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71 year-old Ralph Shirley lived in Chalmette, in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, when Hurricane Katrina struck.


Ralph Shirley, 71, lived in Chalmette in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Shortly before the storm, he took his ailing wife out of the Chalmette hospital—which was directly in harm’s way—and evacuated first to Mississippi and then to Arkansas. Two months later, his wife died, leaving Shirley to rebuild his life.

“The night before she died, she said, ‘Honey, I want to go home,’ ” Shirley said. “I told her, ‘We can’t go back to Chalmette. There’s nothing livable there.’ Two hours later, she sighed, and I could feel her hand release mine. She wasn’t scared a bit.”

As difficult as her passing was, Shirley takes great comfort in the fact that she was with him, in a peaceful setting, surrounded by loved ones.

“I had to sign a waiver to take her out of Chalmette General when the storm was coming up,” he said. “They were trying to talk me out of it all the way out the door. Later on, that hospital sustained four deaths. The water was flooded up into the second floor. A lot of the people who were able crawled up on the roof, and then they were out in the sun parching for a while before anybody could get them down from there.

“Of the four that died, three drowned and one died of exposure,” he said. “My wife might have been one of those if I hadn’t taken her.”

For four years after Katrina, Shirley lived in a 36-foot trailer in his daughter’s yard in Pearl River County, Mississippi. In July 2009, he moved into a new house in Slidell, Louisiana, built in partnership with East St. Tammany Habitat for Humanity. Here his three grown children, 12 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren can visit.

When Shirley was younger, he worked in outdoor advertising, putting up gigantic billboards along highways. Later, he got a job installing lanyards atop flagpoles—the taller the better, he said.

He also is a skilled carpenter and woodworker. One of the few items Shirley salvaged from his demolished house in Chalmette was a supersize picnic table he had crafted from pine planks. Scattered across the tabletop are Bible verse notations, such as “2 Tim 3:16.”

“Whoever sits there has to recite Second Timothy, Chapter 3, Verse 16,” Shirley said. “By the time they were grown, all my kids pretty much knew every verse in the Bible.”

The table sits in a place of honor now on a concrete slab under his house, which is on stilts that are several feet taller than new building codes require. For neighborhood gatherings, the table is a shady spot to fill up on Shirley’s Cajun specialties and watch children at play.

Shirley goes to the gym every day, and keeps a promise to his late wife by doing minor construction and maintenance work at a local church and also working every Thursday and Saturday at the ReStore.

“If feels like I’m home again,” Shirley said. “Habitat has become my third family: I have my family, my church and now Habitat is my third family. Every time I see anybody from the affiliate, we hug and kiss and hold on to each other like we haven’t seen each other in ages.

“They’re that type of people, you know,” he said. “They’re caring. And that’s what I hope to be: a caring person who can help get things accomplished.”

He put up latticework on the house of his next-door neighbor, a single mother with three small children. And he has offered to start building decks and sheds for any other interested neighbors, charging them only for materials.

“It’s what neighbors do,” he said. “We’re here to help each other.”