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New life and a house

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Cleve Baxley, a 44-year-old mailman„ turned his life around after Katrina. He’ll move into his new Habitat house in 2007.

Grand Bay, Ala. – Hurricane Katrina has been called a lot of things by residents of the Gulf Coast, many of them unprintable. For Cleve Baxley, though, losing his rental house and most of his possessions was an undeniable blessing.

“Sometimes in life we have to lose,” Baxley said. “But we build again. I hate to say it, but I needed Katrina.”

Baxley, a 44-year-old mailman with Northrop Grumman, a global defense and technology company in Pascagoula, was deeply in debt at the time, and found himself in worse trouble after losing everything but a few family photos and some clothes in the storm.

“It teaches you real humility,” Baxley said. “When you evacuate and you don’t have one penny left to your name, that’s a wake-up call.”

Immediately after the storm, Baxley began working with credit counselors and taking money management courses through the Habitat for Humanity affiliate in Mobile County, methodically digging his way out of $30,000 worth of debt.

This month, on the anniversary of Katrina, Baxley will move into his new modular home in Grand Bay.

“I’ve learned about 30 new occupations working with Habitat,” Baxley said, “from the top of the house to the bottom of the house. I learned how to dig ditches, scrape concrete, put siding up, saw wood.

“When I started getting my hours, I thought, ‘Lord, I’m kind of scared.’ I know Jesus was a carpenter, so I just prayed about it. Everybody was so helpful, and the Lord enabled me.”

Baxley has a healthy respect for the power of nature, ever since living through his first hurricane in 1969, when he was 6 years old. Now he rattles off the names of hurricanes he’s survived like distant family members you don’t ever want to see again.

“Hurricanes Camille and Frederick and Elena and Katrina … they’ve convinced me that I just need to go ahead and evacuate,” he said. “I have seen doors buckled up at me and tornadoes going over the house. I know when it’s time to evacuate.”

Two years ago, Baxley fled with friends to Dothan, Ala, for a couple of weeks before moving in with people he knew in Ocean Springs, Miss., for a few months before FEMA assigned him a trailer.

Among the many lessons learned in the disaster and the rebuilding, Baxley cites two qualities above all: “Katrina taught me patience and diligence,” he said. “I have a new value in life.”