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Arlington Delegation Helps Rebuild Biloxi

Board members Jay Fisette and Barbara Favola lead post-Katrina mission to restore Gulf Coast city.

County Board members Jay Fisette and Barbara Favola led a delegation of 17 Arlington residents to Biloxi, Miss., earlier this month to help the city rebuild from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Volunteers from Northern Virginia, under the auspices of Habitat for Humanity, have helped refurbish more than 30 houses in Biloxi. The county has also formed a task force to aid the reconstruction efforts in the Gulf Coast city.

Fisette shared his thoughts with the Arlington Connection on his trip:

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<bt>I did not know what to expect. The Gulf Coast was uncharted territory for me, and what I saw was still shocking. The southerners all asked, "It looks much worse than the pictures you saw on television, doesn’t it?" Yes, it does. Hurricane Katrina packed a punch that has changed lives forever.

A short ride from Gulfport Airport to our temporary home at the Catholic convent in Biloxi kept me riveted. At the airport entrance, I saw my first Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer in a "new" trailer park at the airport entrance. Nine months later, the Gulf Coast is still littered with FEMA trailers. In many neighborhoods, there are far more trailers than homes.

THE COASTAL road is now open but quiet. Cars were few, and the beaches were barren. We were told the water is off-limits because of the danger of post-Katrina debris. This coastal road used to be a summer playland of restaurants, shops, hotels and gas stations — the traditional Americana sprawl.

Today, not a single intact structure exists. Only shells remain. The large, red brick First Baptist Church of Gulfport has been left untouched as a stark reminder. Most walls are gone and you can see right through it.

Within several hundred yards of the coast is the worst. I was told about what "used to be" in a location, or how a huge barge was lifted off the water and landed on a hotel. Some stretches used to be beautiful southern mansions, now remembered only through pictures. Who would know a house had been there? Several tall Waffle House signs survived, high in the air, every letter intact. But where did the Waffle House go?

This was the introduction to our four-day visit.

WITHIN AN HOUR I arrived at a small house in East Biloxi. Paint was everywhere — walls, cement floors (pre-carpet), shorts, shirts, hair and faces. The owner, Ms. Nguyen, was a spirited Vietnamese grandmother in a big red-brimmed hat. "Eat, eat, eat more …" was her mantra.

I learned that East Biloxi, the poorest area of the city and where Habitat is doing its work, is 50 percent white, 30 percent Black, and 20 percent Vietnamese. The Vietnamese came a generation ago as fishermen, which is the city’s largest industry along with gambling.

This small house will host 11 family members — including the Nguyen’s three children and six grandchildren. They had given $14,000 to a contractor who then disappeared (a serious problem down here) and are exuberant and thankful for our assistance. Habitat will spend about $25,000 per house, using all volunteer labor.

I was given a lesson on painting with a roller, then ended up doing the edging with a terrible brush. The volunteer team was comprised of Arlington County staff and residents, an Alexandrian or two and some free-lancers from throughout the D.C. region. Elsewhere a large contingent of AmeriCorps youth and soldiers from nearby Keesler Air Force base, one of the largest employers in town, helped with the rebuilding.

Soon, the Nguyen family will move from the two trailers wedged into their small backyard, and return to their home.

THAT NIGHT we ate at the Bethel Lutheran Church. This church has become a MASH-like outpost. Mattresses cover the floors, and they prepare basic, wholesome meals for out-of-town volunteers. Following dinner, the minister’s wife (a minister in her own right), spoke to us about the real Katrina.

The hospital where she worked is gone. She said that 70 percent of the homes and businesses were destroyed and that post-Katrina suicides are up 250 percent. She detailed her own bout with depression. She told us of the post-Katrina SHELL sign that summed it all up: The "S" had fallen off. What remained was "HELL."

I sensed some underlying resentment of New Orleans, that somehow the Gulf Coast was forgotten. I admit to feeling a tinge of that resentment each time I hear how New York and Washington were attacked on Sept. 11, 2001.

Barbara Favola and I attended some meetings while in Biloxi. Four-term Mayor A.J. Holloway told us that in September 2005, 3,167 students started classes in the public schools, as compared to 6,125 enrolled pre-Katrina. One third of Biloxi’s $60 million budget is generated from gambling taxes. The casinos have chosen to reinvest, and are seen as critical private investment for a successful redevelopment of Biloxi.

WE FOUND ourselves painting together later in the week at the Magnolia Street House owned by Ms. Thomas. Barbara did the bottom half of the walls, and I did the top half …. and, of course, the detail work along the ceiling edge. I also had the pleasure of working with Mark from St. Paul, Minn., on the assembly of a ceiling fan. What should have taken 25 minutes took us two hours. But the feeling of gratification once we solved the problem, and felt the cool air blow down on us, will not soon be forgotten.

TWO WEEKS later my images of our excursion to Biloxi are of the emptiness, the FEMA trailers, poverty and appreciation. I picture the appreciative smile of Ms. Nguyen and the selfless goodwill of the young AmeriCorps volunteers from Kansas. I remember the universal good feelings on the East Biloxi street at the ceremony where Habitat gave out symbolic keys to the 11 families that have moved back into their homes. It feels good to help someone who is struggling. Give it a shot.