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Rising from Ruin is an on-going MSNBC.com special report chronicling two coastal Mississippi towns, Bay St. Louis and Waveland, as they rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

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This project is evolving. Our daily dispatches coverage has been retired. Click here to see what happened in the area between mid October and January 1, 2006.

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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."

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62 COMMENTS

Living proof that Americans can't be described as one denomination or another; one color or another; one tribe or another; we are One Nation Under God. I work for an organization that will be sending work crews to help the rebuilding efforts over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. God bless you all for your generosities.

Thanks for the great article. It is nice to see your words in print after talking with you on Friday. We are the ones blessed by being here and volunteering. The people are so appreciative and have been through so much. We had volunteers from 7 states at the Frist Presbyterian Church of Bay St. Louis last Saturday. Happy Travels.

I am looking for a way that my family can plug in and help. Please let me know if there is work that a family (including children ages 8, 14, and 17) can do to help. We have time off after Christmas and are able to help.
Yours in Christ!

Sam, Thank you for all the work you are doing in the Gulf. I was in the intial group from UPC in Seattle to assist in doing ground work for the Shoulder to Shoulder Project in Bay St. Louis. It was a blessing to serve my brothers and sisters in this community that was so devastated by Katrina. I was so touched by the people who we met there. They almost to a one expressed that they felt blessed. We did a lot of cleaning and fixing, but the greatest gift was HOPE.......I will return, Robert Gaston, Seattle, Wa.

I spent 12 days in D'Iberville, Ms. working with the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance at Camp New Hope. We cut fallen trees, gutted houses, sorted and distributed donated goods and cooked meals for ourselves and the displaced locals. I worked hard and loved every minute of it. There were Presbyterians from all over the USA, and many people from other denominations all working towards the common goal of helping our fellow man. I want to go back! Thanks MSNBC for getting the word out about the great work being done along the Gulf Coast. I feel blessed to have been there.

After reading the comments from individuals from all over this country I was reminded of a statement made by Mother Teresa - "We can do no great things, only small things with great love" (paraphrased). As Christians of all denominations, that may be all we can do, but it is also the best we can do.

I recently led a team of 12 from our church in Mechanicsburg, Pa to work with Compassion Ministries out of Trinity Church in Covington, La. We worked in Albita Springs (cutting trees and removing debris)and New Orleans (muck'n and Gut'n houses. But, I felt what we were really doing was bringing hope - it was so rewarding to see the change in those we were helping as the day progressed and they started to see there was that little bit of light at the end of this long tunnel. To learn more or to help go to www.wsefcfeet.blogspot.com (you will find links to Trinity Church in Covington, La; EFCA Compassion Ministry; and West Shore E-Free Church in Mechanicsburg Pa.

It's also so rewarding to see "church" walls breaking down and the "Church" (the Body) working together. At a Evangelical Free church we were building portable shower facilities for Presbyterians while a load of supplies was delivered from an Assembly of God church.

These groups have been a godsend to us living in the Bay St. Louis/Waveland area. It is with sincere humility that I write these words to express my thanks to all those that have come down to help us. There is simply no way to properly express my gratitude. After the initial numbness and shock of losing my house and belonging, the most extraordinary emotion I have experienced is the outpouring of love and caring from those like you who do not even know us, yet go quietly through this world spreading love and caring in the most generous possible way to those who need it most . I am reminded of Hebrews 13:2 that reads: "Be careful how you entertain strangers lest you entertain angels unawares." I have truly experienced the meaning of that scripture through your actions. You are longer strangers to us, but angels who have truly come to light the way back to helping us to reclaim our lives.

With genuine thanks, I send my love, caring, and best wishes to each of you.

Sam -

I used to work for your dad at CHL/CERC, and
remember when you were much younger. I'm now
in BSL, about a mile from where you are. I'll have
to look you up sometime.


All these people who have come in to help us do more than provide for our physical needs. Knowing that so many people care about us is such a balm to my spirit. It's what keeps me from yielding to despair or overwhelment. We are not alone. We truly are one nation, under God. There will never be enough ways to thank everyone for caring enough to leave your own busy lives to come down into this mess and help us. We are so blessed. I know all of you will be blessed. Thank you, thank you, again and again.

My parents live in the Bay, and are working at their home, and through First Baptist. The efforts that volunteers are making will be what help people live through this. My mom said from the very beginning that the government was not going to be what saved them, it would be neighbors, friends, and even strangers. We need to keep this in the public conciousness, though. This will take years to recover from. Keep the help coming!

