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Hope amid destruction

Four months after Katrina, students bring relief to a storm-ravaged Gulf Coast still struggling to rebuild and determined to recover.

Published: Sunday, January 22, 2006

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01

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Courtesy of Christy Berkery

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Volunteers worked tirelessly to help the rebuilding efforts in Mississippi. Areas devastated by the hurricane received days of service over break.

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Students take a lunch break overlooking the damaged Biloxi Ocean Springs Bridge in Mississippi. Three groups of BC students volunteered their winter break to help the region rebuild.


For the 100 students, faculty, and staff of the Boston College community who donned jumpsuits and cleaned toxic mold, who demolished houses and rebuilt schools, who sympathized with those who lost everything and learned that they didn't lose what meant most - hope - winter break was about far more than just the holidays.

As part of continuing efforts by members of the BC community to assist in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, three separate, complementary groups made trips to the Biloxi, Miss. region, along the Gulf Coast, to assist with relief efforts during the break.

Unlike previous efforts by the University to assist with hurricane relief, the trips offered participants perspective; a chance to put a human face on a cataclysmic disaster, a chance to experience the destruction and challenges facing the region first hand.

Total destruction

"For most of us up here it's really quite a ways off the radar. Down there it's on radar, front burner every day, all day for a lot of these folks. The coast looks as if Katrina happened yesterday. The devastation, the debris … it's massive, it's going to be years," said Dan Ponsetto, director of the Volunteer and Service Learning Center.

When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29 as a category three storm, it wasn't only the high winds that caused damage, but the storm surge. Water was as high as 30 feet in Biloxi. When the water receded, it took the coast with it.

Ponsetto led the first group to the Gulf Coast, made up of several faculty members, one of their sons, and a graduate student. They arrived in Biloxi Jan. 4 and stayed through Jan. 9.

For Tim Mooney, A&S '09, who arrived with the second group on Jan. 6 along with 12 other Presidential Scholars and the program's associate director, Jennie Thomas, the reality of the situation hit before he even stepped foot in Biloxi.

"Right when we flew over - it was a clear day - we could look down and see everything was destroyed along the coast. I don't even know how to describe it. It was insane. You could tell it was a beautiful area before, a resort town, full of casinos … everything was completely ruined."

It was a sobering reality for Tim Kelly, A&S '09, as well, who was part of the PSP contingent with Mooney. "I don't really think they'll ever be back to where they were, I'm sure it's going to take years. When you go down there and drive around the streets and everything, you pretty much see debris everywhere. You can tell that there's been a lot of work done, but there's so much more to do."

The third group, organized as part of a joint effort from the UGBC and Campus Ministry, was the largest BC group to head to the coast with 70 students and five administrators, staff members, and graduate students. Their impressions were no less grim.

Frances Philips, A&S '07, who helped coordinate the UGBC-Campus Ministry trip, spent a day working in the town of Waveland, Miss. where the eye of the storm passed over.

"Literally, the entire town was leveled; debris, glass, and slabs of concrete," said Phillips. "It really looked like a bomb hit it. It's kind of odd to think that there was rain and water that could be so damaging."

The UGBC-Campus Ministry group arrived on Jan. 7 with students returning this past Sunday. Unlike the first two groups, the third group stayed in Pascagoula, Miss., just outside of Biloxi. The group was brought to Pascagoula with the assistance of Elizabeth Stowe, BC '05, who helped facilitate accommodations for the group within the town.

Volunteers for the third group split their time and numbers between Biloxi and Pascagoula. As with the other groups, all volunteer work in Biloxi was coordinated through Hands On USA, a volunteer disaster response and relief group. Projects in Pascagoula were for Resurrection High School as well as the surrounding community.

They spent their nights on the floor of the high school gym.

Three groups, one goal

The wide range of services that volunteers performed as part of their experiences was indicative of destruction plaguing the region.

The diversity of service was not unapparent to Mooney who recounted a wide range of volunteer experiences.

"The first day they [visited] Jefferson Davis's house and it's also a Civil War museum. The museum was pretty much destroyed and they were digging for all the artifacts in the rubble," he said. "I spent one day gutting a house - each house that had water in it basically has to be gutted because of mold problems. I went to a place about 50 minutes away near Bay St. Louis where I helped a man pick up his yard - everything within a quarter mile of the coast was pretty much leveled."

David DeBarros, A&S '06 and another coordinator of the UGBC-Campus Ministry group, described work done by him and others in his group in Pascagoula and Biloxi. "In the schools we were kind of getting them back to normal. We were literally power-washing floors that still had debris on them and painting so people could actually reuse [the school] again. In the badly damaged homes, we were doing demolition work and in less damaged homes we were replacing sheetrock and painting. In the inner city they were doing more demolition work as well as de-molding buildings - people can't live there because it's so toxic."

Appreciation returned

The incredible amount of work still ahead for residents and volunteers makes the prospects of recovery seem daunting.

As Ponsetto said of his own group's efforts, "It was overwhelming in some ways, but you got to the end of the day and would say, 'Jeez! What'd I do but a small scratch?' But at least you felt like you gave something."

While the sentiment was shared by many of the volunteers, so too was their genuine feeling that their impact could be better counted in terms of hope and optimism as opposed to tons of rubble.

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