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Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: Haitian-Americans Help To Rebuild Gulf Coast by Will Vash

They arrived hours before the sun, black faces peering through the van windows at silhouettes of debris-strewn lots where antebellum mansions once stood.

More than 230 volunteers, mostly from South Florida, descended last week in this small town in the deepest of the Deep South to help rebuild the Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast. They came with hammers, hard hats and steel-toe boots. They talked and joked in a tongue that few locals had heard Creole.

As Haitian-Americans, they came with a heartfelt desire to give something back to the nation that has given them a new start.

Most of the volunteers have forged new lives in Palm Beach and Broward counties, even the Treasure Coast, and some live as far away as Boston. They would sacrifice a week of their lives for this community's recovery. They would work long days. They would sleep on musty cots in an abandoned library.

The trip, the second of three planned for the Gulf Coast region, was organized by the nonprofit Community Development Foundation of West Palm Beach.

Pictures of the devastation convinced Quetel Osterval, foundation president, that contributing money wasn't enough Katrina's storm surge had washed away dozens Pass Christian homes and businesses up to a half-mile inland.

In their wake, the volunteers plan to leave 27 rebuilt homes.

Among them are physicians, nurses, plumbers, carpenters, civil engineers, garbage men, beauticians and security guards. They immigrated to the United States with dreams of creating secure lives for their families.

For Pierre Barthelemy, security meant refuge from political persecution.

In Haiti, he considered running for elected office, but found that such a move put his life in danger.

"If I would have stayed, I wouldn't be here in Mississippi right now. I'd be dead," said Barthelemy, 36, who immigrated a few years ago and now works as a security guard at the Town Center mall in Boca Raton and a nearby Wal-mart.

"I love to live here," he said. "Everyone has their own choices. It's not like that in Haiti."

Barthelemy joined the volunteers to offer his services as an electrician.

"God made me alive so I could be here," he said. "I believe I'm the one who's saved."

The volunteers are proud of their history. Haiti became a free country in 1804 when former slaves declared independence from France. It was only the second republic in the Americas and the first black colony to gain freedom from European colonialists.

The volunteers also know the history of slavery and lynchings in Mississippi, Osterval said.

"One hundred and seventy five years ago we were slaves here in Mississippi. We came here as a slave with no rights, but today we come back to be part of the rebuilding of the state," Osterval told the group on their first night. "How beautiful is that?"

The group was welcomed at first with stares of curiosity. But those gazes quickly turned to smiles of gratitude.

In the heart of Pass Christian, it's simply known as The Village, a tent city where about 100 homeless families are living until their homes are rebuilt. There is no heat to quell the crisp winter air and the bathrooms are green and brown portable toilets.

Of the 6,500 people who once lived in Pass Christian, only 1,500 remain.

Clad in cotton and flannel, wearing snow caps and heavy work gloves, nearly a dozen of the volunteers enter The Village in mid-morning to begin work on the base for a temporary building to supplement the cluster of small tents used as a child care center.

A tall young man bends over a yellow electric saw, wrapping black tape along its voltage cord as his colleagues hustle about, cutting, layering and hammering.

"In my country there are very poor people and poor areas. To see such a great country have this big disaster, it touches my heart," 20-year-old Palm Beach Community College student Pedro Carrenard said. "I felt inside something needed to be done."

Interest in the hurricane relief effort among Florida's Haitian community has nearly doubled since the foundation's first trip to nearby Gulfport and Biloxi in November, Osterval said. Nearly 700 people applied for this trip, he said.

As a group of volunteers hammered a wooden frame, Pass Christian residents stopped to ask where they are from. They linger to listen to the Creole, which sounds similar to French, but is actually a gumbo of several languages. Many said it was the first group of black relief volunteers they had seen.

Lou Rizzardi, a city alderman, was immediately taken by the group's work ethic at The Village. Time and again he begged the Haitian group to break for dinner in a nearby relief tent before their food got cold, but the workers continued until it was too dark to see.

"It's just a monstrous effort," Rizzardi said of the task facing the community, which now uses trailers for city hall, library and police station. "These people are fantastic."

