Carbondale redoubles aid effort |

Carbondale redoubles aid effort

Scott Condon
Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times

Six months after Hurricane Katrina whipped through the Gulf Coast, some residents of devastated towns like Pearlington, Miss., are struggling back to their feet. And Carbondale has figured out another unique way to help.The Carbondale fire department has mastered the rifle approach to offering aid. Instead of funneling money, materials and volunteers through national relief organizations, the Carbondale firefighters focused efforts immediately after the storm on Pearlington, an unincorporated community that got walloped by the eye of the hurricane.From mid-September until shortly before Christmas, the fire department coordinated the delivery of “Red Ball Express” material runs to Pearlington, and teams of volunteers who helped clear debris were rotated in and out of town every two weeks.The relief effort went on temporary hiatus during the holidays. Tom Dalessandri, the fire department’s relief effort coordinator, visited Pearlington earlier this month to help determine “what’s next.””My first impression was one of dismay,” Dalessandri said. From a previous visit, he knew wind and a wall of water from the storm surge had pulverized most homes and buildings or swamped them in muck. The town was essentially a debris pile where bulldozers had cleared out paths.”It didn’t look like anything had been done,” Dalessandri said about his return. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hadn’t made much progress in demolishing homes deemed unsalvageable. No visible progress had been made by county, state or federal crews removing the mounds of debris that line the streets.

But as Dalessandri poked around town, he discovered the situation wasn’t as bad as the first appearance. More people had returned to their property, and trailers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency abound for temporary shelter.He made a rough guess that up to 40 percent of the houses in the community of 1,700 people might be salvageable. And most promising, the owners of 5 to 10 percent of them are making progress with reconstruction. Moldy and rotting plywood and particle board have been stripped, leaving the bare stud walls. Roofs in some case have been replaced.In most cases, the homeowners bought the materials, and volunteer organizations provided the labor, Dalessandri said. That discovery led to Carbondale’s next plan of attack.The department will continue its micro-approach to aid by selecting four families at a time to help with reconstruction of homes.”We’ll take this in small bites. We’ll help these four, then move on to four more,” Dalessandri said.He has already identified the first four families or individuals to receive help. The criteria, he said, included who is ready as well as who is facing a tough time physically or emotionally.

One example is Debbie Sonnier, a single mom suffering from advanced osteoporosis. Menonite volunteers replaced the roof of her house. Carbondale volunteers will help with electrical wiring and fixtures and drywall.Volunteers from Carbondale and the Roaring Fork Valley will begin pouring back into Pearlington in early March. About 45 seniors from Colorado Rocky Mountain School and five faculty supervisors are flying to the Gulf Coast to add backbone and elbow grease to Pearlington projects. A group from the Church at Redstone will also travel down there at the same time. Dalessandri is helping organize their efforts.Dalessandri said he cannot stress enough how much Pearlington still needs the help of the Roaring Fork Valley.”These folks are totally dependent on volunteers,” he said. “Nobody else is coming to their aid.”Cash contributions from the valley are essential to fund operations. The Carbondale fire department will resume stationing teams there again this spring to coordinate volunteer efforts and assess evolving needs.The Aspen Valley Medical Foundation is handling funding. Checks can be sent to AVMF, Pearlington Project, P.O. Box 1639, Aspen, CO 81612.

Carbondale fire chief Ron Leach said numerous organizations, businesses and individuals in the valley have already played a huge role in helping Pearlington. The Carbondale Rotary, for example, funded one of the Red Ball Express runs with materials and helped fund other supply runs.The Catholic parishes in Basalt and Carbondale donated $5,000 to St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Pearlington to help purchase a trailer for the priest.Two teams of doctors and nurses from Aspen Valley Hospital volunteered their time to serve two weeks each at the clinic established in Pearlington. Dr. Chris Martinez and Eric Guthmann, a paramedic and RN, made the initial trip. Dr. Steve Ayers, registered nurse Cre Donovan and paramedic Matt O’Leary followed in mid-November. AVH also donated medical supplies.”It was very overwhelming to see the damage and to recognize it wasn’t going to be a fast recovery,” Donovan recalled.She said her team saw 40 to 80 patients per day at the clinic, where medical personnel from throughout the country volunteered. Residents from throughout the devastated area flocked there because the Pearlington clinic was one of the few places offering care. Donovan said that when time allowed, her team also traveled into the countryside in a Carbondale ambulance and offered health care assistance to those the team encountered. There was no shortage of need.Carbondale officials were wise for taking the approach they did, centering attention on one place, Donovan said. And she found that volunteering her time was immensely rewarding.

“It was really a life-changing experience for many of us,” Donovan said.That’s a common theme among people who have visited Pearlington. Dalessandri said he was struck by how the people there are genuinely grateful that people are willing to help.”No one [in Pearlington] expects anything and they’re appreciative of everything,” he said.Leach said the residents are well aware of where the help comes from. “Carbondale, Colorado, is held in high regard there,” he said. “They will never forget Carbondale and the Roaring Fork Valley.”Scott Condon’s e-mail address is