Local volunteers bring relief to Katrina victims

Gulf region still recovering from hurricane

By Colin Ryan
Observer correspondent

A group of local volunteers traveled to Mississippi last month to help repair some of the damage done by Hurricane Katrina, whether to buildings or to people. They spent the seven-day trip – the third one that has been coordinated by members of Williston Federated Church – in areas of Mississippi hit hard by the hurricane in August 2005.

The team arrived in New Orleans on Dec. 2 before making the two-hour drive to Vancleave, a town of about 5,000 in the southeast corner of Mississippi. The volunteers stayed at Vancleave United Methodist Church, which has been, and plans to continue, feeding, housing and providing linens for up to 60 volunteers a week "for as long as volunteers come."

That's what church leadership in Vancleave told Williston resident Tony Lamb, who helped organize the 24-person trip that included volunteers from churches in South Hero, Barre and Burlington.

"People talk about us going down there as a big deal, but these people have really been slogging it out," Lamb said. "What happened (in nearby Pascagoula) was the storm surge pushed the water up, until it blocked the nearby river. When officials made the decision to release the water in order to save the dam, the water level in the town raised to an unbelievable 30 feet."

The 24 volunteers divided into teams of five to seven, and each morning they would drive into nearby damaged areas like Pascagoula to do work ranging from laying linoleum to installing valves to hanging garage doors.

The Vermonters worked with the United Methodist Committee On Relief, or UMCOR, which provides volunteer teams with a local worker who makes sure the volunteers get help from the right agencies. The committee also provides a priority list for people in need. Since the UMCOR budget allows for only a certain amount of money spent on each house undergoing work, the team raised additional money for specific needs. By doing so, the volunteers discovered that the smallest acts of goodness and charity revived the worn-out residents, and even brought them a little Christmas spirit.

"We were helping out a 90-year-old disabled man, and we decided we would get some Christmas lights for his house," remembered Lamb. "He broke down crying because it was the first time his house had had Christmas lights since the hurricane. And when it got dark, all his neighbors came out to ask him to leave them on."

Ellie Beckett, 17, the daughter of Town Clerk Deb Beckett and the youngest person on the team, had a similar experience.

"At my site I did a lot of finishing work, like installing appliances and plumbing," Beckett explained. "And we also put up Christmas lights. The two men who lived there, a man named Philip and his 82-year-old father Isaac, were really pleased, because they hadn't had decorations in years. It really struck me how, more than two years after the hurricane, there is so much still to be done, and that there are so many people down there willing to help."

Lamb agreed.

"We saw many small acts of kindness that were more significant than rebuilding a house," he said. "Our mission was about more than conversion – it was about the affirmation of people. Our mission was simply to be there for the people. The emphasis was not on how much work you get done – it was on listening to the stories. We helped a wheelchair-bound couple who, in order to stay above the water, had to seek shelter in the back of a pickup truck. Another woman saw bodies from a nearby graveyard float past them, and then had to wait while the bodies were rescued before she was. The enormity of it strikes you in a way that's hard to describe. There's such a need, and the fellowship between the people of Vancleave and the team was so rewarding."

The volunteers described themselves as encouraged by the small, distinct progress made during their trip.

"When you drive on the interstate, you can see the rebuilding progress in New Orleans," said Lamb. "A year after Katrina, maybe 15 percent was being worked on. When we went in May, it was maybe 30 percent. Now it looks more like 50 percent being worked on. A lot of people have been helped, and we helped a lot back to their feet, but there is still a lot to do."

The church plans to send another team, comprised of five volunteers from each of 12 churches, for three weeks in the fall. The goal is to raise $50,000 prior to the trip to build a new house.

The coordinators welcome community and church members to contribute and participate in the trip. If interested, contact Tony Lamb at alamb@alamblaw.com.