‘I felt helpless for a minute,’ a survivor recalls -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

‘I felt helpless for a minute,’ a survivor recalls

Barbara Magee, 37, has two daughters named Lakevia, 18, and Janequishia, 15. The only thing Barbara saved from her home before Hurricane Katrina was a photo album of her children.

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Habitat for Humanity of the Mississippi Gulf Coast.


The family photos on bookcases, above the television and covering the coffee table in her small apartment are all that Barbara Magee and her two daughters had left of home after Katrina.

“Nothing was left,” Magee said. “She took the roof off, tore the bottom out, took out the whole bottom floor. Everything that water touched, you had to throw out.”

Magee reconstructs that day in late August 2005 like a master storyteller. She grabbed her photo album of her “babies” on a whim on the way out of the house to go to friends and family on somewhat higher ground in Escatawpa, north of Pascagoula, Mississippi.

“We watched the hurricane come in,” she said. “At 10 in the morning, it was dark like it was midnight. The wind was so high we had to hold onto each other when we walked so we didn’t blow away.

“On TV I saw the water was over the stop sign on Marcus Street. ‘That’s my baby’s school, I cried.’ Then I knew we didn’t have a chance. Then we lost the lights.

“That water came up so fast, so fast. The next day it went out just as fast. She left a mess.”

“You couldn’t go down streets with trees down and pavements (buckled) up. All those old oak trees, she laid all them down.”

Magee had “never seen a storm do what Katrina did.”

After the storm

Living in the “mess” has been harder than surviving the storm. Left homeless, the family was assigned a FEMA trailer.

When she was in the trailer, Magee developed a bad taste in her mouth and a bad headache. Her daughter had a nosebleed. Mom thought at first they were all just sad and tired: “Finally, I knew. It’s something in there. Formaldehyde. Your eyes would burn, burn, burn.”

The family stayed with a friend until they finally found an apartment on Old Mobile in Pascagoula. FEMA has since moved all possible families from trailers.

While all this had been going on, Magee, now 37, kept on keeping on with life as it was. She had already learned to be adept at that. Her life had been a hard teacher even before Katrina.

Hard work and God’s grace

Born and raised in Arkansas, Magee came to the Gulf Coast in 1997 for a job as an electrician on an oil rig; later she found a job as a ship fitter, building ships for the Navy at the Pascagoula ship yards. She trained for both jobs at a local community college.

Ship fitters, she said, work in temperatures up to 140 degrees, welding and fitting steel plates in place. It’s a hard job that pays pretty well for southern Mississippi.

She needed to swing a sledge hammer, too, to force those plates into place. Past midway in one mighty swing, the sledgehammer fell to pieces—a defective handle, she was later told. Her body was broken and damaged by the head and by pieces of handle.

“I felt numb all on my one side,” she said. Emergency surgery followed. “I had pins and screws and stitches. I can tell when it’s going to rain.”

She now walks with a cane, can’t sit for very long and struggles, but has kept on: “I wasn’t supposed to be able to walk, but I’m walking. That’s the grace of God, honey.”

Magee said she has gotten good help from her daughters, too. They’re almost grown now, but, of course, they’ll always be her “babies.” Lakevia Metcalf, 18, a college freshman who hopes to be an attorney, is 6-foot-3½. Janequishia Metcalf, 15, in 10th grade and secretary of the Key Club, is 6-foot-1. While Magee was recovering, she hated missing their basketball games.

Dealing with being unable to work is hard for their mom.

“I’d worked since I was 15, sometimes at two jobs,” she said. Not being able to work “takes a toll on your mind frame. I felt helpless for a minute.”

Remaking the neighborhood

Working toward a Habitat house has taken the edge off helplessness. Magee has fulfilled her required hours of sweat equity by working four -hour shifts on a construction site.

She tells herself, “I’ll deal with the pain later.” Her oldest daughter and friends are helping, too.

“I’m working on somebody’s house; somebody’s working on mine,” Magee said. “I’m not complaining. I just say, ‘God, give me a little push.’ ”

Advice for other families taking on sweat equity is something she gives freely.

“I tell ’em, ‘Baby, you got to work on it. You can’t be scared.’”

Magee is a great fan of the people she’s met on the build site: “Volunteers? I just love ’em. They don’t have to do that. When they leave to go home, someone else will be coming. They’re the sweetest people I ever met.”

As she works toward owning her own home, Magee is inspired by the concept of helping to remake what once was a questionable neighborhood in Pascagoula. When the family selection staff at HFH of the Mississippi Gulf Coast first asked her to choose a lot on School Street, Magee admits she was worried.

Before Katrina, “you wouldn’t go down those streets,” she said. “Cops wouldn’t even go down there. Katrina just cleaned it out. Katrina cleaned out all the drugs, drug houses, the dealers. She didn’t discriminate. She got everybody.”

The new Habitat houses and new neighbors will change the neighborhood more, and she is proud of that.

She hopes to be in her new house by June. And she promises to put her individual stamp inside that house.

“I can’t stand a plain house,” she said. Her favorite color is burgundy and her kitchen will have lots of roosters and hens.

What you need to hear

When a photographer and writer arrived to interview Magee, she was preparing to leave for her family’s annual reunion in Arkansas. A crowd of 500 was expected to celebrate family and eat great meals organized by seven sisters, including Magee’s mom. The men do the outside cooking.

But, Magee said, she didn’t mind postponing the trip a little to be interviewed.

“I love it,” she said. “I love that you’re here. It’s another step forward.”

And she’s always told her children: Don’t be afraid to talk to anyone.

“You don’t know what you might need to hear from them,” she said. “You don’t know what they might need to hear from you.”