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As Aid Lags, Volunteers Shoulder Rebuilding on Gulf Coast
Local Gratitude Mixes With Frustration Over Government's Failures

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.

Several expressed outrage that there was no mention of the hurricane recovery in President Bush's State of the Union address on Tuesday.

"We still look like a bomb hit us, and then the president in his national address doesn't even mention us?" said Larry Randall, a retired boat captain and a coordinator of relief efforts at the Pearlington Recovery Center. "That really hurt."

Katrina made a nearly direct hit on this modest community, which once had about 1,700 people, about 77 percent of them white, about 20 percent black, census figures show. Most maintained houses -- a typical one sold for about $50,000 before the storm -- and the rest had mobile homes.

Katrina pushed ashore a surge of water that simply washed many homes away and filled others with as much as 10 feet of water, according to recovery officials. Eight local people died. Several rode out the storm by climbing tall trees and resting in their branches; others jumped from rooftops into boats.

Now the vast majority of the residents who have returned live in FEMA trailers, the skinny, 27-foot-long homes on wheels provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that house families in cramped quarters. Along the woodsy roadsides, hand-painted plywood signs offer community encouragement -- "Keep Hope Alive" and "Katrina Was Big, God Was Bigger." Stray dogs roam.

Every week, scores of volunteers descend on this community to fill the cots at the school library or the parsonage at the local Baptist Church or a camp run by Presbyterians. Last week there were more than 80 here, but at other times there have been as many as 200.

By day, they go out in work crews, framing houses, putting up drywall, installing doors. At night, some have prayer meetings.

This past week, at various sites one could run into Amish from Pennsylvania, Catholics from Massachusetts, Methodists from Illinois, Baptists from Mississippi and a Florida church group. The Amish crews, clad in their distinctive suspenders and wide-brimmed hats, have a non-Amish driver who takes them to work sites.

"Many of us were born with a hammer in our hands," said Sam Stoltzfus, 41, part of an Amish crew from the Williamsport, Pa., area. "This is fun. Yes, we're supposed to help people, but it's not like a chain around our necks."

Russell Geeraerts, 38, a general contractor from Helena, Mont., said he came down after the hurricane "for all the wrong reasons." He was going to volunteer for a couple of weeks and then come back with his own work crew to make some money.

"But then I asked myself, 'How could you?' " he said last week after lunch at a local kitchen, which like the various camps was set up to serve volunteers. "Just look at this place."

The $3.2 billion in federal aid disbursed by the Mississippi program has largely been untouchable by people in Pearlington.

The program's first phase doles out money to people who were flooded but did not live in the federally designated flood zone.

Most people in Pearlington live in the flood zone and must wait for the second phase to begin. Under its guidelines, families of low and moderate income will be eligible for as much as $100,000, less any insurance and FEMA rebuilding payments they have received.

In the meantime, not knowing whether they will receive aid, many families here say they have accepted, sometimes reluctantly, the help of the charity groups in the rebuilding.

Many put what they have into building a foundation, getting the home started. Then the charitable groups, which provide materials and work crews, do the rest.

Even so, many feel uncomfortable about receiving the help.

Frank Bello and his wife, for example, are raising five children. He worked in maintenance at the local elementary school. She is a nurse.

Last week, an Amish crew was putting together the frame on a new house for the family.

Just before Christmas, when Bello was hauling three loads of dirt to his home site, it began to rain. He told the volunteer work crew that he was sorry that they had to work in such conditions.

"They said, 'Don't worry, we're glad to do it,' and that made me feel better," Bello said. "But I still feel bad about it. Personally, myself, I like to be doing that sort of thing for other people, not having them do it for me. But now that's the way it is."

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