A crew of construction workers from Massachusetts arrived in Waveland, Miss., on a warm Tuesday last month, and by the time the workers left a week later, they had built the frames for four homes for Hurricane Katrina survivors. The next week, another set of workers framed four more houses, and the following week all eight homes had roofs and four had siding. The siding is slated to be finished this week.
The workers are part of a massive effort organized by Wayland to Waveland, or W2W, a group based in Wayland that latched onto the devastated Gulf Coast community soon after Katrina hit in August 2005. This latest 16-week project, which the group is calling Mission to Mississippi, is the largest W2W endeavor so far, involving more than 400 skilled workers and at least 175 volunteers from throughout Eastern and Central Massachusetts.
"The first week, 37 guys got off the plane," said Cindy Lombardo, a Wayland resident who coordinated logistics for the first two weeks. "I didn't know what to expect. They didn't wait for lunch to be served before they had their work boots on. By 4 o'clock that first afternoon, all four houses had the walls up." Lombardo was speaking on her cellphone while she awaited the third week's crew at the airport.
The hurricane had destroyed 95 percent of the homes in Waveland, and only 60 percent of its 10,000 pre-Katrina residents have returned. There are 600 families still living in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Waveland Mayor Tommy Longo said during a visit to Wayland in September.
"I think a lot of people think, 'Oh it's two years later, so everyone is fine.' Everyone is not fine," said Kathy Pinn, a Waveland resident who lost her home and her business, a gift shop, in the storm. "We still do not have one public building, two years later. Trying to run a city out of trailers, I tell you, it's not the best."
Kathie Steinberg, the project's volunteer coordinator, said she apologized about the construction noise to some neighbors who were sitting in lawn chairs watching the new houses go up.
"They said, 'Are you kidding me? This is music to our ears,' " Steinberg said.
Members of the Wayland group are working with Lagniappe, a Presbyterian church group in Waveland's neighboring town, Bay St. Louis, to identify families for the eight homes. The families don't need to pay for the homes, but they do need to buy the land, which will cost about $20,000, and pay another $5,000 for insurance and property taxes.
The project is significant, but it's only a small piece of what's needed in Waveland, residents and volunteers said. One carpenter from Lexington described the "miles of foundations" he saw in the city that was once a vacation destination.
"What we're going to get done in a week is not going to make a big impression. There's years of work here," Thomas O'Donoghue said last week, only hours after arriving from Massachusetts.
Wayland to Waveland officials hope to raise $1.6 million to pay for the project, and they are about halfway to their goal. But the workers, who are putting in nearly 12-hour days for seven days straight, are being paid for 40 hours. Otherwise, the project would have cost more than $2.2 million, according to Ken Vona, a Waltham builder and leader of the construction companies and contractors working on the project.
Anyone wishing to make a donation, buy W2W sweatshirts and T-shirts, or be part of the volunteer workforce can do so through the group's website, waylandtowaveland.org. The website also contains a live video feed from the project's three construction sites, along with near-daily log entries by participants.