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Residents offer their beds to help out a neighbor

By Erin O'Connor

Staff Writer

WESTFIELD Andrew Kurtz, a local business owner, put his carpentry skills to the test when he used his hands and tools to rebuild fallen homes in Gautier (go-CHAY), Miss. after destruction left by Hurricane Katrina.

On Aug. 29, 2005 Gautier was one of the many cities devastated by the Katrina.

"They, [residents] were thrilled," Kurtz, said about the volunteers efforts. While rebuilding, the volunteers stayed in local residents' houses while the original residents moved temporarily to hotel rooms.

"People would give their houses and facilities while we fixed others houses," Kurtz, said. "They are people with compassion wanting to help others out. I found the people of the South to be extremely hospitable. Southern hospitality is not a myth."

Kurtz, an owner of Westfield's Hometown Structures, used skills he mastered while performing carpentry on retail storage sheds, garages, horse barns and gazebos to work with the volunteer labor group.

"Background is certainly helpful," he said. "I heard over and over while down there the one thing that they need the most of and are the hardest to get are skilled laborers."

Kurtz left for the city that sits on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, on Jan. 16 and returned Feb. 19. During that time he worked with Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) a channel through which various constituencies of the Anabaptist church can respond to those affected by disasters in Canada and the United States.

As work coordinator, he worked with a group of 12-24 men to put new roofs on structures and construct a house frame with all structures meeting new hurricane codes enforced by the government and insurance companies.

"The majority of our work while we were there was exterior work," Kurtz said. "Re-roofing was a major portion of the job, there were siding jobs, a house framing project and sheet rock jobs."

"There is certainly a difference in people," he said, comparing his visit this year to one he took here one year ago. "An occurrence like this brings out the best in some people and the worst in others. There are a lot of people that are very upbeat and energetic that are really getting their life back together and other people who were victimized by other people."

Kurtz spoke of an 80-year old woman who was living in substandard conditions. When her husband received their Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) check he took off with the FEMA money and a younger relative.

"There is a definite improvement in the last year with people in the middle class," he said. "Last year some of the wealthier people came back very quickly, the middle class had a little more difficulty."

Kurtz said that people who can purchase materials with insurance money and have labor done by the volunteers do better than those who cannot, those people who do not have insurance and are living on disability.

"The worst off still are the poor people," he said. According to a Gautier census 15.1 percent of families and 17.3 percent of the population were below the poverty line in 2000 including 28.4 percent of those under age 18 and 13.6 percent of those age 65 or over.

"A lot are still living in FEMA trailers," he said. "They are working through the grant process trying to get money too. Everyone down there says that the faith based groups coming in are doing far more than the government has done," he added.

Although Kurtz's volunteer group went down strictly as a labor group there are more than a few different types of relief organizations in the area such as the Salvation Army that are offering material grants.

He recommends consulting the Salvation Army or local churches if interested in helping with the restoration efforts. MDA will continue to assist with the reconstruction and Kurtz plans on going back.

"Christ taught us that there is more blessing in giving than in receiving and I can say that, that is truly so and when you come away helping other people you go away as blessed as those you have helped," he said.

Despite the destruction of Katrina, the historic home of the city's founder, Fernando Upton Gautier, remains untouched.