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A pivotal time for Pearlington Project

Scott CondonAspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times
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Editor’s note: Aspen Times photographer Paul Conrad and reporter Scott Condon returned for a third time to Pearlington, Miss., this week to chronicle the ongoing recovery of this Gulf Coast community, which the Roaring Fork Valley “adopted” after Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005. Their trip coincides with a relief effort by students from Aspen High School.PEARLINGTON, Miss. – To some folks down here, Carbondale resident Tom Dalessandri walks on water.Dalessandri, a former Garfield County Sheriff for eight years and a former assistant police chief in Aspen, coordinates the Pearlington Project: Mountains to Mississippi. In short, he is the face of the Roaring Fork Valley’s hurricane relief effort in this community.Pearlington natives Evelyn and John Carver credit Dalessandri with lining up the volunteer help vital to building a six-bedroom, three-bathroom house for their extended family. They said they were ignored by other volunteer organizations.”If you’re not in the clique, you don’t get [help],” John Carver said.A porch wraps around their massive house. The Carvers think so highly of Dalessandri that they purchased a white rocking chair with “Mr. Tom” painted in blue and placed it on the porch. It’s understood that the chair is his when he comes by.

Sam Bailey, another homeowner relying on volunteer help sent by Dalessandri, said it is important for him that people in the Roaring Fork Valley understand that contributions funneled through the Pearlington Project are truly helping the needy, not getting squandered or wrapped in red tape.

Dalessandri said the accolades for him are really a reflection on the good work that the Carbondale fire department and other governments of the Roaring Fork Valley have undertaken here.”We’re one of less than a dozen organizations committed for the long-term here,” he said.The Pearlington project has raised about $300,000 so far in cash contributions, grants and materials. Interest was highest right after the storm when Hurricane Katrina was big news. It has waned in recent months.”We’re flat out of money,” Dalessandri said. The short-term goal is to raise $75,000 to fuel the effort through January.Dalessandri was hired as the project coordinator when the Pearlington Project was created by the Carbondale fire department. His forte is organizational skills and experience dealing with government agencies.”This is by far the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “This has probably moved me in ways I’ve never felt.”This is a critical time for Pearlington and aid efforts. The unincorporated town is still struggling to recover. Mountains of debris have been removed; many residents have scraped up all the money they can to fund reconstruction, but they have often fallen short.

Construction has also stalled on numerous houses because volunteer organizations have pulled out when interest, money or both ran out. Dalessandri is trying to get crews to 87-year-old Pauline Davidson’s house, which is about 70 percent complete. It needs cabinets and about $2,000 for interior doors, among other things.

Another problem is the type of labor available. Many volunteers are laborers, but craftsmen such as plumbers and electricians are hard to come by.”Everything you have to do like that, you have to buy,” Dalessandri said.There aren’t enough volunteers making the journey from the Roaring Fork Valley to keep Dalessandri busy when he is here. However, he is so familiar with the town and its needs that the Pearlington Recovery Center – a clearinghouse for volunteers and supplies – uses him as a coordinator.”In spite of running out of cash, we’re working on 22 homes,” Dalessandri said.

He hopes to re-ignite interest in the effort in the Roaring Fork Valley by stressing the level of need. The recovery is tough to gauge because houses are being rebuilt next to abandoned structures in many parts of town. Officials at the recovery center estimate 1,000 out of 1,700 people have returned.Dalessandri estimated that 35 to 40 percent of the homes in town are habitable again. But many houses remain untouched, or they are gutted and sit moldering with no sign of reconstruction.”People have been very generous, but the message is it is still only 35 percent recovered,” Dalessandri said. “I just hope the valley can stay invested.”Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com


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