One Life Uprooted To Help Rebuild Many Others

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 27, 2006

Like many Americans, Peter Salemme was deeply affected by the devastation that Hurricane Katrina wrought one year ago.

Unlike most, Salemme uprooted his life to help. Five months ago, he moved to Biloxi, Miss., to work full time for a year on the recovery effort, leaving behind his wife and five children in Arlington.

His family wasn't crazy about the idea. "I put in a word against it," said Salemme's 19-year-old son, Bob. "Biloxi can get more volunteers, but you can't go to the store and pick up another dad because he wasn't home."

Salemme, 54, understood the concern but felt a calling he still can't fully explain. "I had my logical mind, all the reasons why there was no way on Earth I could do this," he said. "I have a job and a wife and five kids and a mortgage. But I knew in my heart I had to do this."

So Salemme, a kitchen designer at Home Depot in Falls Church, arranged a one-year transfer to the company's Biloxi store. He bought a used RV. And he packed up and headed south, where he has spent the past five months rebuilding houses for Habitat for Humanity each morning, working at Home Depot each evening and then collapsing into bed in his RV, which is parked behind a church.

"I feel very fulfilled, very satisfied," Salemme said recently in a telephone interview crammed into his busy schedule. "It feels like I need to be here. I feel like I'm responding to a call, and I'm happy I've taken action on it."

The people coordinating the recovery in Biloxi, on Mississippi's Gulf Coast, couldn't be happier, either. "Peter is really important to the whole effort. It's a pretty amazing sacrifice he's making," said Bart Tucker, who as president of Habitat for Humanity of Northern Virginia lured Salemme on his first trip to Biloxi last November.

Even Salemme's family has come around. Three of his children joined him in Mississippi for the summer, and son Bob said he is "extremely proud of what my dad is doing."

Salemme's wife, Lois, who works in the cheese section at Harris Teeter in Arlington, acknowledges she is lonely without him. "This is a difficult time for me because I love my husband," she said. But she recently returned from a visit to Biloxi, and said she understands why he had to go. "I am more than proud of him," she said. "I am proud of him for being a good American."

Salemme's sacrifice is part of a broader relief effort that area residents have mounted since Katrina slammed into New Orleans and parts of the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, killing more than 1,000 people and triggering the largest exodus of homeless people in U.S. history.

Salemme, an experienced carpenter, was familiar with Habitat for Humanity. He had been volunteering for the organization in Northern Virginia since 1992 and had worked on construction projects in Mexico, South Africa and other parts of the world. His 1,800-square-foot duplex in Arlington was built by Habitat volunteers.

Tucker, who has known Salemme since 1997, recalled that he was driving by Home Depot in late October between visits to Biloxi. "So I spin into Home Depot, and I say 'Peter, we're going to Biloxi tomorrow morning at 6 a.m. I need you.' He said, 'I'm going.' He came a week later."


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