BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. — You can see the beach from First Presbyterian Church on Ulman Avenue. It's just about the only place in Waveland, Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian and Pearlington that Sam Thompson's shock troops haven't invaded.
Thompson, 25, a wiry, crew-cut ultra-marathoner, sells running gear on the Web from his home in Dallas. But that's on hold indefinitely. He's now living at First Presbyterian in Bay St. Louis as head of a massive assistance project undertaken by its sister First Presbyterian Church in Vicksburg, nearly 250 miles to the north.
Thompson happened to be visiting Vicksburg, where he used to live, when Hurricane Katrina hit the coast, and he got the call to head south.
At any one time, Thompson oversees as many as a hundred volunteers from churches from literally across the country — Friday, it was 60, from Washington state to New Jersey. Saturday, it will be 100 as a fresh rotation of workers rolls in.
They're mostly Presbyterians, but Thompson's crews span the spectrum of denominations. They all live in First Presbyterian, sleeping on cots, bunk beds and air mattresses. The church had nearly all of its members leave town, and since the building itself was in relatively good shape, its pastor, Ted Hanawalt, decided to put it to good use.
"It's fitting to make this a work camp to serve the community," Thompson says.
The teams spread out each day and go to work on severely damaged homes that might have a chance of being salvaged if they can get to them before the demolition crews. They essentially do triage — picking the most dangerous homes, then coming in with saws, crowbars and bleach to tear out moldy walls, rip up uselessly waterlogged flooring and generally gut the places. Where they can, they then do basic rebuilding, like hanging Sheetrock and making basic structural repairs. They make the homes viable for the major work that awaits contractors.
Thompson, his arms coated with sawdust from a tree he was cutting, meets us in the kitchen at First Presbyterian, where a wall hanging bears what must be the operation's battle plan. It's the Serenity Prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
"My basic premise is everybody down here needs help," Thompson says.
But some cases are more urgent than others, and tough decisions must be made. Sometimes, he has to accept that a home is too far gone. Often, Thompson says, he has to pull back on the reins.
"The tendency when people come down and see all this is to grab a Bobcat" — one of those big skid-steer loaders or forklifts — "and begin ripping stuff down," he says. But you have to start smaller. It's "one nail at a time."
One down, dozens to go
Friday was an exciting day for the project. While they were working on a lot of homes where residents have stayed put despite the conditions, one crew was putting the finishing touches on a house at 506 Genin St., where, for one of the first times, they were going to make it possible for a family to move back into what had been an uninhabitable remnant of a home.
As they near the finish, Joe Davignon, a burly, bearded engineer from the Liberty Corner Presbyterian Church in Liberty Corner, N.J., surveys the place and declares, "This is a home."
The house reeks of fresh paint, and while "some people don't like the smell of paint, when you compare it to mold, it smells fairly nice," says Pete Enderlin, who came from the same church.
Over the course of the past month, Liberty Corner has sent 44 people to First Presbyterian. Davignon, like many of them, had never been to the Deep South, and he was itching to finish up and make it out to Sicily's Italian Buffet for the first time, breaking a steady diet of donated food prepared at the church kitchen.
Davignon rejects the idea that he's doing anything special. "No. No," he repeats. "It's neighbors helping neighbors."
Back to basics
We then head over to Sycamore Street. It's in a mostly black and poverty-stricken neighborhood, and Thompson's crew members are just about the only white faces you see here.
At 659 Sycamore, near the dead-end end of the street, they were ripping out and disinfecting the mold-infested interior of a small pink house where Rina Gyins’ elderly parents live. Gyins, 49, heard about the church project from a friend of her brother, and they've been a godsend. They fixed up her house previously.
Most of these folks on this crew come from University Presbyterian in Seattle, which has committed to keep people down here as long as they're needed. One of them, Michael Spilde, who's in the financial factoring industry, isn't a member, but he came with them anyway. The water reached 2-1/2 feet high in the home, he says.
Little of the interior could be saved. Except for one bedroom they hadn't gotten to yet, the house is an empty shell. They've ripped out nearly everything, and now they are spraying it down with bleach to kill the rampant mold. In this house, the work is "one staple at a time," says Deanna Fraker, who, at 63, is the most senior volunteer in town this week. But, she notes, she's a spring chicken compared with some who'd come earlier. One of them was 82.
'There were children living in these houses'
There's still a lot to be done here as we head back to Genin Street to meet Tony and Mabel Monti. They're retired — Tony was a printer, and Mabel was a teaching assistant at an elementary school. She pitched in as a substitute teacher at the tent school before classes reopened in the school buildings this week.
They've been here at 500 Genin since 1964, and theirs is a common refrain. "We built this house," Mabel Monti says. "It went through Camille (in 1969) without a drop of water." This time, however, the water got in and rose 18 inches. If it had gotten much higher, she says, their last resort would have been to climb up on the washing machine and the dryer in the utility room.
The Montis at first tried to fix things up on their own, but that was far too big a job. Thompson notes that even Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer, was stopped in its tracks here, and "if they can't do it, how can Tony and Mabel do it by themselves?"
So now they have the church workers buzzing around. Never before have so many people with Northern accents been under its roof at one time, and "they've been wonderful help to us," Mabel Monti says. "They've been a lifesaver."
There are Southerners on this crew, too. One of them is Brendan Benshoof. He's 15 years old, one of only two minors with the project this week, and he's taking a week off from his freshman studies at South Gwinnett High School in Snellville, Ga., where he attends Westminster Presbyterian Church.
Why is he here, especially since he will have to get up at 4:30 in the morning for many days to make up the lost class time back home?
"There were children living in these houses!" he says. "I watched the news (in class), and we'd see New Orleans and we'd go, 'How terrible.' But you never really realize it till you see it for yourself."
A marathon effort
Thompson has put his life on hold until at least December. That's his basic agreement, but he says he'll stay here as long as he's able to do some good. So he doesn't really know how long he will have to juggle as many as 20 projects simultaneously, while keeping the peace among dozens of strangers who are trying to live harmoniously together in the tight confines of the First Presbyterian building.
This is a bigger deal than you might think. He might have, all at the same time, Southerners and Yankees, East Coasters and West Coasters, teens and senior citizens crammed together. And they can get cranky. "Most of them aren't used to physical labor, so 8 to 5 is a long day," Thompson says. "There are some problems, but I think that's human nature with lots of adults in a small space."
Once he concludes he's done everything he can here and has to give way to the heavy machinery of the contractors, he plans to contribute in another way. Before he came to Bay St. Louis, Thompson was running in training almost all day. Sometime next year, he hopes to organize a fund-raiser for Katrina relief in which he'll be sponsored for each mile of the ultimate ultramarathon: 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days.
"My training has not been up to snuff," he says, but still he's confident he can pull it off. He once ran the entire 2,160 miles of the Appalachian Trail, averaging 37 miles a day. A marathon is only 26 miles. He says it's nothing special for him to run a long, long way for the people of the Gulf Coast. After all, he says, "They're going to need help for a long, long time."
Trackbacks are links to weblogs that reference this post. Like comments, trackbacks do no appear until approved by us. The trackback URL for this post is: http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83451b0aa69e200d8346929ef53ef