Building up Biloxi

Steve Bushong


Jim Jackson observes the progress on his fiancee’s house. Kent State volunteers helped demolish the walls and install several walls. The walls were originally ruined because of water damage and volunteers were greeted by

Credit: Adam Griffiths

On Friday morning, seven Kent State student volunteers climbed into their van parked on Tandy Drive in Biloxi, Miss. for the last time.

Jim Jackson and his fiancee, Christine Vizzini, watched them from the end of their driveway, embracing each other. You could see in their faces that they didn’t want to say good-bye, that they’d miss the volunteers they had come to know.

“We couldn’t do it without ya’ll,” Jackson had said earlier that morning. “Come back whenever you want.”

Over five days last week, the students tore out the inside of the home. By Friday, they had started to build up that which they tore down.

New drywall hung on two walls. New insulation nestled between two-by-fours in a quarter of the home.

It was another step toward normalcy for the couple after Hurricane Katrina drove them from their home.

As the students drove back to Camp Seashore, their home base, they began to sing their unofficial anthem for the week.

“Lean on me, when you’re not strong,” the group sang. “And I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on.”

The crew was part of 140 Kent State students, staff and faculty who had traveled a thousand miles to the Gulf Coast. From Biloxi to Gulfport to Pass Christian to Ocean Springs, they built walls and friendships.

It all started early Monday, March 26.

Monday: Traveling with Mr. Fix-it

My first day there, I wanted to survey the town – the damage and reconstruction. My guide was Bob Christy, a Kent State photographer who was also taking photos for, the Akron Beacon-Journal’s Web site.

Christy was a project troubleshooter. He had knowledge of construction and – just as important – his own car. He became my information bank, chauffeur and guide.

On Monday, his first objective was to get construction supplies – lumber, screws, nails – to Oakwood Village, a near-vacant apartment complex where Kent State’s Project Playhouse would come alive.

The secretary at the complex said the place should be filled with residents by September. Some apartments, however, still lack windows and have crumbling drywall. The water level rose to over 20 feet in some apartments.

Home Depot became the spot for Christy and me. We visited the store at least three times, gathering supplies for volunteers. And just as I began to learn the aisles of Home Depot, I started to understand the streets of Biloxi.

The main roads looked like any avenue in the cities surrounding Kent. New buildings mixed among restored old buildings – scarcely a boarded window.

Off Pass Road and Division Street, two of Biloxi’s most prominent thoroughfares, the progress of reconstruction varied by neighborhood, but most were well underway, making me wonder if Kent State’s help would be needed next year.

But then again, off the main roads, I saw houses with gaping holes in the roof. On some was painted: “Do Not Demolish.” I wondered where the owners had gone – and whether they’d ever come back.

Tuesday: Circling the city

Christy and I spent three hours in the morning driving up and down Division Street to various projects.

I could almost see the thoughts and questions running through his head as we drove:

“How is the playhouse coming along?” he’d think, sometimes aloud. “Do they have


“A second broken power-washer on Reynoir Street? That’s a riot.”

“Olivette Alexander needs her gas line capped. And I need to get supplies for her crew tomorrow.”

“I need pictures, too.”

Then, after organizing his thoughts, Christy said, “I work better when I have to make quick decisions. I get mad when I have nothing to do.”

When we arrived at Oakwood Village for the third time in two days, the crew there had built all the playhouse’s pieces and finished the bottom half of the structure.

Christy took pictures. Snap, snap. And then he conferred the Matt Haramis, the crew’s leader.

“Do you need more cable?”

“I’ll know more tomorrow,” Haramis said.

More questions, more answers, more pictures. Snap, snap.

Wednesday: The lonely house

Ralph Kletzien, former director of development for the College of Business, drove a crew of seven to Pass Christian, the soon-to-be residence of Lionel and Melinda Fields. It’s the only permanent structure on the street. Everything in the neighborhood was drowned, destroyed or dragged out to sea by a 50-foot tsunami-like wave.

