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A storm and a stroke

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“If it wasn’t for God and the faith-based groups like Habitat, there’d be nothing down here still. Absolutely nothing.” – Russell Abbrecht, Katrina survivor and Habitat volunteer.

Waveland, Miss.–Russell Abbrecht could be forgiven for wanting to forget 2005 altogether. The survivor of a debilitating stroke, he lost his home to Hurricane Katrina in the fall, and his wife left him a month later.

But Abbrecht, 52, is a survivor by nature and necessity.

Though his left side is paralyzed as a result of the 2003 stroke, he volunteers every day at Habitat for Humanity in Hancock County, answering phones and racking up sweat equity toward a two-bedroom Habitat house of his own to be built next year.

“I’ll go out there and paint, too, if they have some painting to do,” Abbrecht said. “Whatever it takes. I’m disabled, but I’m not handicapped. I’m handicapable.”

Born in the New York borough of Queens and reared on the Jersey shore, he migrated south more than 30 years ago to attend Loyola University in New Orleans.

The college education didn’t work out as planned, Abbrecht said with a laugh. “I got a job tending bar off campus,” he said. “I would get off work at 8 a.m. and try to go to 9 o’clock theology class. That was rough.”

Eventually, he made his way to Waveland, a town that tragically lived up to its name two years ago.

“The storm sat off the coast for hours,” Abbrecht said, “just pounding us with 100-mph winds. It never stopped. It’s like being a fighter, stuck in a corner while some guy tees off on you.”

Not long after Abbrecht and his then-wife had fled north to Poplarville, a 45-foot tidal wave rolled through Waveland, demolishing virtually every building in its path.

The next morning, the couple headed home on Mississippi 603. Many miles from Waveland, they started seeing washers and dryers in trees, cars on the roadside that had floated all the way up from I-10, with dealership tags intact. Pieces of houses rested everywhere.

“I remember seeing people’s clothes hanging in trees,” Abbrecht said. “They looked like little flags.”

Despite seeing the extent of damage along the way, Abbrecht still wasn’t prepared for the sight of nothing where his house had stood the day before.

“I broke down and cried,” he said. “Cried like a baby.”

For years Abbrecht worked as food and beverage director at Copa Casino in Gulfport. The casino didn’t survive Katrina, though, so Abbrecht has gotten by since mostly on Social Security disability.

He credits the faith-based groups with making all the difference in Waveland, especially in the days immediately following the storm.

“If it wasn’t for God and the faith-based groups like Habitat,” he said, “there’d be nothing down here still. Absolutely nothing.”

Abbrecht is a longtime member of Waveland United Methodist Church on Vacation Lane, which survived the storm relatively unscathed.

“We reopened our church within a month,” Abbrecht said. “We reopened, worshiping the lord.”

The spray-painted FEMA numbers on the front window of the church are the only visible signs of Katrina. But the memories are fresh.

Abbrecht points out a small carved stone in a flowerbed in front of the small church.

“See that little rock there? That made it through the storm. Didn’t move. It’s funny the things that stayed and the things that went. A big solid brick building like the Catholic church, gone. And that little rock is still there.

“You know what they say: The Lord works in mysterious ways. I think about it every day.”