Many longtime Gulf Coast residents were surprised and devastated by Katrina's wrath, but the continued outpouring of volunteer support has given them hope.
"This is just about the worst thing you can experience and live to tell about," said Thomas Holley, Jr., a middle-aged resident of Gulfport, Miss. Clad in a flannel shirt and a hat with the word "NAVY" emblazoned on the front, he was showing a group of Tufts volunteers the demolition job with which he needed their help.
As Hurricane Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast last August, Holley stayed in his house while his elderly parents remained next door in their home. When the floodwaters came, leaving the family scrambling to save their belongings, the water nearly reached eye level. "We swam down the street. It was unreal," Holley said, showing the students the spot on his now gutted house where the water level peaked.
His father, Thomas Holley, Sr., is a retired steam plant worker. He supervised the demolition while offering donuts and king cake, a traditional Mardi Gras treat, to the group.
"The ceiling was falling in, all the windows blew out," he recalled. "It sounded like a jet plane was in the house. We kept trying to put rugs up against the windows to keep the storm out—you'll try anything when you're in real trouble. We nailed them to the windows but we're pretty sure we heard a tornado come right by.
"You know, after the storm I sat down and I said, 'we're not rich and we didn't have much, but we lost everything we had, that's hard to deal with,'" he continued. "We stayed because this is everything we worked for our whole lives. We couldn't just leave that. And we're hurricane people; we've lived through storms before. My son named his daughter Lillian Camille, after two hurricanes.
"But we won't stay next time," Holley added quietly. "Not after this one."
This is a common sentiment among Gulf Coast residents, many of whom had endured several hurricanes before. As they rode out the storm in their homes, they had no idea that one storm could be so destructive.
"I really didn't have any idea what to expect coming down here. Seeing the devastation and destruction from Katrina has really been a shock to me and really difficult to see," said freshman Rachel Machta, one of more than a hundred Tufts students and alumni who traveled to the Gulf Coast over winter break to aid in recovery efforts. "But to hear people talk about what they've lost and see how thankful they are for our help is really incredible."
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While southern Mississippi towns like Gulfport, Waveland, Pass Christian and Biloxi are beset by poverty, they were also once known for their beautiful beaches, booming tourism and traditional antebellum houses. Katrina left everything in shambles.
Five months later, the region is still littered with destruction, while residents await a helping hand and some hope for the future.
"I saw innumerable abandoned office buildings and homes," recalled organizer Rachel Rosen. "Even five months after the hurricane, there is still debris everywhere, and at this point the most necessary effort is clean up."
With government relief slow to reach many of these towns, residents say it is the individual volunteer groups that have made a real difference.
"Just seeing y'all here fills us with so much hope," said Holley, Sr. "We're so grateful for your help."
Profile written by Rebecca Dince, Class of 2006
Rebecca Dince, a native of Brooklyn, New York, is a political science major and a communications and media studies minor. She has been a features editor at the Tufts Daily and has written for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Rebecca spent the fall of 2004 studying at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. She spent the summer interning for NBC News' Political Unit in New York City.
Photos by Melody Ko, University Photographer
This story originally ran on Feb. 6, 2006