HJ/EDMarch 20, 2006

Katrina: still lot of work to do, locals doing their part

By Matt Kane
Staff Writer

Fourteen Minnesotans boarded a bus at Holt Tours in Cokato on the morning of March 10.

Some were related, some simply knew of each other, and others were complete strangers.

Ten days later, the same passengers, and one additional rider, stepped off a different bus at Holt Tours knowing more about each other than they ever would have thought.

In the week and a half separating the round-trip bus rides, the members of the party shared blood, sweat and tears, as well as a few laughs and prayers, to the point where individualism melted into a bond that formed one, single group – all in the name of hurricane relief. More specifically Minnesota Katrina Relief.

“The people from our communities came together,” said Dave Lind, of Cokato, who admitted the experience has been uplifting for him personally.

Those people included Ralph and Peggy Lundeen, and daughter Patti Olson.

Three students, three retirees, two homemakers, a truck salesman, postman, business owner, journalist and one job seeker, all from the Dassel-Cokato area, made up the third tour of duty for the effort, out of Cokato.

With different careers and backgrounds, the members didn’t have a whole lot in common, but what they did share was a deep Christian faith and the desire to help the Hurricane Katrina-stricken Gulf Coast. Two vital ingredients in overcoming the fear of the unknown most were feeling as they rode the 24 hours from Cokato to Waveland, Miss.

“I feel there will be a lot of hopelessness and people feeling forgotten. I think people might feel that we are a nation of giving to other countries in need but (one that) forgets about its own,” Pat Schoephoerster, a retired medical technician from Howard Lake, wrote on the bus ride south. “I think I am going to see destruction of an area that was once productive and filled with joy, and (an area) looking forward to the future, and how there doesn’t seem to be a future or an end to this never ending cleanup.”

Schoephoerster, and the other Minnesotans who shared the same speculation, found out she was only half correct.

Indeed, she did see massive destruction in the neighboring towns of Waveland and Bay St. Louis, which were flattened by Katrina, a category-4 hurricane when it hit land, on the morning of Aug. 29, 2005. And, from the surface, or 1,280.98 miles away in Howard Lake, the local news doesn’t mention these two beach towns nestled between Biloxi and New Orleans.

But, as Schoephoerster found out in seven days of picking up debris and tearing down soggy mobile home, the people of South Mississippi are not forgotten by the nation – at least by its people.

Bay St. Louis Mayor Eddie Favre estimates the population of his town to be down from 8,200 people before Katrina to between 5,500 and 6,000 today. But he noted the population would hover around 9,000 people in Bay St. Louis if volunteers were counted.

Spend a full day at Camp Katrina, a former NAPA auto parts store and current reservation for volunteer groups like Minnesota Katrina Relief, and one will see the relief effort is far from forgotten. Groups, couples and individuals, most with a Christian tie, from Chicago, New Jersey, Florida, California, Ohio, Iowa and other states, close to 90 people in all, have descended to south Mississippi and Camp Katrina for the same purpose as the Minnesotans, to help.And they have.

In the first five days, the Minnesota crew and a few helpers from other states had completely torn down and disposed of a large machine shed, four inhabitable mobile homes, in addition to hauling countless loads of debris – most of which was once someone’s personal belongings – curbside for disposal.

A feat that has greatly sped up the recovery process, as opposed to if the locals had to do it all themselves.

“Without the groups that have come in, most people in the city would not have been able to even think about working on their houses,” said Favre, who lost all he had, including his home and dog. “I can’t emphasize how important (the volunteers) have been. We would be nowhere near rebuilding Bay St. Louis – city-wise or individual-wise.”

The mayor said 45 to 50 percent of the estimated two-and-a-half million pounds of debris left by Katrina has been picked up in the seven months since the storm.

A portion of the remaining debris was cleared away by each Camp Katrina group with the completion of each demolition. However small the percentage, compared to the big picture, the Minnesotans saw the enormous impact their help had on the individual homeowners they were helping.

“They seem happy to have the help. Most of them seem overjoyed,” Lind said.

“Some are overjoyed and some are sad,” Calvin Anderson, of Cokato, quickly added to Lind’s testimony.

As Schoephoerster and Lind began their first week in Waveland, Anderson was starting his second. A fortnight in Mississippi wasn’t the original itinerary.

“There wasn’t supposed to be a Bobcat driver coming down, so they asked me to stay and run the Bobcat,” Anderson, a heavy equipment operator at Nordberg Excavation in Dassel, explained. “There is joy in coming down and helping people down here – seeing the smiles on their faces.”

