hometown.

"They were doing what was morally correct, even if it was a sacrifice on their part," Lepper said. "It gave me a sense of pride for the state of Mississippi. There is just so much kindness there."

Legal professionals nationwide also have dedicated their time to helping South Mississippi residents survive the chaos of the post-Katrina housing market and the rash of landlord-tenant legal disputes.

The long haul

Officials in the state Office of Volunteerism estimate more than 250 organizations nationwide have deployed volunteers to assist in Coast relief and recovery.

Many of the relief organizations, sponsored by churches and nonprofit organizations from across the country, have shifted from relief duties to long-haul recovery work. A year after the hurricane, getting residents back in homes continues to be the main goal.

In D'Iberville, more than 450 properties have been completed by volunteers, whether they have been minor home repairs or complete overhauls, and another 300 properties are in the pipeline for work.

Over the year, residents' needs have changed, but they have not stopped. One way to understand the continuing need is to count the number of blue tarps still strapped to rooftops, said Ed Cake, associate director of D'Iberville Volunteer Foundation.

Cake explained those with some financial means to rebuild have made repairs; homes with tarps still blowing in the wind a year after the storm belong to residents without needed financial or emotional means to start their recovery.

"Sometimes the asking hurts. Sometimes they don't know to ask. But they come in every week and we continue to serve," Cake said.

'They are wide-eyed'

Mike Malkemes, camp director for CORE stationed at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Ocean Springs, said volunteers at the camp have changed with the seasons.

During the first wave immediately after the storm, most volunteers were retirees with experience in disaster response. During the spring, thousands of college students volunteered during their breaks from classes and now, many families with school-aged children have volunteered their summer vacations. Craftsmen have continuously volunteered.

CORE, which is sponsored by two Houston, Texas, churches, was set up by the Jackson County Emergency Operations Center. In February, relief missions shifted to rebuilding when crews of volunteers were sent to clean out and improve homes. About 8,600 volunteers have worked through the camp, totaling 500,000 volunteer work hours.

"The impact has been phenomenal," Malkemes said. "So many people are repeat visitors. We had so many people answer God's call."

Volunteers, traveling solo or with schools, work outfits, congregations and other nonprofit groups, have fanned out across South Mississippi and many have returned and recruited others to assist more families.

Ed Lauge, a 23-year-old senior studying computer technology, traveled to the Coast with a group of Kent State University students, faculty and staff members from Ohio to rebuild homes in Pass Christian and Biloxi.

"I really wanted to take some time off and make a difference," Lauge said. "I was blown away by the sheer amount of debris on the ground. It was like a war zone."

Tammy Clark, a youth minister at First United Methodist Church in Valparaiso, Ind., made her first volunteer trip in September and returned in late July with a group of 20 young adults from the church.

"It has just been a beautiful image of people working together," Clark said, comparing Coast rebuilding with the Old Testament tale of the rebuilding of Jerusalem.

Volunteers receive instruction on home-repair basics, but preparing them to experience a spiritual revelation is also important, said the Rev. Art Baruffi, director of Christian Life Center in Bay St. Louis. Baruffi estimates of the 3,000 to 4,000 volunteers, 90 percent are from more than 1,000 miles away.

"Their zeal - there's no difference. They are wide-eyed. The change that happens to them is bigger than what they do," Baruffi said, describing how many volunteers feel God's primary work is in people and God's secondary work is performed through people.

"We have seen amazing life changes," Baruffi said, describing residents' graciousness and gratitude, which has left a lasting impression on volunteers. "They have lost everything and they have come to see what is really important."

For residents attempting to rebuild, volunteers continue to fill a void.

"The volunteers that have come to help have made the terrible not just bearable, but joyous," said Martha Murphy of Pass Christian.

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