Friday, July 21, 2006

A New Home In Pearlington

From the Clarion Ledger

PEARLINGTON — As framed houses slowly go up along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a new yellow house belonging to Rupert Ray "Tater" Smith and his wife, Ann, stands out among the trailers, debris and vacant lots where their neighbors once lived.

"It just floated like a barge," said Tater Smith, 71. "We started (rebuilding) from the ground up."
The Smiths are unlike a lot of this town's estimated 2,000 residents - and many others - along the Gulf Coast looking to rebuild their lives. Thousands of residents are weary and restless, left waiting for insurance settlements and federal block grants 10 months after the storm.

Scott Hamilton, spokesman for the Mississippi Development Authority, said federal grant money won't come until the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development rules on an objection to the implementation of the program filed by a national mortgage bankers association. The MDA had hoped to make grants available this week.

Some people haven't waited on the grants to rebuild, though. They have used insurance settlements, savings and credit cards to move ahead. Others got loans from the Small Business Administration, banks or their families. Many, like the Smiths, have gotten help from thousands of volunteers.

"If it had not been for these volunteers, I don't know what we would do," said Tater Smith, whose Hancock County town was hit with a 28-foot storm surge. "We didn't have the money to go buy property. We live on fixed incomes. All we get is Social Security."
The Smiths recently had a grant application appointment in Bay St. Louis. Tater Smith said he didn't think he and his wife would get anything.

The Smiths got $8,000 from their insurance company and $10,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to replace their home, which was valued around $60,000. He has about $4,000 left, which won't cover all the flooring and interior work left to be completed before he and his wife can move in.

"It's been a long, hard road for us," Tater Smith said.

The Smiths were not in the flood zone and are eligible to apply for one of the $150,000 grants.
Mississippi's grant program, administered through the MDA, was approved by HUD in April. About 16,000 residents began applying that same month for an estimated $3 billion.
Meanwhile, Hamilton said some grant applicants could get as much as 35 percent more money to make up for the rising cost of construction. Eligible residents who didn't apply still can do so, he said.

But volunteers across the Coast, who stepped up to help residents immediately after the storm, continue to lead the way in hurricane recovery. They have taken the lead in home reconstruction as grant approvals and distributions have been delayed.

Edith Cook, 66, is among those who have benefited from strangers' generosity. She said she never dreamed she would live in a house on her Pass Christian property again after the storm. The storm took away the house of the retired caregiver.

"There was nothing but the blocks," she said. "The house was up the street. I was definitely not going to rebuild. I thought I would rent for the rest of my life."

Volunteers from a Falls Church, Va., church are rebuilding the homes of Cook and two others, volunteer Eldon Stoffel said. He recently was among a group working at Cook's new house, which stands on blocks at least 10 feet high.

Stoffel, a professional painter, said his church has raised more than $220,000 to rebuild the three houses.

Cook said one of her daughters applied to have the group rebuild the house for free.
"It's unbelievable," she said. "Rebuilding was not in my plan. I didn't see where I could afford it. It's a gift. The Falls Church group are all angels. Every one of them."

Gary Reynolds, 50, of Biloxi is using flood insurance money and his skills as a general construction contractor to rebuild his home that faces the Back Bay of Biloxi. The storm pushed close to 4 feet of water into his house.

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