One Life at a Time

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Paul R. Ross
  • 116 ACW Public Affairs
It's been almost a year since Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast taking homes, lives and any traces of normalcy.

As time passes and media coverage dwindles most of the world seems to forget the devastation that remains. But for some, forgetting is impossible. 

Lt. Col. Tim Smith, who spent four years at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., won't forget anytime soon. During the past several months, he has spent more than 30 days rebuilding the homes and lives of Mississippi and Louisiana citizens. 

Through the Hands on Network, the 116th member who serves as chief of Robin's Command Post, and his wife Carol, who is a registered nurse and has volunteered for more than 12 total weeks in the Gulf, have done everything from building clinics and restocking libraries to roofing houses and preparing food for other volunteers. 

"Initially it was just gutting houses (tearing everything out)," said Colonel Smith. "Once the houses are gutted, you can demold them, which is very labor intensive. You scrape every two-by-four, every rafter and the floors. We also would go in and clear yards to\ make space for Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers. We would take trees off the roofs and then repair them." 

Volunteers don't need to have specialized carpentry or repair skills. "They (Hands on Network) are one of the easiest organizations to get started with," the colonel said.  "There is no training required, no special equipment needed, you just show up. If you don't have the skills - they teach you."

Although volunteers don't need tools or supplies and there's no limit to how much time a person can volunteer, there is one thing Colonel Smith says everyone needs. 

"They'll feed you and they'll house you. You just have to put in some sweat," the South Carolina native said. "You can work a day, a week or a month. Many people have been down there for months." 

The feelings of completion and accomplishment Colonel Smith takes home are usually accompanied by a deep sense of sympathy and responsibility. 

"It's tough when you have a house and you see everybody's personal possessions --everything they own, photo albums, their clothes, even the knickknacks on the walls covered in mud and muck," he said. 

"You're basically sweeping their whole life out to the street for someone to pick up." The times spent in the once flourishing area gives the colonel time to reflect on many things people fail to appreciate. 

"We take so much for granted," Col. Smith said. "It's such a free society and so materialistic. We have so many things. Then you go down there and see somebody living in a tent. It's nine months later and they are still living in tents - and they have great attitudes. They're out there working hard, trying to provide for their families and you think, 'I have so much' - you're almost compelled to help them."

Seeing how thankful the displaced citizens are is one of the most rewarding aspects for the colonel and his wife. 

"The people of Biloxi are great," Colonel Smith said. "If you wear a Hands On t-shirt and walk into a bar they'll buy you a drink. If you are carrying something across a parking lot, someone will help you carry it. If you need something, they'll give it to you and these are people with nothing." 

The victims of Katrina are also key volunteers. 

"There was a Vietnamese fish market that was destroyed. We helped put it back together," the colonel said. "The owner routinely comes and cooks for us. When you are trying to cook for 40 to 200 people -- that's a lot of food." 

Although things are getting better on the Gulf Coast there is still a long way to go. 

"The need for volunteers is constant," he said. "Hands On is going to be down there long term. Anyone who wants to go down and help, only needs to show up. If you fly in, they'll pick you up at the airport." 

Staff Sgt. Ben Herring, a 16th Airborne Command and Control Squadron member who spent time at Keesler AFB for technical school, made a trip down to the Gulf Coast
with Lt. Col. Smith. 

"The gulf coast region is still devastated, therefore is it essential for everyone to help if able," said Sergeant Herring. "It gives the local community and the other volunteers a positive view of the military, knowing that we don't just fight wars, we also help out on the home front."

The organization has had about 2,000 volunteers in the Gulf and is getting more and more each day -- college students, retirees, lawyers or professional painters -- the help is growing, but there is always room for more. 

"Go to the website and get as much info as you can," Colonel Smith said. "Drop them an e-mail and let them know when you're coming - It's an experience you'll never forget."