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Students Help Rebuild Houses After Hurricane Katrina

March 29, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
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TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: It’s a long way from a $35,000-a-year prep school in New Jersey to a moldering little house on a back street in Biloxi, Miss.

VOLUNTEER: Get all the molding. Watch for nails.

TOM BEARDEN: These teenagers, who attend the Lawrenceville School, chose to spend their spring break ripping down paneling and pulling the doors out of a home that Hurricane Katrina submerged under 30 feet of water six months ago.

The so-called gutting is the first step in the process of rebuilding the tens of thousands of water-damaged homes all along the Gulf Coast. Alice Hodgkins is a senior.

ALICE HODGKINS, Volunteer: It’s hard. I mean, I’m definitely not like a physical laborer, so it’s been really intense and interesting, and a different kind of work. I’ve never done this sort of work before in my life.

TOM BEARDEN: Hodgkins and her classmates are working under the guidance of a 10-year-old organization called Hands-on Network. Hands-on is one of several volunteer groups that are trying to help hurricane victims through volunteer labor.

Erika Putinsky is Hands-on’s Mississippi operations director. She says people here need all the help they can get.

ERIKA PUTINSKY, Hands-on Operations Director of Mississippi: At this point, just like everybody, you know, they want to get back in their house, they want to be warm, safe and dry. And so for us to be able to go in and provide services for folks who might not be able to afford it or didn’t quite get as much as they expected from their insurance or from FEMA, we can go in and provide the labor which by and large is usually the most expensive thing for folks.

TOM BEARDEN: Hands-on Network has set up shop in a building that belongs to the Beauvoir Methodist Church in Biloxi. It was one of the few large structures that wasn’t damaged. Putinsky says all sorts of volunteers simply show up to work, for a day, for a week, some for months.

ERIKA PUTINSKY: We’ve got a lot of folks who — a huge retiree population that they don’t want to sit at home. You know, they’ve seen this on the television, and they know that they have to come and do something.

We have, right now, a large population of folks from universities that are doing this for spring break. Same thing, they’re compelled.

TOM BEARDEN: Each day starts pretty much the same way for the 200-plus volunteers. Groups lather on bug repellent…

VOLUNTEER: They’re swarming today.

TOM BEARDEN: … they assemble their tools, and head out to their assigned job site.

VOLUNTEER: Who’s going to 632 Division?

TOM BEARDEN: This team of students from the University of Virginia and St. Bonaventure drew the job of removing mold that infested this house after the flood. It’s an arduous process.

In the previously gutted house, they use power tools and wire brushes to remove visible mold from the exposed wood. The airborne mold spores are a health risk. Volunteers wore stifling protective suits and respirators, as the temperature soared into the 80s.

Even with the sweat pouring down their faces and red marks from the masks, they insist it’s all worth it.

VOLUNTEER: We’ve been working on someone’s house for three days. And, you know, she’s living in her trailer, and she came back in and we’re tearing her house down.

She thought until the day before we came in that her house was going to get torn to the ground. And she got a call the night before saying that we were going to come in and gut it for it to be rebuilt.

JILL RANEY, Volunteer: I’ve been really humbled by seeing all the destruction here. It amazes me how much hope a lot of the people down here have.

And on another level, I’ve found that I really enjoy using a crowbar. Like, physical work isn’t something that you get to do much in the university environment, and that’s been just as valuable, I think, as the more emotional experiences we’ve had.

BETH PUTNAM, Volunteer: You’re going to just — what we’ll do, we’ll stop every hour for about five minutes for water.

TOM BEARDEN: Beth Putnam is the crew leader and has been volunteering in Mississippi for more than three months.

BETH PUTNAM: For a while, there wasn’t a lot of people understanding really what was going on and, like, you know, up north or wherever, you think that it’s all taken care of or you think that, oh, it’s under control, so it’s just sad to see the slow response and just people waiting, and waiting, and waiting.

TOM BEARDEN: When the workday is over, everyone lines up for dinner, prepared by three Air Force cooks on loan from nearby Keesler Air Force Base. Hands-on provides food and a place to sleep for anybody who wants to work, but volunteers must bring their own air mattress and sleeping bag and pay for their own transportation to and from Biloxi.

Accommodations are Spartan: the floor of the church building’s balcony or a tent out back. After dinner, everybody gathers to talk about the day’s work and the work still to come.

VOLUNTEER: We all kicked butt.

(LAUGHTER)

And we got a lot of jobs done. One of the teams ran into, like, carpet underneath like plywood, and I’ve never seen that. And that’s after like 200 floors I’ve ripped up, and I’ve never seen carpet covered with plywood.

TOM BEARDEN: The faculty leader from St. Bonaventure University had a message for those who were staying and for those leaving.

FACULTY LEADER: Something about this place is magical; I don’t know what it is, but it really is magical. It makes us better people. Take that with you.

When you go home, there’s humane societies there that need help. There are poor people there that need to be listened to. This wasn’t a one-week time and then forget about it; this was a one-week learning experience so we can grow from what we learned here.

TOM BEARDEN: But Putinsky says there are some special skills that volunteers don’t have time to learn, and she hopes people who have that knowledge will show up to help in the near future.

ERIKA PUTINSKY: We’re looking for folks who have a craft or a trade, who might, you know, be an electrician or a plumber or something like that, so they can come down and really provide some technical knowledge and know-how to lead groups of volunteers who might not have that skill.

TOM BEARDEN: Hands-on Network has a commitment from Home Depot to fund the center for two years. They are certain the Internet and word of mouth will provide them with plenty of volunteers during that time. They are also absolutely certain that there is a lot more than two years’ worth of work to be done on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.