BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss.
On Aug. 28, 2005, Donna Horstmann heeded the nonstop warnings issued by Hancock County emergency officials: All residents should leave all low-lying Gulf Coast towns in the county immediately. Hurricane Katrina is coming. It is a Category 5 storm, packing winds of 125 mph. When it makes landfall, it will bring a storm surge of 30 feet or more.
Horstmann and her brother evacuated to her son's house on higher ground a few miles away, leaving behind the home she had owned and loved for years just two blocks from the beach in Clermont Harbor. That night, Katrina came ashore, battering the house. Next door, a mobile home exploded, and houses were lifted off their concrete foundations.
"After it all calmed down, there was nothing," Horstmann, now 52, said. "The whole area was completely destroyed."
I first met Horstmann a year ago. Her experience is horrible to contemplate: a hardworking woman who lost everything by no fault of her own.
"For the first two weeks, National Guard helicopters dropped C-rations and water," she said. "That's how we pretty much survived. We ate C-rations. … The National Guard finally got to us on the ground and brought cleaning supplies. We didn't know what to do with cleaning supplies. Clean what?
"They set up a kind of station where we could go and pick food and water. We were in a tent for a while. It was horrible. … There were about 20 of us in different families staying in tents on the property. We didn't have sanitation or anything. We bathed in the creek. It was bad, primitive. There was debris everywhere. Thousands of dead seagulls were all over the place. There were no living animals. We didn't see any living animals for months. It was eerie."
Fed up with the degradation, Horstmann and her brother packed up and moved back to Cincinnati, Ohio, where she was born. But after about three months, she missed her children so much that she returned to Bay St. Louis and stayed in a tiny FEMA trailer for about three months.
After she found a job at the new Walmart, a co-worker told her she should apply for a house with Habitat for Humanity. That advice changed her life in ways she had not imagined. And it is how I came to meet her last year, volunteering on the project that built her new home. Her story is a poignant reminder of how this nonprofit program, run largely on volunteer labor across the country, continues to make an extraordinary difference in people's lives.
"I'd never heard of Habitat, but I applied," she said. "One thing led to another. I was approved and here I am. I've been in my new home for about four months. From the time I applied, it took 13 to 14 months get in my house. To qualify, I had to have a job. Salary was the big thing. They did a background check and a credit check."
There was also the requirement for 250 hours of sweat equity. "I learned a lot," Horstmann said. "I wouldn't appreciate my house as much as I do if I hadn't helped build it. I can fix just about anything because I worked on it and saw how it was built."
Horstmann said she knows without Habitat she would likely have never again owned a home: "I could not have qualified for a regular FHA loan. I am divorced, and I would not have made enough money." Her down payment for the house, with the lot, was a mere $250. Her interest-free monthly mortgage payment is $530, which includes insurance.
Long before Katrina destroyed everything, Horstmann had been a hard worker. Now, she works harder than ever, holding down two jobs, one at Walmart, the other at Grammys Donuts and More. She works 18-hour days five days a week.
"Habitat gave me a new start," she said. "I am living in my own home."