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Neal keeps Katrina top of mind

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By Jennifer Raymond

In one day, you can lose everything.

Many people learned this lesson on Aug. 29, 2005, the day Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast.

It is a day many of us have put behind us, but not the victims of that massive storm.

Homes and buildings were leveled, and 1,836 lives were lost, mostly in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

A Rockwood city councilman is one of those who has not forgotten.

James Neal, who is also a general contractor, is one of the many volunteers who has spent time in the areas devastated by the storm.

He has seen firsthand what 125 mph winds and flooding can do, and he wants others to know the impact on people.

"I just want to make sure people understand the magnitude of what happened down there," Neal said. "And it's still really bad."

kHe left the comfort of his home just three weeks after Katrina hit and has been back to the ravaged Gulf Coast five more times since.

"We were watching when the hurricane hit," Neal said. "And two or three days after, when people were on roofs, I said, "I'm going," Neal said.

It took him two weeks to get everything set up, and then he was on his way to D'Iberville, Miss.

Neal had arranged to stay at a Presbyterian church's camp site. What he didn't know was that Hurricane Rita, which hit on Sept. 24, destroyed the camp, leaving him without a place to stay.

That didn't stop him.

Neal worked long days, gutting one of the homes that was destroyed and covered with black mold until 5:30 p.m., 30 minutes before curfew, which was 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

"I was going to sleep on the ground where the Presbyterian camp was set up," Neal said. But instead, he ran into a group from Concord United Methodist Church of Knoxville, who took him in. They let him stay with them at the Heritage United Methodist Church there.

"They had a lot of nerve," Neal said. "They didn't know me from Adam."

Neal stayed for six days, working on houses from sunup to sundown. Then he passed out bottles of bleach and water until 11 p.m. with members of the church group.

On his first trip, most of the work dealt with stripping down everything to the stud walls and building roofs.

"The first two or three times, it was like going into a third-world country," Neal said of his experience.

The first time, there was military presence and police everywhere.

Neal was required to wear a badge identifying him as a volunteer. People were sleeping anywhere they could: on the ground, in laundry facilities, in tents.

"There was no lights, no electricity, no food, except when the Red Cross came by once a day," Neal said.

On his second trip that December, Neal went with his wife, Lisa, and rewired the house that he had gutted the first time.

Since then, Neal has been to Biloxi and Gulfport, Miss., and Covington, La., to help residents rebuild.

In June 2006, his third time back, the cities had begun to rebuild. This time, he was accompanied by Concord United Methodist Church's youth group, which helped put in insulation, hang sheet rock, paint walls and put on roofs.

"It was amazing," Neal said. "After three or four days they were pretty good."

In 2006, according to Neal, the cities were swarming with volunteers and government agencies.

When he returned this fall, volunteers were still there, but in much smaller numbers.

"They still need so much help," Neal said. "I don't want to take away from the things we need here, but if anyone feels the call or the urge to help, they still need it."

IF YOU GO

Gas in your tank and money for groceries are the only things anyone needs, Neal said.

"It doesn't really cost anything because you have the mission stations set up," Neal said. "Just take an air mattress."

Neal has plans to go back in February or March 2008 and hopes he can visit New Orleans this time around.

Neal said anyone can join him and members of his church, First Christian in Rockwood, help victims of this disaster.

If anyone wants to organize a help mission of their own, "I'll go with them," Neal added.

Katrina was one of the strongest storms to hit the coastal United States in 100 years, causing $81.2 million worth of damage.

It was the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Neal believes rebuilding will take at least eight more years, if not longer.

"Everyone has moved on," Neal said. "We're just trying to rekindle the flame."