Church volunteers cited as part of Mississippi town’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina

Published 11:32 pm Saturday, September 1, 2007

The sweat and donations from religious groups are bringing hope and new homes to many residents in this tiny community, still struggling two years after Hurricane Katrina left much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast in ruins.

Adolph Harris, who watched his house get washed away while he clung to a nearby tree as the storm roared ashore, will move this month into a new home built with money and volunteers from a Kempton, Ind.-based Christian organization.

Standing outside his new home, one of 35 new homes built by the International Disaster Emergency Service, Harris said he often thinks about the miracle of his survival.

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“I was up the tree from 8:30 that morning until about 7:30 that afternoon,” he said. “If that tree had fallen that I was in, I would have been in that water — 25-30 feet of water — with all those moccasin snakes and, you know, it was just a scary, scary situation to be in.”

While the memories of metal flying like missiles off neighboring homes still haunt him, Harris said his prayers have been answered.

Volunteers also helped bring back the West Hancock County Volunteer Fire Department.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency made a lot promises, “but we got tired of waiting,” Fire Chief Kim Jones said.

“So, we went ahead and took what little insurance money we had and donations from other fire departments and church organizations and individuals and rebuilt our station,” said Jones, 52.

FEMA also provided $216,464 in public assistance to help replace the fire department’s equipment, clothing, and a radio system, agency spokesman Eugene Brezany said.

The rebuilding also has changed the lives of the volunteers.

Ron Loomis, disaster assistance relief training supervisor, with the Indiana group said he initially came to Pearlington on a short mission trip in June 2006. He decided to leave his North Branch, Mich., home four months later and continue the Pearlington rebuilding effort on a permanent basis.

“God touched me. I owned my own business. I closed it and found jobs for my employees before returning to Pearlington,” said Loomis, 48, who travels back to Michigan to visit his family.

A group of volunteers from Christ Church in Mandarin, Fla. weathered the August heat to build houses on behalf of IDES.

“We basically came here as open books, letting them teach us what we needed to learn,” said 21-year-old Sarah Kolbe of Jacksonville, Fla. “I had no knowledge of how to do anything as far as house building goes. I’ve learned how to put in laminate floors and they showed us how to do it and we’ve done three so far.”

She and her University of North Florida roommate Courtney Jeselsohn, 20, are the only women on the team.

Kolbe said “being around the people and seeing how their lives were affected and seeing how many people are still living in trailers and really suffering makes me realize how much I do have and how much they’ve lost.”

Pearlington has dwindled to about 800, half its population since the storm hit on Aug. 29, 2005.

Harris, 61, a retired financial aid director, is still waiting on funds from a Homeowners Assistance Grant Program from the Mississippi Development Authority. He said he hopes the funds will come through soon to help him continue rebuilding his life.

“Hopefully, 10 years from now Pearlington will be a prospering little community again and it will get back to normal.”