Après le déluge: The relief goes on

After Hurricane Katrina rocketed ashore, Charlottesvillians, 900 miles away, watched in horror– and sprang into action. Within days of the August 29 deluge, locals were on their way to the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast, and they're still doing damage control for this nation's worst natural disaster.

Not everyone could write a $5-million check, as John and Renee Grisham did to prime the pump for their Rebuild the Coast Fund.

But $895,000 in donations poured in at the Central Virginia Chapter of the American Red Cross for hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma, the bulk of which was designated for Katrina, according to local spokesman Lonnie Kirby.

"There's been a tremendous outpouring," says Kirby. "Even though there's been a significant amount received, there still a need for continued relief."

In fact, for the first time in its history, the national Red Cross has borrowed money– $340 million– to cover costs. Even with $1.3 billion in donations so far, the organization is anticipating a shortfall.

The local chapter also deployed 200 disaster workers to the Gulf Coast– some of whom are still there.

Kirby estimates the Central Virginia chapter has helped 170 evacuated families, often in conjunction with ad hoc organizations that sprang up. Kim Kuttner found housing for eight families in conjunction with the Starlight Express effort. Robert Tobey's Charlottesville Hurricane Relief Initiative has helped 74 families with housing, furniture, and gift certificates.

"I think we have 15 families housed here," estimates Katharine Sandridge with the Initiative, which initially gathered a warehouse of donated goods to refurbish shattered lives. But Sandridge notes, "We're still looking for donations."

Of the families here, whether their future will be in Charlottesville is still to be determined. Says Sandridge, ""From hour to hour, they change their minds."

Pyramid Construction/Wolfie's owner Allen Powell, a Hattiesburg, Mississippi, native, was on the scene with heavy equipment and a crew of 30 within days after Katrina struck.

Now he's working with Delegate Rob Bell to raise funds for the Long Beach Elementary School near the Mississippi Gulf Coast town where Bell spent part of his childhood.

"The school has no building," says Powell. "They lost all their computers, VCRs, and books," and the children are going to other schools in shifts. Worse, the town lost 70 percent of its tax base, and 60 percent of the students are on free and reduced lunches. "The principal is very proud of his school," says Powell– which has high scores despite its low-income demographics.

Pearlington, Mississippi, was unofficially adopted during the Starlight Express relief mission in September. When no one wanted to leave Pearlington to return to Charlottesville, Charlottesville returned to Pearlington and now it's been adopted by another local group: Building Goodness.

People in the construction industry founded the nonprofit in 1996 to send skilled craftspeople on 12 to 15 international building trips a year.

Pearlington is its first domestic project. "I've been to Haiti ten times and Guatemala twice," says Howard Pape, a Building Goodness founder and owner of Central Virginia Waterproofing, following his return from Pearlington in October. "What struck me with Mississippi is how much I identify with these people. Those folks are people just like us."

Building Goodness constructed 11 shelters, which measure 12' by 16'. With winter approaching, "People are living in tents and under blue tarps," says Pape. A second team left November 5, and the group has raised $45,000– enough to build 25 shelters at a cost of $1,600 each.

Pape describes a town almost "completely destroyed" by a 28-foot storm surge that left no electricity, no telephone, little running water, high unemployment, and a "shell-shocked" citizenry.

"One day they woke up and they had jobs and houses and automobiles, and the next day they didn't," he says.

"People have short attention spans," Pape notes. "That's why our efforts are ongoing. It's not the kind of problem you write a check for and forget."

American Red Cross, Central Virginia Chapter, 1105 Rose Hill Drive, Charlottesville 22903, 979-7143

Building Goodness Foundation, PO Box 2246, Charlottesville 22902, buildinggoodness.org

Charlottesville Hurricane Relief Initiative, C/O the nonprofit Entrepreneurial Village, 414 Third St. NE, Charlottesville 22902

Long Beach Elementary School donations, call 434-591-1080

Rebuild the Coast Fund, Inc., PO Box 450, Tupelo, MS 38803 rebuildthecoastfund.org

Building professionals Chris Davis, Howard Pape, and Michael Gray take a break from building shelters in devastated Pearlington, Mississippi.