Sunday, March 1, 2015

KATRINA 5 YEARS LATER: Bakersfield woman helps rebuild Lakeshore

Pamala McCarver recalls that she was crying so hard she could barely see through her car's windshield as she drove along the back roads around Bay St. Louis, Miss.

It was six weeks after Hurricane Katrina ripped thousands of homes from their foundations and tossed many into the ocean. A registered nurse at San Joaquin Hospital in Bakersfield, McCarver traveled to the Gulf Coast to visit her Kern County fire captain husband, Randy, who was helping with recovery efforts.

"It was like the entire San Fernando Valley had been wiped out," McCarver recalled recently. "There were spots of hope, but mostly devastation."

McCarver turned down Lakeshore Road and stopped. The steeple of a church rested on the ground, pointing toward the heavens. Next to it was a tarp-like tent where food and clothing was being distributed.

She approached a young couple, telling them how sorry she was that the church was destroyed.

Pastor Don A. Elbourne Jr. and his wife, Courtney, assured her the Lakeshore Baptist Church had not been destroyed. Hurricane Katrina only destroyed its building.

That exchange kindled a friendship between McCarver and the Elbournes that continues today. Over the past five years, McCarver and her friends in Bakersfield have sent supplies and gifts to the Elbournes and their church members. Holidays are remembered. Telephone calls are exchanged. They have become family.

A new church has been built. Behind it is a distribution center where needy area residents still come for help. A food pantry and dormitories have been added. Under construction is another building, where counseling and job training will be offered.

With the help of people like Pamala McCarver, the little country church that dates back to 1911 has become Rebuild Lakeshore ( It's a place where church groups from throughout the nation come to rebuild homes and help heal lives.

People spend a week or two, or maybe more, sleeping in dormitories at night, cooking their meals in the mess hall and toiling in the heat of the Mississippi sun as house-by-house, street-by-street, this coastal town is put back together.

"We were 'ground zero' when Katrina hit," the pastor explained when I recently visited. Only a mile from the coast, the community was left 30 feet under water. "Every home in the area was gone; more than 4,000 lost."

A poor area, where most family incomes come from the fishing or offshore oil industries, the people of Lakeshore had little to lose, and they lost even that.

The church's stubborn steeple and the tent relief city that sprouted up around initially "became a beacon of hope," Elbourne recalled. But as the weeks and months of recovery dragged on, it also became "a symbol of devastation." The church buildings, themselves, had to be rebuilt.

"We had to make ourselves a hopeful scene if we were going to be in this for the long-term," he said. "What the storm did will affect this community for generations. We are dealing with the community's psychological, as well as physical recovery."

"Some people have lived here for seven generations. Their lives and their incomes are tied to the coast," he said. "They aren't leaving."

And that makes the recent BP oil disaster and the spoiling of the fishing industry such a painful blow to this already fragile community.

When I called a few days ago, church secretary Joell Fricke reported that commercial fishing is at a standstill. The community's shrimpers are idle. The lucky ones have been hired by BP to clean up the oil.

This July 10, 2010 article written by Dianne Hardisty is one of a series that was printed in The Bakersfield Californian about the results of Bakersfield volunteer projects to help rebuild the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Dianne Hardisty and her husband, John Hardisty, traveled to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in April 2010 to report on progress.

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