As Aid Lags, Volunteers Shoulder Rebuilding on Gulf Coast

An Amish crew from Pennsylvania works on a house in Pearlington, Miss.
An Amish crew from Pennsylvania works on a house in Pearlington, Miss. "Many of us were born with a hammer in our hands," said one man. (By Peter Whoriskey -- The Washington Post)
By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 28, 2007

PEARLINGTON, Miss. -- The two-by-fours inside the walls of George and Margaret Ladner's new home are inscribed with biblical verses, each written by one of the Alabama schoolchildren who raised money to buy the lumber.

The framing work on the house was done by a Christian from Pennsylvania, the exterior planking was put up by people from Texarkana, Tex., and a group from Destin, Fla., worked on other details.

"This home was built by the hands of God," Margaret Ladner, 75, said from the couch of her new living room last week.

In this small rural community, as in much of the hurricane-ravaged Mississippi Gulf Coast, this kind of motley charity effort accounts for the vast bulk of what halting progress has been made in the immense task of rebuilding.

While the national debate over the recovery has focused on the billions expected in federal aid and insurance, those sources have so far provided little for places such as Pearlington, and charity efforts have constituted more than 80 percent of the home rebuilding completed so far, local and charity officials said.

Fewer than one in five families here are back in their homes, but nearly all of them have relied to some extent on charity groups. The waves of volunteers typically come down for a week or two, work during the day and at night sleep on cots and bunks set up in places such as the old school library and huts on the community's football field.

"Without the volunteers and the donations, we'd still be in the mud," said Rocky Pullman, a tugboat captain who represents the Pearlington area on the Hancock County Commission.

In a county where nearly 11,000 homes were destroyed by the storm, the largest single home rebuilder is the local Habitat for Humanity project, which is undertaking the construction of 19 homes in the area, according to an official with the governor's commission on recovery. Other groups are aiming at similar numbers.

The reason for the charity's dominant role in the rebuilding is that little, if any, of the $3.2 billion in federal aid for Mississippi homeowners has reached anyone here -- it is tied up for now at the state level. As for insurance, most residents of this rural community lacked any form of flood policy. People say there just hadn't been a flood in recent memory, and of those who did have coverage, most had too little.

"If it wasn't for the good American citizens coming here, we'd be in a world of hurt," said Chuck Benvenutti, Hancock County representative on the Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding, Renewal.

The fact that now, 17 months after Hurricane Katrina, only a small fraction of the home rebuilding has been completed and that most of it has been done by charity groups is viewed here as both wonderful and disappointing -- wonderful that so many strangers have arrived to help, but disappointing that the federal aid and insurance payouts have proved, for now, so unavailable.

The charitable groups and residents also say they sometimes worry that as the rest of the country forgets about their plight, the flow of volunteers that they have relied upon could shrink.

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