Feature Story – Day 6

Coming home again: Why it matters

Carolyn and Jessie Gaines are among many families who are finally back in their own houses nearly three years after Katrina. Still, too many wait for the stocking-feet comfort and security of a decent, affordable place of one's own. Photo by Shawn Reeves.
Feature Story – Day 6 -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

A then-and-now trip across the coast and emotions of Katrina

By Shawn Reeves

In Mississippi the welcome signs remind travelers every time they cross the state line, “It’s like coming home.”

Two and a half years ago, only a month after Katrina, I traveled along the Gulf Coast in a tiny RV, talking with families from Mobile to Slidell who had lost home and nearly everything, including the inner comfort those welcome signs describe. This week I retraced those steps and sought the folks I met on that first trip.

In 2005, I navigated a path just beyond chaos.

The noisy, frenzied pandemonium of Katrina had surrendered to a still and quiet confusion, a hushed disbelief that suspended more than one person I met somewhere between life before the storm and life after it, doing little to retrieve the former life and even less to face the current one.

But as I recreated my initial trip, the emotional weight I had felt then lifted as I encountered news of families whom I had met along the way.

Many had found the answers they so clearly lacked immediately after the storm — and had gone home again in the places they feared they had lost forever.

In Bayou La Batre, on that early trip, I met Gwyn Landry sitting in a lawn chair beside her driveway, a FEMA trailer parked shiny, white and new behind her.

Landry had grown up in the waterlogged house only feet from us, and openly agonized that she would never return — largely because she could not afford to rebuild her home to the new standards imposed by local ordinances.

Thanks to the labor of volunteers from the Methodist Church, she did rebuild her home — the brick foundation still has that “new-brick” look.

On Monday, I stopped by to see if she might be home. She wasn’t. But her great-grandson was. I chatted with him briefly, wedged a quick note in the screen door and moved on.

Down the road, on that first trip, I met Maylana Weaver, who, after wading in Katrina’s waters for eight hours, told me she was “storm-sick” and would leave the area. When on this trip I didn’t get an answer at her door, I thought maybe she had kept her word.

Boarded-up, abandoned homes and businesses are not hard to spot along the coast still, mailboxes leaning forlornly in the weeds, but parts of the area also have come back.

Many folks have come home again.

I began both my journeys in Mobile, where the executive director for the local Habitat affiliate, Brenda Carson-Lawless, showed me around. This week I spent time in a neighborhood where Habitat for Humanity is building 10 homes, adding to 11 already completed. A total of 32 new Habitat homes eventually will emerge in the neighborhood.

The beautiful homes were clearly bringing a new energy to the aging neighborhood, but the homeowners were bringing even more.

“I’ve been cheesing from here to New York all week,” soon-to-be homeowner Margaret Carlton told me, referring to the broad smile she wore practically the whole time I spent with her.

“I might not be such an emotional person on the outside, but if you could see me on the inside…!”

She’ll be moving with her four daughters from a two-bedroom place — where they couldn’t even play in the yard for fear of drugs and violence — to a home with space and, more importantly, with safety. Margaret and two of her soon-to-be neighbors, Audrey Streeter and Africa Locke, had taken the week off from work to build their homes. On Tuesday, Africa had the truly special experience of building her home with a former head of state, when President and Mrs. Carter stopped to pay a visit.

Even during my few hours in that Hillsdale neighborhood of West Mobile, I could sense the excitement, almost hear the pulse of a community gaining strength, lifting up, going home again, as Margaret, Audrey and Africa will do there soon on Biloxi Avenue.

On that early trip, my sensibilities had never slumped so heavily as when I lugged them around Biloxi.

With storm clutter all around us, I met Mable Walker in a quiet, muddy front yard. Having listened a few minutes later from a filthy sheet-covered loveseat as she told her survivor tale, I wrote that my heart had never broken so many times in a single afternoon.

I clearly recall feeling utterly helpless, unable to offer anything more than words. Though I’ve asked around this week about Mable, and while one couple had heard the name, they couldn’t tell me the outcome of Mable’s ordeal.

Back then I remember thinking over and over how, in a few days, I would leave the coast, going home again to a dry, comfortable place.

Such a homecoming for so many Gulf Coast families at the time was surely eclipsed by the disarray, the open questions, the dense black mud that layered everything from coffee cups to tooth brushes.

Nowhere was that clearer than in the new Habitat home of Carolyn and Jessie Gaines on Bellman Street, just across the tracks from the muddy yard and Mable Walker. Having always dreamed of an affordable home to go to, the Gaines had moved into their new place three months before Katrina. Because they lacked flood insurance (they didn’t live in a flood plain, so why would they have carried it?), their claims were repeatedly denied.

In the meantime, they lived in three different shelters after Katrina, hot, crowded, nothing like home, they said.

“It makes you feel lost, empty. In my heart, I didn’t think we’d ever recover,” Carolyn told me this week, as we chatted comfortably in her living room.

I sat on the edge of the sofa, my heart dancing as I listened to both Carolyn and Jessie tell about reclaiming that same Bellman Street home from the filth, reasserting themselves in their own recovery effort, along with Habitat volunteers who helped bring them home again. My sensibilities on that day were more like a kite in flight.

While in Carolyn and Jessie’s living room, I sensed very simply the essence of home.

For families like the Gaineses, it’s not about the new drywall and countertops, not the repaired shingles or the newly hung door. That’s but a shell.

What it’s about is feeling secure, knowing your children are safe, warm. It’s where you walk around sock-footed and maybe take a nap in the middle of the day for no real reason at all.

And it’s where you welcome friends — even those you met first during the worst days of your life, when you had just lost everything you owned.

As I stood to leave them, my hat in hand, Carolyn said with meaning, “Maybe next time you can stay for dinner,” to which Jessie added with a smiling heart, “and I’ll fix ya somethin’ cold to drink.”

Their invitation, the sincerity with which they extended it, told me they were home again.

While I’ll never know the end to some of the stories I encountered just after Katrina, it means more than I can measure to know that for some, hearts have mended, some of the hurricane’s burdens have lifted.

Thanks to countless partners, including folks like Carolyn and Jessie Gaines, Habitat for Humanity has built more than 1,300 homes along the coast. Efforts from this week alone will result ultimately in more than 250 more. It’s humbling to be a small part of that — and more so to have met again some of the folks whose modest plea to go home has been answered.

In Mobile Friday afternoon, ten more families will find a similar answer, including Margaret, Audrey and Africa, as they dedicate their new homes in Hillsdale.

If I can get there in time, I hope to end where I began and stop there … on my own way home again.

Shawn Reeves is the executive communications specialist for Habitat for Humanity International.

To see photos of the Mississippi Gulf Coast immediately after Hurricane Katrina, visit http://www.hfhmgc.org/photos/Katrina/.