HJ/EDMarch 20, 2006

Katrina: a different kind of war

By Matt Kane
Staff Writer

What a difference a few days make.

Palm trees, cool breezes and relaxing walks along Hawaiian beaches occupied the time of Ralph and Peggy Lundeen for 10 days in early March.

The Cokato couple again visited the beach, March 12, but this time there were no tanned surfers, majestic mansions or any signs of paradise.

Instead, the coastline was stripped of all its beauty, as if a war had passed through, leveling any signs of prosperous life.

In a way, a war had broken out. Not a war between two armies, but a war between Mother Nature and man.

Mother Nature won.

The Lundeens’ second trip to the beach came four days after they returned from Hawaii to Minnesota and some 4,000 miles away from Waikiki Beach.

The war zone they visited was Waveland, Miss., where, seven months earlier, Hurricane Katrina exhaled its 200-plus-mile-per-hour, category-5 breath on southern Mississippi.

“We adjust pretty well,” the easy-going Ralph said of transitioning from beautiful Hawaii to ravaged Mississippi in the same week.

“You didn’t have much time to relax,” Ralph and Peggy’s daughter, Patty Olson, added. “They got home, washed their clothes and put them back in the suitcase.”

Ralph, Peggy, and Patty, and a group of 14 others from the Dassel-Cokato area, made the 24-hour bus trip from Cokato to Waveland as part of the Minnesota Hurricane Relief Effort – a program consisting of volunteer laborers, who are serving to cleanup and rebuild Waveland and neighboring Bay St. Louis, the areas hardest hit by Katrina.

Once in Waveland, the bus load of devout Christians – the third such from Dassel-Cokato with a fourth scheduled to leave March 17 – joined groups from all over the United States at Camp Katrina, a base camp set up in what used to be NAPA auto store. The camp, founded soon after the storm by a group from Foley, Ala., was originally a feeding station for outsiders, but today it provides food and lodging for its volunteers, and organizes specific work projects for teams to complete each day.

Three days after dancing the hula in Hawaii, Ralph was thrown directly into the mix in Mississippi. Since the relief effort consists of all volunteers, any experience in skilled labor is quickly taken advantage of.

While the rest of the Minnesota group tore down a large shed at the home of a 60-something, Bay St. Louis widow, Ralph’s 40 years of flooring experience at Lundeen Floor Covering in Cokato was needed in Kiln, Miss. – 20 miles outside of town.

Ralph was hoping to steer clear of any flooring work, but he knows his work was important.

“They certainly appreciated it,” the retired 75-year-old said of the family whose home he worked at.

Ralph said he prepared a bathroom floor and left the father of the house with a few pointers for tiling it. Proof of the family’s appreciation came in a colorful drawing Ralph was given by the family’s daughter, 7-year-old Katie.

Peggy Lundeen and Patty Olson, mother and daughter, worked the kitchen for much of the week, preparing and feeding the workers three times a day.

For Patty, the decision to join her parents on the week-long trip to Mississippi – the group was scheduled to arrive home Sunday – came just days before she stepped on the bus.

“I didn’t know I was going until Wednesday (March 8),” said Patty, a wife and mother of two grown children. “I had been thinking about it – it was in the back of my mind – but I didn’t think I could go because I had a commitment last weekend. But when things didn’t work out last weekend, I decided to go.

“I really wanted to go and (my family) was supportive of it. I knew they could take care of themselves.

Ralph and Peggy had signed up months ago, after first hearing about the mission from those organizing the local trip.

“When we signed up, there were only seven people,” said Patty, hand-in-hand with Ralph, as they relaxed outside the camp March 12 on a breezy, sun-filled, Sunday afternoon.

That her parents were going to Waveland made the decision to go much easier for Patty.

“I wouldn’t do it alone,” she said of the trip. “Knowing people is a lot easier.”

A homemaker, Patty, 44, said the trip to Waveland was a chance to get away from her everyday life.

“I work in the home and not outside, so this is my opportunity to step outside my comfort zone,” she said.

And she did just that, venturing out of kitchen duty March 13 to join her new friends from Minnesota, as well as Pennsylvania, Florida, and New Jersey, to help with the cleanup of a yard and the teardown of an inhabitable mobile home in Ansley, Miss.

With the heat, humidity, rain and, especially, the flesh-craved noseeums (gnat-like insects), this particular job was outside the comfort zone of everyone working the site.

Patty’s first step outside her comfort zone came a day earlier, when she, a member of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Minnetonka, her parents and a dozen others from Camp Katrina attended Sunday service at the First Missionary Baptist Church in Bay St. Louis, an African American Church that expresses its faith through festive gospel song and praise.

The decision to join the Minnesota relief effort was a no-brainer for Ralph and Peggy, who celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary last August.

“This is what the Lord has told us to do,” Ralph said. “To help people in need of comfort and encouragement.”

He said the job sites and tours around town have opened his eyes to the true magnitude of what happened Aug. 29, 2005.

“It helps visualize the extent of the storm and the needs that are here. I suppose it will be years before it is reconciled and cleaned up,” Ralph explained. “I think a person is unaware because you only see it on TV. But I think you appreciate what you have, now.”

And, as evident by the testimonies given by the hundreds of homeowners Camp Katrina has helped, the people of Southern Mississippi appreciate what people like the Lundeens have given them back.

The crayon drawing Ralph received from Katie was of a mouse on a green hill with a blooming flower reaching for a bright, orange sun. In a world that was turned grey seven months ago, the color depicted in Katie’s drawing is what people like Ralph, Peggy and Patty are bringing back to Waveland. To them, that bright Crayola sun may shine brighter than any sunset they saw in Hawaii.

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