The Gyins Family would like to thank Linda,Becky,Tina,Deanna,Mike,Brendan,& Brian(from Seattle,WA) for their love and support during this time of great loss. May God Bless You and keep us in your prayers. You showed great team work. You have such big hearts to leave your loved ones behind to be a blessing to us.

I live in Little Rock, Arkansas and I'm planning on taking a week of vacation and come to the Gulf area, perhaps Bay St. Louis and volunteer my help, in what every way I can be of assistance, sometime over the holidays. I will be getting in touch with Sam Thompson but wondered if anyone had any other ideas? I have lots of skills and talents and a strong back.

Paul Boynton

My daughter visited BSL in mid October with a group of 50 from her college, Elon University in NC. They gave up their Fall break. She was so touched and called it a life altering experience. She is going back in December when her Christmas break begins and has asked me (her Mom) to join her. We are centering our efforts at Our Lady of the Gulf Church, with Father Michael Tracey, the Pastor. They, of course, need money and manpower. Father Tracey has a website with updates on the progress in the area. God Bless all of you in the Gulf area and I am so looking forward to being there and helping where I can.

While they could not make the trip to Waveland, the Piecemakers from First Presbyterian Church in Corvallis OR have sent quilts for the elementary school children who lost homes in Pearlington, and Waveland. While there is so much need, these beautiful quilts are a way of offering comfort and
love to children and their families who have lost so much. Our thanks to all who are helping in this long-term recovery effort.

Sam was my fraternity brother in college and has always inspired me. He has always been incredibly driven and it is awe inspiring to see the direction of his drive. I wish him the best and hope his example continues to impact people the way it has impacted me.

"Watch this: God's eye is on those who respect Him, the ones who are looking for His love. He's ready to come to their rescue in bad times; in lean times He keeps the body and soul together. We're depending on God; He's everything we need. What's more, our hearts with joy since we've taken for our own His holy name. Love us God with all you've got-that's what we're depending on." Psalm 33:18-22

15 months ago I sat huddled in a closet with my 3 young grandchildren as hurricane Charley destroyed everything around me. Thousands got help from FEMA only to receive letters from FEMA a few months ago telling them they had to pay back the "loans". Not one church has asked anyone to pay them back for the kindness and hope they brought grieving families.

Dear Sam,

Thanks for all you are doing.

Please call me when you get a chance. Mel and I want to help and I need to speak with you about the best way we can do that. We lost two houses in Bay St. Louis and have great interest in doing what we can to help rebuild the community.

Bud Richey, Alumni Director at Rhodes. 901/843-3845

Dear Sam,

Don't know if the initial message reached you or not. I ask that you call when you have a chance (901/843-3845). Mel and I lost two homes in Bay St. Louis and want to help. I want to speak with you about the best ways we can do that.

Thanks for all the good work you are doing.

Bud Richey, Alumni Director, Rhodes College

The church groups have been a tremendous blessing in the recovery, rebuilding efforts of the Mississippi coast. I strongly suggest anyone wishing to donate and/or contribute please get in touch with some of these Christian groups. They are awesome....!

wife and I am coming thru about Jan 2 3 and would like to spend a few days helping out. I am 75 and she 70 but would be happy to do what we can.
Will be bringing chocolate chip cookies that will be home made.

The wonderful work the churches are doing in Bay St. Louis and Waveland is what will rebuild those communites. I know that Sam is doing a wonderful job of coordinating this gigantic work at the First Presbyterian Church. I was sorry the original article did not comment more on the Pastor of that chruch, Dr. E.A. (Ted) Hanawalt and his wife Betty. They are wonderful caring and helpful people as well, who also lost everything in the storm but have stayed in the area to help in every way they can.
Good work all of you and God Bless.

Hello to all. Just got done looking at the latest installment on Bay Saint Louis and Waveland. Your coverage is incredible. Our church, Restoration Life in Sacramento, CA, has adopted the First Baptist Church in Bay Saint Louis. We sent a team in November to work with the victims, most who had not seen their homes until we accompanied them there. We went though the emotional agony of retrieving salvagable items from their demolished homes as well as mudding out and stripping their homes down to the studs. We were outfitted in tivek suits and respirators while working. It was very fulfilling and heart wrenching. We are getting ready for our next trip on December 31. We are sending another team of 30. We have dedicated our mission teams to this church for the long haul and will be sending another team in April and then June to start rebuilding homes.

My family and I would like to help a family in need for Christmas, in the waveland area, my husband was there in September from Hall County Fire Services in Gainesville Ga, we are currently trying to find a way to get toys there and find a family. Can someone please contact me and let me know how to go about finding a family with Children in need for Christmas presents ? Please and thank you.

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