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'Crazy Volunteers from Virginia'

Local residents, businesses rebuild homes devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

Bart Tucker was more than a little apprehensive as he climbed the stairs to a darkened Biloxi, Miss. church in early September, just days after Hurricane Katrina left the region. It was 1:30 a.m. and pitch black from a widespread power outage. The Burke resident and a van of volunteers had just driven 1,050 miles from Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Fairfax, scouring maps to find their way to the church, since all street and highway signs had been blown off by the wind.

"We were on a grand adventure, not knowing what, exactly, to expect," said Tucker. "It was a mess of uncertainty."

Tucker knocked on the door of the church, Bethel Lutheran, but received no answer. He had a phone conversation with the pastor, who said he'd be grateful for volunteers to come down and help, but had little else in the way of plans.

"I was sort of leading the team, so I have all these misgivings but I'm trying to exude confidence," said Tucker. Luckily, he said, the pastor answered his cell phone and came out to meet the group. According to Tucker, the pastor's wife said that earlier that evening, she sat down with her sister and prayed for God to send some volunteers to help out at the overwhelmed parish.

"At 1:30 in the morning, here come these crazy volunteers from Virginia, pounding on the doors," said Tucker. Within minutes of the group's arrival, he said, the pastor and his wife were in tears.

"People were dealing with a lot of tragedy down there," said Sam Jacknin, a Burke resident who owns Green Dot Realty. "We were working with individuals who pretty much lost everything." Jacknin, who knew Tucker through their work at Habitat for Humanity, was one of the main instigators of the Biloxi project. According to Tucker, Jacknin and Elizabeth Pagan, another friend, began calling him two days after the hurricane hit, asking what they could all do in response.

"I said, 'Let's wait,'" said Tucker. "Then they called me the next day and the next day, and the third time, I said, 'OK, let's do something.'"

THE PROJECT that followed continued for the next six months, with volunteers from Lord of Life church and MowCow Landscaping cycling through the city to help residents of poor neighborhood East Biloxi rebuild their homes.

"We watched so much on the news and it looked like everything down there was pretty badly botched up," said Richard Lindsay, owner of MowCow, a Fairfax Station-based landscaping company.

"It seemed absurd that it would be so complicated to help," Lindsay said, so he decided to team up with Tucker and sent a truck to Biloxi with tools and equipment.

The volunteers used Bethel as a home base, organizing food donations in the fellowship hall and establishing a free clinic there. Donations had already begun to pour in, with seven to nine tractor-trailers arriving per day, full of food supplies.

"It sounds like a lot but at the end of the day, the commissary would be empty. Depleted," said Tucker. "They came really from everywhere: Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Michigan. There was no grand marshal, scheduling these trucks in. How did they decide to come to Bethel Lutheran? I don’t know."

The next step was to figure out a plan of action. The team asked other churches what needed to be done and eventually decided to tackle East Biloxi, a neighborhood in a poor section of town with houses flooded to a depth of six feet.

"The devastation was so severe, the only reaction you had was either stunned silence or to cry," Lindsay said. "It's one thing to see it on TV, it's another to see it in real life."

Worse yet, the volunteers found themselves without a plan to step in to.

"There was no one there," said Tucker. "No one." FEMA and Red Cross personnel had not arrived, and most of the residents had vacated. Many stayed, however, like one couple who rode out the storm in their attic, praying all day until the hurricane ended. The volunteers talked to community members and prioritized their work by who needed it most, like one woman, who was living on $742 a month. The area was outside the 100-year flood plain, and many homeowners had already paid off their mortgages and so did not have flood insurance, said Tucker.

"It's strange to go through a city right after something like that happens," said Jacknin. "A lot of people who would normally be your neighbors are sleeping in the streets."

VOLUNTEERS HEARD countless stories of people who were so determined to ride out the storm, including one family that put their infant in a plastic cooler to save a little time while gathering up their other children to move into the attic, Lindsay said.

Jacknin brought blowers and mold killers down in the Green Dot truck to dry out the waterlogged houses, and the volunteers began "mucking out" the houses — removing the appliances, fixtures, and flooring but leaving the internal frames intact. The houses were in such disrepair that Tucker began to worry that they were wasting their time, but the city building inspector assured them that the buildings were structurally sound.

By late September, the team had managed to clean out 22 houses in East Biloxi. Tucker returned periodically with groups of volunteers from Lord of Life and MowCow and continued to rebuild. They are raising funds and volunteers to return in March, he said, and he hopes to send groups to Mississippi on a regular basis in the future.

"We've established a spark of hope here in this area," said Tucker. "It's really starting to look like a community is coming back."

Working to rebuild the lives of so many in Biloxi helped to put things in focus, Lindsay said.

"When you see what happens when people lose everything, it puts life into perspective," he said.

Tucker and Jacknin agreed that the personal connections they made have been one of the best parts of the experience.

"It was a great opportunity to work with different people, to help people out," said Jacknin.

"You just get really close to these people," said Tucker. He described Ruth, a former schoolteacher who embodied the resilience of the East Biloxi residents. She stood in the middle of her house after it had been mucked out to take a picture, he said, and in the picture, she is smiling because of the progress that the volunteers had made.

"We're talking about a lady having all her earthly possessions stripped from her house," said Tucker. "She's destitute, put out on the street, and she's smiling."