Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005 with a force and intensity that was greater than forecast. The city of New Orleans suffered the greatest damage, largely because the city is shaped like a bowl, and the levees that hold back the bodies of water that surround the city broke and the entire place filled with water. The communities along the Gulf of Mexico, such as Gulfport and Biloxi, also suffered greatly, particularly the homes and businesses within a few blocks of the beach, due to 27 foot waves known as storm surges that literally knocked down buildings and washed them either inland or out to sea. (There’s a lot of great detail on Wikipedia if you’re interested: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_Katrina)
As Katrina proceeded, it whirled up Interstate 59 like a weed whacker, snapping trees in half, knocking down signs and utility poles, and peeling roofs off of buildings. This was the damage that was sustained in the Hattiesburg area (central Mississippi), causing some areas to be without power for up to four weeks and some businesses to close due to a lack of capital to rebuild.
While Hattiesburg was hit pretty hard by Hurricane Katrina — certainly harder than a community 75 miles inland is typically struck by a hurricane — it didn’t suffer nearly the damage that the communities further south sustained. On the other hand, though, the Hattiesburg area wasn’t as diverse economically as New Orleans, Gulfport, and Biloxi. The main “white collar” industry in Hattiesburg is the University of Southern Mississippi (aka Southern Miss), and there is also a hospital. Most of Hattiesburg is working class: many jobs are military (National Guard base Camp Shelby is nearby), industrial (there are plants for Pepsi and Budweiser, as well as some local industry such as a foundry), and service sector (small shops and restaurants, and of course Wal-Mart). One of the women working with us to do her “sweat equity” in order to qualify for one of the Habitat homes told us she was a Nurse’s Assistant.
Check out our photos of Hattiesburg, including some photos of remaining hurricane damage.
The Hattiesburg Area Habitat for Humanity affiliate had been building homes at a rate of 2-3 per year. The street we were working on had about 7 of these homes, which already had low-income families living in them. Once the hurricane rebuilding effort got underway, the affiliate seized the opportunity and set a goal of building 40 homes per year. So far this year, they had built the two homes that were currently the volunteer bunkhouses (though one would have a family move into it in April), plus the three existing “in-process” homes that were there when we arrived, plus the one we started the week we were there — all this by mid-March! With the help of weekly teams of volunteers and donations coming in like never before, the Hattiesburg Area Habitat for Humanity is able to offer safe, decent housing to families who would not previously been able to think of such a thing. Some of them were evicted from apartments after Katrina when the landlords determined that it wasnÂt worth fixing the hurricane damage. Some of them may have lost jobs when their employers closed or had to cut back after the disaster. Others are simply hardworking low-income families who are living through an ongoing unrelated pre-and-post-hurricane economic disaster.
Kudos go to the incredible staff at the Hattiesburg Area Habitat for Humanity, who we were fortunate to work with while we were there: the Site Manager, Mike, and Site Supervisors Earl and J.R., and staff member Natacha, who wears many hats trying to identify families, coordinate volunteers, and raise funds for the affiliate. Visit their website and find out how you can contribute at http://www.hattiesburghabitat.org/.
Faith is a major motivation for me and for Dave to spend a week building homes for low-income families. Jesus set an example of serving the poor, the sick, the disadvantaged, and said that any time we do an act of service for “the least of these”, we are also doing it for the Lord (Matthew 25). The Bible says that if we present ourselves to God as “living sacrifices”, it is considered a “spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12). It seemed appropriate to us to do so by sacrificing our spring break and vacation time and spend it doing hard work for God’s children rather than relaxing on the beach somewhere. This gives us an opportunity for us to give voice to those who have none (Proverbs 31) by sharing with our friends, families, and blog readers the truth of how working families are faring in the post-Katrina Gulf Coast region.
Habitat for Humanity was founded on similar philosophies. It’s not a missionary organization, but it follows the example of Jesus Christ by caring for impoverished families all over the world, in a compassionate, respectful, and sustainable way. Habitat’s materials are quite clear about the fact that it is a Christian organization, starting with its mission statement and streaming through its website, printed materials, and its monthly magazine. Habitat is equally clear that it welcomes supporters and volunteers of all faiths to join in fulfilling its work. Check out the “Theology of the Hammer” page on its website: http://www.habitat.org/ap/theology_hammer.aspx.
If you volunteer for Habitat — particularly for an entire week — you should not kid yourself that you’re doing a nice little service project. If you want to do something that helps someone else and feels good, stop and think about what you’re getting into first; maybe tutoring or handing out sandwiches is a better choice for you.
A Habitat build is a construction site, and while most of the workers are not stereotypical construction workers, the work is still the same, and the dangers are the same (if not greater, since there are lots of rookies).
At the beginning of each day, the Site Supervisor is supposed to give a safety talk. It varies in length and scope, but the one thing that is always emphasized is: don’t leave anything on the top of a ladder. You or someone else may try to move the ladder and then you’ll have something come crashing down on your head.
There’s a very good reason why they make all volunteers sign a waiver.
The average U.S. Habitat for Humanity home costs about $60,000 to build. It is then sold, with no down payment (other than hours paid in sweat equity) and basically at cost, to a family who would typically not be able to afford a home otherwise. The only way this can be done is through free – volunteer – labor.
Here’s a very rough estimate on costs. Let’s say there were at least 40 volunteers on our work site in Hattiesburg. Most of us worked 8 hours per day. If we were getting paid an unskilled labor rate of $6.25, Habitat for Humanity would have had to shell out $2000 for that week (assuming no benefits or overtime). If a house takes 5 weeks to build, unskilled labor alone would add $10,000 to the cost of the house. This doesn’t include skilled labor such as electricians, plumbers, etc (which Habitat often does pay for).
Of course, in the case of volunteer labor, sometimes you get what you pay for. While Dave and I aren’t professional contractors by any means, the amount of building we’ve done over the past 15 years (both through Habitat and in the theatre) made us some of the more experienced members of the team this week. Let’s take a look at some of our teammates!
In the rest of the country, particularly in the Northeastern United States and among some in the West, the South is not particularly respected. The people who live in the Southeastern U.S. are seen as uneducated, averse to progress, and racist.
I would venture to guess that the non-Southerners who hold to this view have, for the most part, not spent much time in the South. One only has to visit the Southern states to see that, while there are elements of the society that fit the stereotype (and there are Southerners who proudly wear some or all of the labels I described above), there’s more to the South than you think. I’ll make a few comments based on our most recent trip, which took us through Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia (briefly), Alabama, and Mississippi.
Well, we’re on our way! Tonight we drive four hours (approximately and weather permitting) from Silver Spring, Maryland to Blacksburg, Virginia, where we’ll stay with our friends Ryan & Elyn. Tomorrow (Saturday), we’ll drive 11 hours from Blacksburg down to Hattiesburg, Mississippi. We’ve received so much great encouragement from friends, family, and co-workers. We’re energized and ready to do some building!