Local priest says victims still ‘a long way from recovery’

As part of a service trip, Domenic Fiumara and Father Philip Earley from St. Thomas of Villanova Parish in Wilmington work on the reconstruction of a home in Biloxi, Miss. damaged by Hurricane Katrina last year. Photo courtesy/Father Philip Earley

BOSTON — Many local Catholics spent a week of their summer vacation in a warm climate on the coast. However, rather than getting a tan or going for a swim, they worked in high humidity to rebuild homes for those displaced by Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005.

Over 100,000 FEMA trailers are still home to those whose houses are in need of anything from repair to complete rebuilding, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Most trailers are provided to eligible storm victims for up to 18 months.

“The enormity of the devastation down there cannot be overstated. I’ve never seen such devastation in my life,” said Father Philip Earley, pastor at St. Thomas of Villanova Parish in Wilmington who accompanied 16 parishioners on a service trip to Biloxi, Miss. “Don’t forget the people down there and their plight. Even though it might be old news, they’re a long way from recovery.”

Parishes throughout the Archdiocese of Boston have organized service trips to respond to the still-present need a year after the storm. The St. Thomas group repaired homes from July 16-23.

Father Earley said that it was particularly moving to speak with Katrina victims about what they had been through. One woman, Ann Humphrey, whose house they worked on, had lost her home and had no insurance, he said.

“It was very moving because you see the loss. Here’s a woman who raised her family, worked all her life, paid off the house, the mortgage, and then to have it all, as she gets older, wiped out — to start over again,” he said.

Humphrey was “a sweetheart of a lady” who was “very grateful” for the assistance, he added.

“It was worth the sweat and that heat to get them into permanent housing, because that’s reflective of their dignity as human beings. They deserve that,” he said.

The St. Thomas group worked with the First United Methodist Church in Biloxi, which provides housing and supplies to volunteers from around the country. Ray Marshall, the church’s disaster recovery team leader, has organized the effort with the help of his wife.

“We have personally moved five families out of their trailers and into their repaired houses and another four could be in by the end of the month,” he said in an e-mail to a St. Thomas parishioner following their visit. “We’re making progress slowly, one house at a time.”

This is not the first time St. Thomas parishioners have traveled out of state to help those in need. The church has organized summer service trips to Kentucky since 2000. The organization in charge of these trips is called the St. Thomas Appalachian Mountain Project (STAMP).

Agnes Fiumara, who was in charge of organizing the STAMP trip, said that this year the group decided to respond to the pressing need in Biloxi.

“In Kentucky what we were doing was helping people to improve their living conditions. In Biloxi we were basically helping people who had a home, had everything and lost everything. They were starting with nothing,” she said.

Ann Humphrey had only the clothes on her back and a couple of pictures that had hung on the walls of her home. The pictures were salvaged after the seven feet of floodwaters receded, she said.

“Every house and business in Biloxi had some type of damage,” she added. “Many of the houses were completely destroyed. Businesses were completely destroyed.”

Fiumara added that Ray Marshall thanked them for volunteering in Biloxi.

“He said that his worst fear is that volunteers would stop coming,” she said. “You don’t see it on the news anymore.”

The St. Thomas group worked on two houses and five other smaller jobs, including painting the First United Methodist Church’s doors. They worked on hanging doors, painting walls, replacing rotted boards and installing cabinets, sheet rock and lattice.

STAMP holds fundraisers throughout the year to pay for the trip and necessary supplies. They hold a dance, yard sale, car wash and receive donations from different groups. They raised enough money this year to donate $3,000 to continued Katrina relief.

Bob Troy, a parishioner and general contractor, said that keeping up on the Katrina news did not prepare him for the “impressive need” in Biloxi.

“I didn’t realize until I actually saw it, how bad it really was,” he said.

“We landed in Gulfport, Miss. and drove over to Biloxi,” he said. “With what would have been beach front property on the left — there was nothing there. There were just slabs of houses for the 15 miles from the airport to Biloxi, and as far back as you could see, four to five city blocks.”

The group also heard about the damage at St. Thomas Parish in Long Beach, Miss. and visited the kindred parish.

“The school’s gone. The Family Life Center is gone. The church is gone,” Father Earley said. “The loss is terrific.”

Fiumara said that the amount of damage is “mind-boggling.”

“It was a changing experience to see that type of need in this country,” she said. “It makes you appreciate everything today. I’ve always believed that, but it makes me want to live like that every day.”

AP materials contributed to this report.

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