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On the roof with God

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“While I was up on the roof during the storm, God and I had a talk. I made some promises.” – Rhonda Reese

Bay St. Louis, Miss.–Even as the floodwaters from Katrina started receding, Waveland native Rhonda Reese vowed to change her life.

“I used to be a totally different person,” said Reese, sitting in the squeaky-clean living room of her new Habitat home. “I hung out, I partied, I didn’t always live like you should. But while I was up on the roof during the storm, God and I had a talk. And I made some promises.”

Reese worked in a nursing home before the storm but now does clean-up duty at the nearby Stennis Space Center. The new job gave her the income boost she needed to get on the list for homes to be built by the Habitat for Humanity affiliate in Hancock County.

“I had always wanted to own my own place,” she said. “But I didn’t see it happening as long as I was only making $6.25 an hour. Owning something of your own just makes you want to work harder.”

She and her 16-year-old daughter, Geavoni, have been in their home for almost two months now, happily ending a two-year displacement that included stays at her ex-husband’s duplex in Tennessee and an apartment at Pelican Point.

“The whole time I was in Tennessee, I kept telling my brother, ‘I want to come home,’” Reese said. “And he kept saying, ‘What home? You don’t have a home.’ ”

She didn’t fully comprehend the extent of the damage until she returned to find nothing but a concrete slab on her property.

“I couldn’t find anything,” she said. “Not a door or silverware or anything. That was the worst feeling.”

Waveland bore the full brunt of Katrina’s wind and water. Reese passed the evening of the storm with her boyfriend at his mother’s house, watching DVDs, oblivious to how dire the situation was.

Everything became clear, though, when the sun came up and Reese saw a car floating past the house. The water rose quickly, she remembers, forcing everybody to seek refuge in small boats and on rooftops.

Reese spent six scorching hours on the rooftop of a neighbor’s house that day, along with eight other adults and 10 kids, watching cars and huge chunks of buildings float by.

“You could hear tornadoes up there,” Reese said. “I would hear a big roar and think, ‘That’s a tornado,’ but I didn’t want to say anything in front of the kids. But you know it’s there.”

After a harrowing six hours, the floodwaters started dropping. When they fell to about waist-high, Reese and her roofmates came down.

“Everybody just looked around and wondered, ‘What do we do now?’”

Reese said she never seriously considered leaving the area for good, determined to stay in the town where she was born.

“You can go anywhere and there are going to be disasters,” she said. “Whether it’s a hurricane or an earthquake or a volcano or a blizzard, you just have to deal with it.”

All things considered, she said, Katrina may have been the best thing that ever happened to her.

“It happened, you lost stuff, but life goes on,” she said. “A lot of good things have happened since. I had always wanted to work at NASA, and I got that job. And then Habitat approved me for a house. Then my mom started building her house right next-door.

“It all started falling into place when I started going to church on Sundays and praying more and living right. Things started happening.”