Faith-Based Volunteers Help Rebuild Gulf Coast A year after Hurricane Katrina, many homeowners in Gulf Coast still haven't received insurance money or government grants for rebuilding. Much of the reconstruction work in Louisiana and Mississippi is being done by faith-based volunteers.
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Faith-Based Volunteers Help Rebuild Gulf Coast

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Faith-Based Volunteers Help Rebuild Gulf Coast

Faith-Based Volunteers Help Rebuild Gulf Coast

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Part of NPR's anniversary coverage follows the money trail. Our series, called Katrina: Where Did the Money Go, today looks at private resources. Many residents still haven't received insurance money or promised government grants to pay for rebuilding, so much of the work is being done by faith-based volunteers.

NPR's David Schaper has more.

DAVID SCHAPER reporting:

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, more than a half a million people have traveled to the Gulf Coast to volunteer in Hurricane Katrina recovery and relief efforts. One of the more recent is 71-year-old Donald Bliss from the small town of Greene, Iowa.

Mr. DONALD BLISS (Katrina Recovery Worker): Yeah, we just wanted to help. We're a church group.

SCHAPER: As a retired construction superintendent, Bliss figured his skills might be needed so he loaded his tools in his pickup, painted Going To Rebuild Biloxi on the sides of it and joined nine other people from his and two other Lutheran churches around Greene and Allison, Iowa, to head down to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Bliss says what he and the others found surprised them.

Mr. BLISS: I don't know exactly how to put it, but there's more need down here than I can describe.

(Soundbite of power tools)

SCHAPER: Bliss and the other volunteers, some of whom had never driven a nail before, hung drywall, caulked windows, hung doors and put in baseboard and trim in a home that Hurricane Katrina's storm surge flooded and ruined from floor to ceiling.

Like many others in this impoverished area of East Biloxi, there was no way the home's elderly owner could afford this gut rehab job on her own. It's hard work, especially for northerners suffering in Mississippi's intense heat and humidity, but well worth it, says Pastor Mark Walker, because of what it means to the home's owner, Miss Sarah.

Pastor MARK WALKER (Katrina Recovery Worker): She said the whole neighborhood is watching. And when one person moves in, everybody has another bit of hope.

Mr. BILL STALLWORTH: (City Councilman, East Biloxi, Mississippi): We could not have survived without the help of the volunteers.

SCHAPER: Bill Stallworth is the city councilman representing this area, where insurance claim checks have been small or nonexistent and people say faith-based groups have helped them much more than any government has.

Mr. STALLWORTH: I pray to God every day that He keeps sending volunteers.

Lutheran Disaster Response is one of the many faith-based charities that promised to bring a steady stream of volunteers into Gulf Coast communities for years to come. In order to make such a long-term commitment to rebuilding, LDR also has to make long-term accommodations to house, feed and bathe all of those volunteers.

Mr. JOHN COYLE (Director, Camp Biloxi): I'll start with our luxury ones first here.

SCHAPER: John Coyle is director of Camp Biloxi for Lutheran Disaster Response in what was the large yard behind Good Shepherd Lutheran Church on Biloxi's Pass Road. Coyle unlocks a door on the side of what's essentially a cargo container like you might find on a train or an 18-wheeler.

Mr. COYLE: You can see this room is not very high. It's only about eight foot wide and this room is about 15 foot long.

SCHAPER: Yet this will be the sleeping quarters for volunteers as Lutheran Disaster Response can accommodate up to 200 people a week at Camp Biloxi. It's committing to being here and at three other camps on the Gulf Coast for the next five to eight years. Coyle says this is the first time Lutheran Disaster Response has ever done anything like this and the cost, he says, is substantial.

Mr. COYLE: I'm guessing that a camp like this probably costs, with the amount of construction we can do in a year, probably in the neighborhood of $600,000 to $750,000.

SCHAPER: Look behind other churches up and down the Gulf Coast, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, and you'll see more tents, RVs and campers as they too try to accommodate as many volunteers as they can for as long as they can. Volunteers like Don Bliss of Greene, Iowa.

Mr. BLISS: God has blessed this place. Even though it's under turmoil and needs a lot of work, it's blessed. You know, we are standing on holy ground. God has brought us here to do what God's work needs to be done.

SCHAPER: It was word of mouth that got Bliss and the others from Iowa to rebuild in Biloxi. Now they hope their stories about the overwhelming need for more help will convince others from their congregations to volunteer in the Gulf Coast.

David Schaper, NPR News.

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