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Hurricane Katrina Survivors Thank New York Volunteers

Countless Americans have journeyed to the Gulf Coast to help those devastated by Hurricane Katrina last year. Among them are many New Yorkers who want to return the generosity they experienced in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Recently a group of Gulf Coast tourism leaders visited the city to reinvigorate interest in their region and pay thanks to these special New Yorkers.

They rebuild flattened houses, walk abandoned pets, read books to schoolchildren or counsel the emotionally scarred. Volunteers in the areas hit by Hurricane Katrina are as diverse as the world itself. According to Stephen Richer, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau, they vary in everything from their skills to their politics to their religion.

"People are there from just about every faith you can imagine," he said. "Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, the Mennonites, the Catholic Charities. People are staying in churches, either sleeping on the floor or in sleeping bags, or sleeping on pews in sleeping bags. It's been really interesting."

Thousands of these volunteers are from New York City.

"Many people have been there multiple times," he added. "There's one young lady, she came early after the hurricane like in September, then she came back in November, December, then she came back in January. She was so personally enriched by helping, at no compensation by the way, that she quit her job here in New York City, gave up her lease on her apartment and is in the Biloxi area until problems are resolved. Again at no compensation and she's not the only one."

New Yorker Virginia Pfeiffer volunteered for five days last May in Pearlington, Mississippi. The tiny hamlet of fewer than 1,700 residents, which has no mayor, only a fire department for local government, was in the eye of the hurricane. For ten days the community was virtually forgotten. A month later the New York Times newspaper compared the area to the primitive tent city Cité Soleil in Haiti. Before arriving in Pearlington with seven other women, Pfeiffer, 58, a retiree, was warned to get ready for some heavy lifting.

"One of my thoughts going down there was you go to the gym to try to build up your strength, so might as well do it by doing something useful," she said. "I was carrying a lot of weight, and I had wondered whether I would be able to do as much but I was. I was very pleased with how successfully I was able to lift things and carry them. And I expected to be absolutely exhausted by the end of the day and I wasn't."

At night Pfeiffer and others slept in plastic tents without indoor toilets. Each day they received their assignment from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. One task involved emptying the entire contents of a house with no standing walls so that it could be cleaned of toxic mold. Pfeiffer recalls how anxious the owner was about strangers moving her only belongings.

"At first she was very hesitant to have us do this," she recalled. "I guess they'd been working with her several months to have her agree to do this. But as the time went by, she saw us being careful with her things and trying to organize them in a logical way. We basically put them all out on the driveway on tarps. She was very social with us at the end. I think we somehow got her over the hump of this overwhelming thing - it looked overwhelming to us, too - of getting this stuff out of the house. She just seemed to connect with us."

Pfeiffer was most touched by the victims of Katrina who wanted to help the volunteer efforts. One woman, rescued from a tree with her neighbor and eight dogs, still had no home but delivered meals to her neighbors.

"There was this black church and the women of the church who had lost everything of their own had decided when all these volunteers started coming down that they would cook lunch everyday for the volunteers," she noted. "So they served at the Baptist church, there they served lunch to the volunteers everyday. That was just so heartwarming. These women who needed help were coming to help people who were helping."

A cultural exchange took place between the Southerners and their New York visitors.

"I think perhaps we were sort of surprised by how friendly everybody was because New Yorkers have, people think of us as being unfriendly, and it is more that people mind their own business," she explained. "People are always shocked when they meet New Yorkers and find they are very friendly."

Pfeiffer says she looks forward to returning to visit new friends in the Gulf Coast.

"I would be willing to go back on another one of these trips, although it is the kind of thing where it was such a good experience you are sort of afraid to go because it might not be as good experience the next time," she said. "But yeah I would definitely like to go back to Pearlington and see the progress and see how things are going."

This demonstration of good will between New York and the Gulf Coast shows no signs of ending any time soon.