The new construction sits on 8-foot stilts. I wondered, however, if even then, the house could withstand Katrina’s twin – if she were to ever come.

“No sense in being defeated the first time,” Meredith Weick, junior fashion merchandising major, said in response to my pondering. She stood on empty tubs of drywall compound. She reached up to a bedroom ceiling, paintbrush in hand.

“It doesn’t matter if I get some on the walls,” she said. “We’re painting it yellow anyway.”

The crew painted walls with brushes and rollers, and by the day’s end, most of the home’s interior had color – bright, rejuvenating yellow, orange and green.

At mid-day, Weick and her two roommates from Kent ate bagged lunches on the front porch. The three women were there together thanks partly to Weick’s relatives.

She had sent letters to family asking for help in paying the $299 fee to travel to the Gulf Coast. In all, she raised $900.

“I started to think it was overkill,” she said. She helped pay for her friends’ trip, needed supplies, and then donated what was left to United for Biloxi.

Thursday: Redoing the walls

Ann Gosky, associate director for the Center for Student Involvement, led a crew of seven to a house on 35th Street in Gulfport. Gosky told the story of Ernest Smith, the owner, to me.

Katrina’s floodwater rose from the curb to the doorstep in minutes. It then began pouring into the home until it leveled off at a depth of eight feet. Smith, his two sons and daughter escaped to the attic of the one-story house.

Previous volunteers had torn out the house’s drywall and insulation and had started building new walls.

But Gosky’s crew, including Stow High School senior Allie Groves and her mother Carol, found that earlier groups had been sloppy.

Not wanting to repeat their mistakes, Gosky’s crew learned as they worked. They redid one wall four times. None of the seven hid the fact that their construction knowledge was limited.

But luckily, an unofficial eighth crew member was just a phone call away. Carol’s husband, Dan, works in construction.

“Hello,” Carol spoke into her cell phone. “Sorry to bug you again.”

“Hi, Pa!” Allie said in the background.

“(Allie) did some corners yesterday and you can still smear (the drywall compound). Can she tape over that?” Carol asked.

The answer was no, and Allie, who will begin classes at Kent State in the fall, returned to work in the house’s closets.

Halfway through the day, Ed Anthony, senior political science and history major, called out from across the hall. Uneven drywall in the bathroom would require Durabond, a thick plaster for filling the empty spaces between sheets of drywall.

“You’re not giving me more work, are you?” Allie asked playfully.

“Yeah, you’re going to need another five gallon bucket (of Durabond),” Anthony replied.

Allie smiled. She enjoys the work. In middle and high schools, she took part in mission trips to Mexico, Kentucky and an Indian reservation in Arizona.

“Allie’s always been a tender-hearted person,” her mom said. “She’ll probably do this kind of thing on and off for the rest of her life.”

Friday: “Hello, fine people”

The last day in Biloxi was also a half-day, so crew leader Michael Vaughn, senior English major, drove his crew to Jim Jackson’s house early.

Jackson was eating breakfast in his FEMA trailer when the crew got there. He finished up quickly.

“Hello, hello fine people. Good morning,” Jackson boomed. It was time for work.

At 9:17 a.m., the morning’s first piece of drywall was in place.

“Did you see our drywall?” a proud Lexi Guthrie, sophomore exploratory major, asked the rest of the crew.

“It’s beautiful,” sophomore business major Molly Love said.

The drywall, given that amateurs were charged with its installation, went up very fast. After two hours, Vaughn called his team together outside.

“We got a lot more done today than I was planning to,” he said. An entire corner of the house looked a little bit more like a home, but that’s how they’d have to leave it.

I think maybe if they could have had just one more week, the entire house would be finished. But that would have to wait for next week when a new crew from somewhere else comes to help.

So the Kent State group swept the house, gathered their tools and climbed into the van to Camp Seashore. Spring break only lasts so long.

The crew sang their song, and Vaughn told them, “We tore down all the walls and put one back up. That’s pretty good.”

Contact enterprise reporter Steve Bushong at [email protected].