Local Rotary volunteers spend week on hurricane recovery
The taxi driver pointed out the window into the Gulf of Mexico, where large pillars supported a huge, empty concrete slab. A casino used to be there, she said, but when the hurricane came in, it was lifted up by the water and floated away.
For Evan Jankowski, 19, of Tarentum, the taxi ride from the airport was one of the most difficult parts of his Rotary trip to Biloxi, Miss.: his first look at the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.
"It's 18 months later, and it still looks like a war zone," he says. "You're just in awe of what's not there anymore compared to what people say used to be there. I can't imagine a casino just floating around, but it happened."
Jankowski spent March 18-25 in the Biloxi area with his uncle and Rotary member Jim Granville, and Paul Sakala. The three men were part of a six-member team sent by Rotary District 7300 and the Burrell Area Rotary Club. They were there to help rebuild homes still suffering from Katrina damage more than 18 months after the disaster.
"The need is still there, more than I think most people realize," says Granville, 56, of Lower Burrell. "There's still years and years of work to be done."
The entire Gulf coast was devastated when Katrina came crashing through in August of 2005, and many are still struggling to recover. Sakala, 50, of Lower Burrell, describes thousands of people still living in FEMA trailers next to their uninhabitable homes.
"I don't know how they do it; they're living in their little trailers, just working on their home as they get a few dollars here and there," Sakala says. "I was there to help."
"Seeing the devastation on TV and hearing all the help people needed, I just didn't feel right not doing anything," Granville agrees.
Rotary District 7300 has sent eight teams of volunteer workers to the Biloxi area since raising $130,000 for Katrina relief efforts in fall 2005. For each team, they forward $5,000 to the local rotary to pay for building materials, in addition to paying traveling expenses for all team members. There are plans for at least six more teams to make the trip in the upcoming months.
"The individuals coming back have all told me that the experience is one they'll never forget," says Bob Rupp, district governor for Rotary District 7300. "For people down there in a devastated state, it's an emotional lift to them to see people care enough to come and help."
Granville, Jankowski and Sakala slept in the basement of the First Presbyterian Church, one of the few buildings in the area relatively undamaged by the hurricane, and received work assignments from the church every morning.
According to Granville, the trailers provided by FEMA are more the size of a camper than a mobile home; most residents are eager to move back in to their homes, but lack the skills or cash to make them habitable. And even if both were provided, refurbishing an entire house is a daunting task. Rot, mold, eroded foundations and unstable roofs often require damaged houses to be almost completely rebuilt.
"I think a lot of people don't realize that where we were (Biloxi) got hit worse than New Orleans," Jankowski says.
Sakala traveled to Biloxi with his wife Cindy, an active Burrell Area Rotary member, last June after the disaster took place, and says that not much has changed since then.
"They've cleaned the beach areas up, and there are lots of hotels and casinos up and running again, but as far as people's homes, not too many are being rebuilt," Sakala says. "Most people are elderly or middle class, and when they lost their home, they lost everything they had."
Working alongside church and rotary groups from around the country, Granville, Jankowski and Sakala worked at everything from attaching gutters and digging drainage ditches, to gutting houses of all drywall, insulation and electrical wiring. There is a growing need for skilled workers, particularly electricians and plumbers.
"There was a house where we worked on the outside, and if we'd had electricians, we could have finished the whole thing in a week," Granville says. "As it is, they're still waiting."
Granville, Jankowski and Sakala also took the time to talk to the residents they were helping, sometimes finding unexpected things in common.
"Everybody down there was a Steelers fan," Jankowski says.
All three men agree that the trip was more than worth it, and all three hope to help again in September on the next Rotary-sponsored trip.
"To go from what we have up here to what they have down there opens up your eyes and makes you realize you shouldn't take much for granted," Jankowski says. "You never know what you could lose or when you could lose it."
To help Biloxi recovery efforts
The Rotary Club's District 7300 is coordinating recovery efforts. For information about becoming a member of a work crew or to make financial contributions, contact Walt Sickles, 706 Ridge Road, Ambridge, Pa., 15003.
The Rotary district office phone number is 412-471-6210.
Donations also can be sent to: First Presbyterian Church Biloxi, 1340 Beach Blvd., Biloxi, MS 39530, Attn: Katrina relief.