By Erinn Hutkin (981-3138), The Roanoke Times
KILN, Miss. -- Nolan Jackson hopped out of his Ford F250 into calf-high pine needles and grass, inspecting a chain that had loosened its grip around the trunk of a fallen tree when he tried dragging it away with his truck.
"You can tell we're not Paul Bunyan," he joked to Jesse Beavers, 24. It was midmorning Monday, and the Mississippi sun was strong enough to make this team of workers break a sweat not long after they began work outside a home.
Beavers, an auto mechanic, lifted sections of cut tree trunks with tight biceps, carrying pieces of fallen trees like oversized Lincoln Logs as thick as his waist.
Nearby, Bill Clark, 69, and Prentice Moran, 71, carried fallen Advertisement pine branches to the edge of the yard. Near the house, Karen Alley, 35, and boyfriend Kenny Bowman, 39, raked needles and roof shingles.
After arriving late Saturday at the end of a 14-hour drive from Roanoke, this group of volunteers was deep into their work, clearing the yard of a stranger -- a single dad with a 5-year-old diabetic daughter.
It's part of the Hurricane Katrina relief work this team is completing for the Roanoke-based Interfaith Coalition of Neighbors Helping Neighbors. The coalition, a group of more than 20 synagogues and churches, adopted the 2,000-resident community of Kiln. It hopes to send a team of volunteers to the town each week, helping clear and rebuild until the work is done.
Devastation is everywhere, the group saw Sunday, en route to Kiln's library -- where residents file requests for assistance. As they drove from the Morrell Foundation, a 44-room camp for volunteers, they saw empty foundations and stilts that once held beachfront homes. Yet this group didn't feel overwhelmed or defeated, just ready to work and be of help.
"There's lot of unfortunate people here right now," said Beavers, the mechanic. "A lot of good can be done."
The team of seven arrived in darkness in nearby Waveland, seeing only a near-full moon, a calm Mississippi Sound and Orion stretching into the night.
But on a cloudy Sunday morning on coastal South Beach Boulevard, everyone's eyes turned not to the calm, blue-gray water. They looked the opposite way, to what used to be.
They saw trees bent backward at 90-degree angles. Trees snapped like sticks, the top half blown away. Clothes -- sheets and shirts, the occasional delicate nightie -- twisted and knotted around branches, hanging from the trees like Spanish moss.
Sand-dusted driveways led to nothing. Just piles of cinder blocks and sticks tall enough to dwarf grown men.
"Just think, all your photos are in there," Alley said from her seat in the South Roanoke United Methodist Church bus. "All your memories."
Her boyfriend, Bowman, pointed to a child's treehouse still standing in branches, above a house left in a pile.
FEMA-issued trailers sat in lawns, next to American flags flapping in the warm southern breeze. Addresses were spray-painted on brick walls, on scraps of plywood, anything that was left. Signs -- some painted, some store-bought -- stood in yards, a symbol of resolve: "We are staying"; "I'm still here"; "We shall return."
Richard Grayson, who lives down the street from where the team is staying, pitches a tent and "his guest tent" in what used to be his yard. He owns eight acres facing the water, a place where his dog, Dixie, likes to lie on her belly in the sand.
Since the hurricane, Grayson has unearthed what he can. He piles rusty guns, his recovered marble wash basin and a cracked antique mirror in his lawn. He saved a neighbor's collection of antique creamers, and a baby doll. He saved everything -- not knowing if his neighbors are ever coming back.
The place where his steps used to be now leads to his new FEMA trailer, equipped with a bedroom, kitchen and tub -- all working, but too small.
"It will take a long time before we can clean it up," he said, walking the gravel path that is his driveway, among trees that look dead and burned.
After the hurricane, people came from everywhere to help, something the team learned its first morning in town. In a Waveland parking lot, Jackson stopped to talk shop -- the Vietnam War -- with a volunteer from Texas who runs the market. It's an outdoor grocery store where Katrina's survivors pile baby formula, bottled water and cans of tuna into shopping carts -- all free of charge.
Nearby, the warm smell of bacon and eggs wafted from Waveland Cafe, which serves hot meals to residents and volunteers. The cafe tent, resembling a mini Epcot Center, was formed impromptu by the Rainbow Family, a band of hippies and counterculturalists. Vermin Supreme, a 45-year-old member from Massachusetts who wears felt reindeer ears over his John Deere ball cap, said the group sets up kitchens when it meets in national parks for yearly gatherings.
"We know how to feed large numbers of people in terrible conditions," he said.
In this place where everything is makeshift and temporary, the team stayed in the tent after breakfast to listen to Jim Jones, a man from Tennessee, lead Sunday service from a portable stage with a guitar and an open Bible.
During the service, a girl with dreadlocks and rubber gloves mopped tables. A bandanna-wearing dog padded through the tent. A pair of young men shot hoops outside.
Yet for this group, the word from a stage with a curtain of silver streamers was as sacred as if from a church with wood crosses and stained glass.
Beavers took off his ball cap, resting it on a cafeteria table as the group sat in folding chairs.
Group leader Clark, who sings in a barbershop quartet, raised his voice to meet the strum of the guitar as they sang "Amazing Grace." There were heads bowed in prayer. Talk of putting aside differences to work together for the people of Hancock County.
The people they help give back in return, Jones explained -- friendship, resilience, examples of overcoming devastation.
"A lot of good lessons here," he concluded.
Yet Beavers was restless by the end of service. He doesn't want this to be a vacation, he said; he wanted to get to work.
Beginning Sunday afternoon, he got his wish. He yanked the cord of a chain saw, slicing fallen trees for hauling under the strengthening southern sun.
"I feel like we're helping out," Ellie Clark said as she gathered fallen branches. "I have no idea what will happen to his house."
The house is eggshell blue and sits slightly lopsided. Inside, sheets of ceiling drywall caved into bedrooms, followed by fluffy squares of yellow insulation.
The owner told Clark he talked to FEMA about getting temporary cover for the roof, like the stuff seen on houses and buildings throughout town. He was turned down because his home is too unstable. He has moved to a trailer in nearby Picayune.
For now, the only souls at the house are a pair of skinny, blue-eyed Siamese cats.