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1,000 Fixer-Uppers

Volunteers head to Gulf Coast to rebuild homes of Hurricane Katrina victims.

Some people send money to help Hurricane Katrina victims. Others send supplies, or nothing at all. A few Northern Virginia residents are personally delivering their time, energy and sweat.

Over the last year, Burke resident Bart Tucker has paired up with Habitat for Humanity of Northern Virginia and led a group of Northern Virginians through the rebuilding process in East Biloxi, Miss. Groups of up to 20 people have been going down in shifts, staying for about three weeks and returning for five to raise money and reconnect with their families. Their efforts, while appreciated immensely by those in Mississippi, are not enough, according to the volunteers. They have now set their sights on attracting more volunteers in order to speed up the rebuilding of about 1,000 damaged or destroyed homes in the area.

“Our dream is to have teams go down for two to three weeks each, and be back to back,” said Scott McBride, a continuing volunteer in Mississippi. “We’d like to have multiple houses underway at a time. You’re just a lot more efficient, you don’t have to stop and start all the time.”

The new expanded program, Project REHAB, seeks people rather than more supplies. Tucker said a real need exists for licensed service people, such as electricians, plumbers and air conditioning repairmen. The group has been building infrastructure along with the locals there, so tools and supplies are already provided for the most part, said Tucker. Volunteers are expected to donate things like food or clothing, since the added help in the area contributes to the number of people utilizing a scarce amount of resources, said Tucker.

“The need is incredible,” said Tucker. “It still looks like it did two days after the storm.”

PROJECT REHAB focuses on East Biloxi because volunteers said it was hit extremely hard by Katrina and efforts to clean up the city have been overshadowed by the damage to New Orleans. Over the past summer, Del. Ken Plum (D-36) visited the area to lend a hand, and said he was surprised and pleased with the number of Northern Virginians volunteering in the area. The houses they are rebuilding appear to be in great shape, said Plum.

“What impressed me was the quality with which that work is done,” said Plum. “Any of us would be pleased to live in a house of that quality. There are no short cuts. It’s put back in a way that people can live in it with pride and security.”

The volunteers have raised more than $300,000 and have more fund-raising programs underway, said McBride. They want to make sure the infrastructure is there, so volunteers from around the country will be able to work as soon as they arrive. So far, the group has rebuilt 15 homes and they’re working on another 10. They want to finish repairs to 200 homes in the next 18 months. McBride said the volunteers are reaching out to three specific groups for help: larger affiliated chapters of Habitat for Humanity, churches and service organizations. Rebuilding Together, a national neighborhood revitalization organization, has teamed up with Project REHAB in East Biloxi. Tucker said he hopes more groups will follow.

Once a volunteer is in the area and sees it for him or herself, Plum said the desire to help out becomes contagious. The Virginia state delegate is already planning a return some time in the fall, but he has to work around the legislative calendar.

“I just left feeling extremely good about what little bit we were able to contribute,” said Plum. “But more importantly, what Northern Virginians are contributing in a big way in the area.”

The volunteers are proud of the ongoing help they are providing, but realized they needed to expand the amount of work getting done. Tucker said he read a May 25 statistic that reported only 7 percent of the homes in East Biloxi have been completed. That just isn’t enough, said McBride and Tucker.

“With 1,000 homes down there, as excited and happy as we are to do the 25, it would take many years,” said McBride. “This is a huge multi-year undertaking, and we need to get a lot more people involved. That’s why we started Project REHAB.”

“Getting more people involved would clearly accelerate the program,” said Tucker. “We’re at the point where we have a driving need too have a continuous presence there.”