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A home of her own

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Gisele Brown, 75, “hammered, painted, cleaned, scraped, caulked” for sweat equity for her Habitat home. After living 20 years in a mobile home which Katrina destroyed, she finally will be a homeowner.

Hattiesburg, Miss. – At 75, Gisele Brown is rebuilding again. She is no stranger to the task, having survived tragedies worse than hurricanes or floods. But she is not bitter or even angry at what some people might consider an unfair burden of a lifetime.

With a sly wit and high-pitched laugh, she merely focuses on the task at hand, moving into her new Habitat home this month and starting her life over.

“I’m anxious to move in,” she said. “After being in a FEMA trailer …”

Her voice trails off and then she continues.

“Unless you’ve lived in one, you don’t know what I’m talking about,” she said. “Nothing shocks me. But it’s been a long trip.”

Brown – Gigi to her friends – has spent more than a year in a FEMA trailer after her mobile home in New Orleans’ St. Bernard Parish, where she had lived for 20 years, was reduced to scrap metal by Katrina.

A native of Morocco, Brown has been in the United States since 1955, when she immigrated with her husband, John Miller Brown, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force who hailed originally from Ville Platte, La.

In 1965, the Browns moved to New Orleans, right after Hurricane Betsy had cut a huge swath of destruction through the city. In the early 1970s, John Brown took a bad fall and died soon afterward in a VA hospital.

Compounding the loss, Brown’s two sons were killed in a car crash and her only daughter died after a sudden illness, all in the 1970s. For 30 years, Brown has been on her own.

As Katrina was bearing down on the Gulf Coast, Brown did what she always did during hurricane season.

“Every time they say a hurricane is coming, I pack a bag and set it by the door of my trailer,” she said. “It’s automatic. I’m just like one of those ants that gather their things before winter.”

She has a good, long laugh at the notion before launching back into her story of exile, told in a still-strong French accent that’s been spiced up with a half-century’s worth of Cajun seasoning.

As Katrina forecasts strengthened from a category 3 to a 4, Brown and a close friend, Janet Kaufman, headed north to Hattiesburg, where another friend’s mother had offered to take them in. Because they had waited so late to leave New Orleans, though, a drive that should have taken two hours took closer to 12.

Unable to reach their friend’s mother when they got to Hattiesburg, the two women ended up spending two weeks at an American Red Cross shelter in the Forrest County Multi-Purpose Center, camping out on the oval floor of what is usually an equestrian arena.

Brown eventually was assigned a FEMA trailer, first at Little Black Creek Water Park, and then at a trailer park near the site of her new Habitat home.

Qualifying for the home was a bit of a challenge for Brown, who gets by on Social Security and VA benefits. But with $10,000 in FEMA assistance for a down payment and occasional minimum-wage jobs, including one at Domino’s Pizza, Brown worked closely with the Habitat affiliate in Hattiesburg and met all the requirements.

Describing herself as “always handy,” the 4-foot-11-inch Brown pitched in enthusiastically on the building site.

“I hammered, painted, cleaned, scraped, caulked,” she said, pointing at the walls where her efforts can be seen. “I did all the work! I like it just right.”