Locals lighten Katrina burden

Locals lighten Katrina burden

More than 1,200 miles from the Gulf Coast, Gloucester County volunteers have shared the strain on the South throughout the past year, scattering their compassion between local contributions and hands-on help in the devastated region.

"It was nice to be part of a galvanized effort to funnel tangible help in that direction," said Rowan University engineering Professor John Schmalzel, a faculty adviser for relief efforts tackled by nearly 70 university students.

The projects -- some minor rebuilding for southern Mississippi school districts, others home-gutting in New Orleans coordinated by Habitat for Humanity and AmeriCorps volunteers -- moved more than broken boards and soggy carpets.

"It changes your commitment to helping out on these kinds of scales," Schmalzel said. "It sort of cemented in me that this is something we should be doing on a much more regular basis."

The experience was "eye-opening for students on geographic and cultural lines," Schmalzel said. He noted many of the students who participated had never traveled out of the tri-state area or done volunteer work of this nature.

While spending the summer in New Orleans for work (not to volunteer), the professor drove by the houses students had stripped of debris.

"One was in the process of being refurbished, so the people took the work kids did and amplified that," Schmalzel said. "One of the properties was gone, and three had not yet been rebuilt."

Despite the complete devastation that still exists in that parish, Schmalzel stayed in Saint Charles, which he said residents refer to as the "Isle of Denial."

"Because the area was not flooded, those people are saying, 'What is the problem? Where is everybody? Why did it take so long for my favorite hair salon to open?'"

Schmalzel anticipates faculty and students would undertake further efforts this year, but is still uncertain of the scale, scope or focus.

"One group sent letters of thanks to our second-graders in early spring," said Kathy Durand, project coordinator and recently retired school librarian. Enclosed were bookmarks and words of appreciation.

But Durand said the district hasn't otherwise heard any updates on the physical condition of the damaged schools or how the year went.

"It was kind of awkward. We didn't want to bug them because they were receiving help from so many sources. We knew they needed it and appreciated it."

Following their trek to the Gulf Coast, the faculty shared with the children what destruction they witnessed, compiling their photos for display and showing their video.

"We did our best to make sure our kids understood what need there had been, and that they had really done a good thing," Durand said. "Hearing their reactions, they just couldn't believe what they were seeing."

Lumberton, Miss., and its 2,300 residents are faring "as well as can be expected" a year after Katrina battered the coastal town, according to Nora Craig, aid coordinator for Franklin Township's efforts in sending relief supplies.

"I spoke with Town Hall a few weeks ago, and on the whole they're doing very well," Craig said. "But individuals still have insurance company challenges, because each is insured for various and sundry things."

Officially adopted at Franklin's Community Day in early September, Lumberton sustained damage such as roofs being ripped off, and witnessed price-gouging following the disaster.

The Katrina Aid Drive for Lumberton raised and distributed more than $10,000 worth of materials, Craig said, including cash donations as well as tarps to protect roofs, food, cook stoves, kitchen items and cleaning products -- all collected via relief funds organized by the township and drop-off sites in the community, not to mention packed up and shipped down by volunteers.

"A lot of other organizations have, and continue to, support more monetary-wise than we do, but it made a real big difference to people in Lumberton that they knew there was a bunch of people thinking about them," Craig said. "It raised spirits in a time of crisis. A lot of times that moral support is more important than financial."

Mariann Gettings, director of the house of charity for the Camden Diocese, had such a rewarding experience helping the neighborhoods of New Orleans rebuild as part of Catholic Charities' first "Operation Helping Hands" team, she wants to go back.

"One of things we were wondering afterward was who got more out of it -- them or us," said Gettings, of Deptford Township. "We knew we had helped them, but we really saw first-hand how much we were making a difference."

In the two homes gutted by volunteers, dark lines on the walls showed waters had risen near ceiling level, while food and furniture were strewn about.

"When the people would hear you were down there helping, they were so grateful," Gettings said. "Even if you weren't fixing up their homes. They were just appreciative you were helping their community."

The social service arm of the Camden Diocese continues to reach out to the greater New Orleans area, with a goal to send 450 volunteers to devastated regions in New Orleans and Mississippi over the next 18 months.

Most Rev. Bishop Joseph Galante is calling on the community to be among 30 teams of between 10 and 15 volunteers to clean up and repair homes -- including removing appliances, furniture and walls and sanitizing to kill bacteria and mold.

"One year later, it is easy to forget. It is easy to let complacency set in. It is easy to say, let others do the work," Galante said. "But the need there is still immense and we feel compelled to join in solidarity with our sisters and brothers there as we commit ourselves to doing what we can to help."

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Date Published: Monday, August 28, 2006 - 01:00