Students rebuild home destroyed by Katrina

This Spring Break, I decided to head south to the Gulf of Mexico for the week. However, my destination point boasted neither sandy beaches nor beautiful hotels or party towns. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Biloxi, Miss., the once perfect summer getaway, now looked, in the most candid of terms, like a “war zone.” As a member representing Team Wawa, I was part of a 10-person crew who decided to spend a week volunteering its services to one of the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Our goal: to rebuild the inside of 75-year-old Cleo Meaut’s house located at 269 Kouhn St. in the heart of Biloxi, one of the hardest hit areas.

Team Wawa represents Wawa Corporation. I became involved with this group through a close family friend, Joe Bendas, area Wawa manager and Team Wawa leader. When he mentioned that he was returning to Mississippi for a third visit, I told him I wanted to go. The week of the trip coincided with Spring Break.

Team Wawa slept and ate at the Dedeaux Retreat Center in rural Dedeaux, Miss., approximately 20 minutes from Meaut’s house. Joann Waite and Ray Crespo, both general managers for Wawa, and Bendas woke us at 4:30 a.m., and worked us from 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Eight young adults removed broken windows, laid plywood throughout the entire house, sheet-rocked five rooms including walls and ceilings and painted one bedroom. All this was completed in less than five 13-hour days. Talk about teamwork!

However, Team Wawa’s accomplishments were only a small piece of the pie the Biloxi area was receiving that same week. At the Dedeaux Retreat Center there were another 100 volunteers, including college students from Mississippi State and the University of Wisconsin, high school students from Texas and adults from Florida and Missouri. During the week of March 13-17 approximately 30,000 college students descended on the Mississippi Gulf Coast from all across the United States to gut and fix houses, replace roofs, clean up debris and returnsome of that hospitality that so many southerners, especially Mississippians, have been known to share.

“It’s now March, six months after the hurricane and we saw a house with a boat on top of it,” Adam Crawford, a 22-year-old accounting major from Mississippi State, said. “There’s been tons of help but (the Gulf Coast is) still this far behind. There are houses still destroyed and families living in small FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) trailers. It just blows my mind that there’s still so much work left to do.”

Mississippi State alumus Adam Clay added, “My last time on the Gulf Coast was two or three years ago so I remember what it used to look like. At first I didn’t realize this was where I had been. It was definitely an eye-opener. It’s one thing to see it on TV, you remain some sort of distance from it, but seeing first hand out of a car window . it’s a shocker.”

And a shocker it was for young volunteers to see such devastation, but more affecting were the stories of those impacted by the disastrous storm.

“After (Hurricane Katrina) I come back home and my son kicked in my front door . it was a disaster ’cause I had lost everything. There was nothin’ but water and mud. I maybe found three or four pictures that was it. Everythin’ else went,” Meaut said through tears.

Meaut’s neighbor, Kim Lee, was one of the few who stayed behind in his home to wait out Hurricane Katrina and survived the 30-foot tidal surge created by the storm.

In broken English, Vietnamese immigrant Lee described his amazing survival tale.

“During the hurricane, I leave and then come back and the water came up. The water was up to my roof and I go up the tree right there (he points). I wait there for 12 hours. A big tree come down and just woosh go away with the wind. No people around. Only a dog on a roof. The water went down about eight o’clock. I looked at my watch and then went back into my house and sleep. It was cold.”

Lee and Meaut’s recollections were just a few of the many remarkable stories volunteers heard throughout the week from local Mississippians. These stories combined with Biloxi residents’ gratitude was enough to make every volunteer hammer, paint and sweat as long as necessary to help the victims get back on their feet.

In her southern drawl Meaut said, “All these here kids are all in college and they’re all here on their Spring Break and that’s wonderful. For all you kids to give up having a good time, going out on the beach, doing your thing. It really does surprise me, but like I say ya’ll a bunch of good kids.”

For Mississippi Gulf Coast towns like Biloxi, the loss remains as families six months later still live in tents or FEMA trailers and jobs are hard to come by. However, the volunteers continue to give residents hope.

Wawa employee Ryan Kitchen, 18, said, “It’s going to take some time. Everybody’s got to do their part and chip in. I’ll definitely come back though and tell my friends they should come down too.”

“There’s hope left. I hope to be in (the house), in a couple of months anyway. I got a nice bedroom set, I sure did. But I hated losing everything I had though. I wanna thank each and every one of ya’ll ’cause you’ve worked hard, ya really have. Now ya know what it is to work hard!” Meaut teased Team Wawa and laughed.

Through teamwork, volunteerism and nationwide unity, Biloxi and its people are slowly on the way to healing.