Sunday, March 1, 2015

KATRINA 5 YEARS LATER: Biloxi residents still live in trailers from Bakersfield

David Brand, left, stands with David Davis.

Biloxi, Miss., insurance man David Brand was wading through water and rubble when he heard a "goofy" idea coming out of Bakersfield, Calif.

About the same time, Pastor Steve Truitt, contractor Jim Childress and a handful of Calvary Bible Church members were looking across an Arvin farm field cooking up the "goofy" idea.

The field Childress had recently purchased was littered with 50 weather-beaten, dilapidated trailer homes left over from the Bracero farm worker program of the 1940s and 1950s.

Childress' idea was to donate the trailers to his church, have volunteers fix them up, then haul the trailers back to the Gulf Coast to provide temporary housing for people left homeless by Hurricane Katrina.

Truitt recalled thinking: "This is something much bigger than my church."

And the project became just that -- much bigger. Other churches joined in, as did businesses. Rotary Clubs opened their wallets and provided manpower.

A loose-knit chain of church, charity and Rotary connections spread word of the project to Biloxi, where Katrina had ground away historic antebellum mansions, modest cottages, restaurants, businesses and resorts. First Presbyterian Church, where Brand was an elder, was the only church facing the water that was left standing.

"This place was decimated," Brand recalled recently. While the media attention was focused on New Orleans, which was flooded when the city's levees broke, the center of hurricane damage was the Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama coast.

"Ninety percent of my friends lost everything," said Ellie Vasilopoulos, a retired Kessler Air Force Base civilian employee. "You would ask someone, 'How did you do?'" She choked back tears when she recalled a friend told her, "Not even a teacup was left."

The damage was so widespread along the Gulf Coast that Brand, Vasilopoulos and their neighbors figured they were pretty much on their own.

"We didn't feel abandoned. We just never expected anyone to help," said Brand. "Why in the world would they come?"

But they did come. And "they" who came quickest were not from the government.

"I don't know what we would have done without all the help from all the communities," said Vasilopoulos, praising church and civic groups for their fast response.

Clothing and supplies arrived by the truckload. Quick-witted Brand became the "go-to guy" in Biloxi in the early days. So it's not surprising that he received the idea -- which he admits sounded pretty goofy -- to fix up and haul 50 aging trailer homes from Bakersfield to Biloxi.

Back in Bakersfield, church member Steve Ogden allowed a field behind his company, Concrete Cutting Unlimited on Well Tech Way in Rosedale, to be used as a staging area, where trailers would be repaired by teams of volunteers. It costs about $4,000 to repair and outfit each trailer. Many of the building supplies and furnishings were donated.

"The first month or two, we didn't know how we were going to pay the bills," Truitt recalled. But then money and donated supplies started pouring in. Area Rotary clubs did a lot of the fundraising. In Biloxi, Brand hustled money to transport the trailers.

Over the next eight months, as a handful of trailers would be fixed up, Bakersfield volunteers would hitch them to trucks and caravan them to Biloxi. They were given to families that had fallen through "FEMA's cracks" -- they did not qualify for federal housing or were on long waiting lists.

Families were handed the keys and told to pass the trailers along to another family when they no longer needed them. Today you can still find some of these trailers scattered about Biloxi's modest neighborhoods.

David Davis invited me into his trailer. The unit now rests on a permanent foundation and sports a front porch. It has been passed along by several owners. Like earlier residents, Davis is mighty grateful to folks in Bakersfield for their efforts.

"God gave us wisdom beyond all measure," said Truitt, adding that a lasting benefit of the trailer project was to bring area churches, groups and individuals together. Some of the same people who helped restore the trailers now work on similar missionary projects together.

As Biloxi rounded the corner into its fifth year since Katrina, Vasilopoulos boasted of the community's comeback. Storm wreckage had been cleared away. Homes and businesses were being rebuilt. Work on a museum, which Biloxi leaders hope will become a tourist attraction, neared completion. Things were definitely looking up.

But that was before British Petroleum's Horizon drilling rig exploded. While the oil has not yet hit the city's beaches, residents can smell it. Gloomy media reports and fishing restrictions keep tourists away.

"It's impacting everyone," Vasilopoulos said. "We are all very concerned. That's all we seem to talk about. And we are scared to death that a hurricane is going to come along and push the oil towards us."

This July 10, 2010 article written by Dianne Hardisty is one in 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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