Anderson, who was scheduled to return home with Schoephoerster, Lind and the rest of the Wright County gang, will especially miss attending Sunday service at First Missionary Baptist church, an African American Church that praises with energetic, emotion, and “all these hugs I’m getting down here,” he said.

Hugs are plentiful around Waveland and Bay St. Louis, but they are not taken for granted. Embraces between residents and volunteers are often prefixed with stories from homeowners explaining their actions taken before, during and after Katrina. Some fled and others stayed. And, while some people spoke about their losses, most were grateful for what they didn’t lose.

“We lost our house, but we still have our home,” Favre remembered telling his wife. “And we lost everything, but we still have each other.”

Amy Ramond, a single mother of two girls, expressed a similar attitude.

“I’m very fortunate in having my two girls, and I have my family,” she said, standing on her property in the town of Ansley.

Ramond clutched a fifth-grade photo of herself and her dog “Sam” stood by her side as she conversed with members of the Minnesota crew, not batting an eye as other crewmen tore apart the mobile home she lived in for 14 years in.

“It was 14 years of hard work and 14 years of memories,” she said.

Still, Ramond was ready to see the house destroyed.

“I’m ready to get over this – seeing it everyday makes it worse,” said Ramond, who works with weather buoys at NASA. “It would have taken months for me to start on my house, but now, hopefully, in the coming weeks I can start building my new house.”

Ramond has already put in an application at Camp Katrina to get assistance in the erection of her new house.

For Lori DeRosier, a wife and mother of two young boys in Cokato, listening to testimonies from the people she is helping puts what she is doing into perspective.

“When I go to a job site, I look at it as a job – I need to get the place cleaned up and I have a job to do,” she explained of the emotional shift.

“When the owners show up, I realize I am doing it for them. That’s why my heart breaks.” Tears welled up in DeRosier’s eyes as she finished the last line. Like those aforementioned hugs, also not uncommon.

And there is sure to be more tears shed in South Mississippi by the fourth Minnesota group in the next week, and in the months and years it will take to rebuild and recover from Katrina.

No rest for mayor

For Favre, serving as the mayor of Bay St. Louis has turned into a seven day job since the storm hit.

“Pretty much every minute we are working on something related to the storm,” he said from his makeshift office on the second floor of the town’s train depot.

In the seven months, Favre has met with President George W. Bush on three separate occasions, as well as city, state and federal officials – wearing shorts and flip-flops for each encounter.

Favre jokingly explained being a topic of conversation, even taking some kind-hearted ribbing from the President for wearing shorts, but his face turned serious when he explained the shorts.

“Where was I going to get a three piece suit?” the mayor questioned, referencing the loss of his own belongings. “As long as there is a need here in the bay, I will wear shorts.

When you start dressing up, that is a sign everything is OK. Everything is not OK.”

And it took awhile for Favre to convince officials outside of south Mississippi of this.

“The message we’ve been trying to tell everyone, including the President, is, ‘until they see (the destruction) first hand, they can’t comprehend the magnitude of what happened.’”

But pity is not what Favre, who took office for a fifth term as mayor last July 1, is looking for. What he needs is help, and he is getting it from volunteers like the ones at Camp Katrina.

“The most support we’ve gotten has not come from government organizations, but from faith groups and other organizations,” he said.

“The great thing is it’s from all over the country.

“The part that gets me is our college kids. This is when they should be enjoying life at spring break. The fact that they are here is amazing. It says a lot about the young folks,” he said with a slight southern draw.

Favre only wishes he could give these youngsters and the rest of the volunteers a true Bay St. Louis welcome.

“Normally, we roll out the red carpet for visitors, but, unfortunately, we haven’t been able to do that. We will work to get everybody back here for a second visit, not a work visit,” he said.

Official readings indicate Hurricane Katrina, which lasted close to 10 hours, had sustained winds of 125 miles-per-hour and ocean surges of 27 feet. Enough to claimed 18 lives in Bay St. Louis and 55 in Hancock County, where the town is located. The county had a population of 45,000 people. Many of which have not returned since Katrina’s departure, which worries the mayor.

“Bay St. Louis was a special place in part because of the small town charm, and historical houses and businesses. But the most special thing we have is the people,” he said.

“If the people don’t come back to make it a city what is the point of having a city?

“In some ways, we’ve come a long way, but we’ve got so far to go.”

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