Hattiesburg – It’s now six months since an EF-4 tornado tore across the Hattiesburg area in south Mississippi, and volunteers from around the country are still pitching in to help repair and rebuild homes.
By early August, close to 1,700 people have volunteered for a total of 17,316 hours. As of July 1, 1,062 volunteers cleaned debris for 9,253 hours and 127 worked on repairs for 3,835 hours. The state saves $21 per volunteer hour, and those official numbers will increase as the year continues.
Restore, Rebuild, Recover South Mississippi (R3SM), a long term recovery agency created by United Way of Southeast Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, has teamed up with Volunteer Hattiesburg to coordinate the rebuilding work for residents in need. R3SM Volunteer Coordinator Alex Corban said groups have volunteered to help from as far away as Florida, Pennsylvania, and Colorado.
“I have the most fun job at R3SM because I get to see the finished product, and I get to be with the homeowners while they’re working on their homes, and it’s quite rewarding,” Corban said.
Corban said FEMA provided a list of damaged homes to R3SM and Volunteer Hattiesburg, and the homeowners are contacted to see if they still need assistance. Then case managers and construction estimators survey the damage and the ones which meet selection criteria are given over to the hands of able volunteers.
The last week of July, a group from Winnsboro United Methodist Church in Louisiana visited some of the homes on the list. Among them was the home on East 6th Street where Bessie Duncan has lived for 33 years.
“This room, it had a lot of plastic here, and broken windows. But now it’s a lot of light. I love it,” she said, indicating the place where workers had reinstalled her windows.
Joey Gardunio of West Monroe, La., expressed why the experience means so much to youth group members who are able to be a part of the reconstruction.
“It’s a real honor and privilege to come into this environment that has been torn and beat up and you can tell it needs work, and at the end of the week you can look around and say, ‘I’m 17 years old and look what I did,’” said Gardunio.
“It’s a beautiful process seeing someone come bring restoration to someone who’s lost their home, or just the psychological part of the process of going through the storm,” said Edward Smith, a volunteer coordinator whose home was also in the path of the February tornado. “To be with them and work with the homeowners has been a big plus.”
On Feb. 10, the tornado with winds up to 200 mph damaged and destroyed more than 1,000 homes, mainly in Forrest and Lamar counties. It was one of eight tornadoes that touched down in southern Mississippi and southwestern Alabama that day.
Forrest County Emergency Management Director Terry Steed said he is still grateful that no lives were lost and that the help is always welcome.
“It is obvious that many people reacted correctly when the warning was issued. With all the destruction only minor injuries were reported and no deaths. This was truly an act of God,” said Steed. “People helping people is a wonderful sight.”
There is still a great need for volunteers and funding to meet the needs of all the residents in the program.
Individuals and groups who would like to donate funds or time are urged to visit www.volunteerhattiesburg.org.