The Haitian team completed their work on the child care center days ahead of schedule and even found time to correct the work of a team of AmeriCorps volunteers.

On their first trip in November, foundation members rebuilt homes and community buildings in Gulfport and Biloxi.

At the time, 85 volunteers descended on the Long Beach Community Center, a small but popular stop for local teens. The building had been gutted, walls surrounding the indoor basketball court blew away and water filled the rooms.

After several days of near-continuous work, the court was enclosed, walls rebuilt and wooden bunk beds constructed so that they could also be used as shelves.

The centerpiece of project was the cross.

A young girl had been killed during Katrina near the community center. Her body was found crushed a large wood beam.

The Haitian group picked up the beam, sawed it half and, in keeping with a strong religious conviction, created a 6-foot tall cross that they placed in the new cafeteria kitchen a dried blood stain is the the only clue to its origin.

In a remote Pass Christian neighborhood last week, retiree Ed Nedders watched as the Haitian volunteers reconstructed a two-story high shed to hold what was left of his belongings after his house "floated across the road." He lives with his wife in a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Nedders, who has a history of health problems, said he had a heart attack after the storm.

"We said maybe if the good Lord listens to us maybe we'll get some help," he said. "Sure enough, Saturday afternoon these guys showed up."

More than 20 team members gathered old lumber that had blown off the shed, began yanking out rusty nails and slowly reconstructing it.

Wielding a hammer, Lucette Jarbath, 22, a Naples beautician, said she enjoyed the work.

"When someone is hurt, we feel it," Jarbath said. "You feel good when you can help."

Standing in the shadow of a neighbor's Mississippi state flag, which still bears the symbol of its Confederate past, Nedders said he was grateful.

"I've never met any Haitis before. I don't travel a lot," he said. "I wish I could get round to every one of them and tell them how much we really love them for helping us."

Foundation president Osterval said the volunteers leave Mississippi with a feeling of accomplishment and perhaps the respect of strangers with preconceived notions.

"People can have the mentality, the mindset and basically you can't change that," Osterval said. "But what we can . . . establish some form of relationship so people can see that everybody is able and capable of helping each other. We have to work together to make that happen."

The town of Pass Christian is proof of that ideal.

"They are a Godsend," resident Charles Owens said of the volunteers. "If not for them we'd still be in a big mess. I mean even a bigger mess that we're in right now."

The jewel of Pass Christian was its historic district. Dozens of mansions of the Old South barely survived Hurricane Camille in 1969 only to be obliterated by Katrina's 30-foot storm surge. Katrina also Beauvoir, the antebellum retirement home of Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederacy, which is about 15 minutes away.

Near the historic district, a large red and white tent dubbed God's Katrina Kitchen is an oasis, amid mounds of beach sand deposited along a once-scenic seaside U.S. 90. The kitchen uses surplus and donated food stocks to serve more than 1,000 relief volunteers and residents. The spot, once the site of a restaurant called the Rusty Pelican, also acts as a distribution center for clothing and blankets. The effort is sponsored by Christian organizations from across the country.

Propane heaters keep the hungry volunteers warm during cold days. The tables are peppered with baskets full of oranges, mini-bananas and editions of the King James Bible. Lines for most meals stretch into the pot-holed parking lot.

The Haitian-American volunteers acclimated slowly to the breakfast fare of grits and sausage, but soon were cooking Caribbean-style beans and rice for dinner in place of ham and turkey.

A quiet, curly haired woman sits at at one table, wrapping paper napkins around plastic forks and knives.

"Right now we have no place to be eating and we're fighting FEMA in order to keep the trailer," said 51-year-old Rosie Austin of nearby Gulfport. "We've been coming here in order to eat and we offered to help today."

Austin said she was amazed and then thankful when the Haitian group arrived to help her community.

"I think it's good nice of them," she said. "I wish we could keep 'em."

Will Vash is a writer for The Palm Beach Post. He can be reached at This article appears in The Palm Beach Post.

Will Vash

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

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