‘Building Goodness’ in Mississippi
Employees volunteer their time and skills to aid town hit hard by Katrina
By Matt Kelly
Preston T. “Pete” Syme and W. John Allen arrived at Pearlington, Miss., three months after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. There was still no town there.
“Driving in, about 100 miles from the coast you start to see some destruction and you think ‘Not bad,’” Syme said. “As you get closer to the coast the damage gets more significant, and by the time you get to Pearlington, the place looks like it’s been scraped clean.”
Syme, 61, a program manager at Facilities Management, and Allen, 50, supervisor of maintenance at the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, went to Pearlington for a week in early December as volunteers for Building Goodness, a local nonprofit group launched by businessmen Jack Stoner and Michael Cernik of Alexander/ Nicholson Construction and Howard Pape of Central Virginia Waterproofing.
Building Goodness sends skilled trades people to construct schools, clinics and public buildings in Haiti and Central America. The Pearlington mission is the group’s first domestic relief project.
Pearlington is not an incorporated town. It is simply a 9.58-square-mile site with 1,684 residents, according to the 2000 census. Of its 830 housing units, Syme said only about a half dozen were habitable now.
The town is about 8 to 13 feet above the Pearl River, which separates Mississippi from Louisiana near the Gulf of Mexico. Allen said the river surged 30 feet and houses built on 10-foot poles to keep them safe in floods were carried away.
Some residents rode out the flood, trapped in attics and in trees. After the hurricane, they set up their own emergency stations and scrounged what food and water they could find, Allen said.
In Pearlington, volunteers set up camp on a resident’s lawn and constructed 16-by-12-foot wooden “sheds”—“houses” or “cabins” would have been subject to local building codes. Building Goodness has constructed more than 120 sheds in Pearlington, according to Barbara Shifflett, project manager for Pearlington relief for Building Goodness. “We want to take care of the needs,” she said.
Some survivors were living in Federal Emergency Management Agency-supplied trailers, used only where there were electric, water and sewer connections, and were using the sheds for storage. Others, Syme said, were living out of their cars or under tents of plastic sheeting immediately after the storm. He is not aware of people living in cars or under tarps since FEMA has brought in relief trailers. Many of the sheds are used as alternate living space, because the trailers are so small, he said.
“There is a great degree of uncertainty,” Syme said. “People’s lives are in limbo.”
Shifflett said Pearlington officials have told her that residents have received $2,000 to $26,000 in federal aid. “Most people are on the lower end of that, and if you lose your house, $26,000 does not do much,” she said.
In addition to Facilities Management volunteers, John K. “Jack” Brown, associate professor in the Department of Science, Technology and Society, organized 35 volunteers, including 24 engineering students, to work for Building Goodness in Pearlington over the University’s spring break earlier this month. Shifflett said some students may volunteer again after the spring semester ends.
When Syme and Allen’s group arrived in Pearlington, the volunteers divided into teams, one building wall sections and roof trusses while another set the floor on concrete piers at the site. Syme said he was energized by the work while he was there, getting up early and throwing himself into the labor. But he slept “a lot” for two days after he returned home.
The trip there, Syme said, was more daunting than the work at the end of it. They traveled two days, worked for five days straight and then traveled two days back. The eight-man, seven-woman crew on the trip had three experienced carpenters. Less skilled volunteers were available for camp maintenance, cooking and carrying.
“The people [of Pearlington] are so receptive when you come on board,” Allen said. “They hug you and take pictures and want you to sign the building you’ve worked on. It’s like you are their superman, their hero who helped them when they needed it.”
“The level of destruction is hard to grasp,” Syme said. “Blocks are flattened, then you realize that extends for hundred of miles. Dozens of towns were just obliterated.”
Allen saw one large brick house that looked intact. He then realized it was two brick houses together, one of which had washed about two miles down river.
Boats littered the landscape.
“Boats on houses, boats on cars, boats along the side of the road,” Allen said.
Seeing the devastation and assisting the survivors offered the duo a different perspective.
“This gives you a good feeling,” said Allen, a former contractor. He preferred being able to use his skills rather than just write a check. “I feel I didn’t do enough. We only helped 10 families. When it’s over there is a sense of complete satisfaction, and you have an urge to do more because you have made such a difference in people’s lives.”
Allen fears places such as Pearlington will be forgotten as the national media focuses on New Orleans and new storms wreak havoc elsewhere.
“There are so many other places that need help,” he said. “It will be a long time before the Gulf Coast is back on its feet.”
Syme has put together a slide show of the trip, partly in an effort to recruit skilled trades people to volunteer for the Building Goodness program and partly to educate people on the extent and scope of the disaster along the Gulf Coast. He has presented the slide show to community groups, at a Pearlington fund raiser, and was invited to display it at a Facilities Management staff meeting. Shifflett said about 10 volunteers from Facilities Management have gone to Pearlington so far, some this month.
Syme used annual leave but has since discovered a University leave for disaster relief. The policy, which applies to any disaster declared by the president of the United States, governor of Virginia, or any other state governor, grants employees up to 80 hours of leave. The University requires a volunteer form, supervisor approval and a letter from the charitable organization regarding the dates, location and type of work. So far, 18 people from the academic side of the University have used the leave option for Katrina relief.
“This is such a clean, clear and direct way of helping people,” said Syme, has been doing community service work for many years and who is returning to Pearlington from April 1 through April 9. “I was given an opportunity to do something concrete and tactile instead of something more abstract like writing a check. This was more satisfying. I talked to the people I was helping. I stood in their yards. It was a great way to be there.”