Katrina victim loses home but finds help in Willmar

WILLMAR -- Across 1,500 miles, employees of Rice Home Medical reached out to help Pearl Hankins, whose home in Covington, La., was destroyed last year in Hurricane Katrina.

WILLMAR -- Across 1,500 miles, employees of Rice Home Medical reached out to help Pearl Hankins, whose home in Covington, La., was destroyed last year in Hurricane Katrina.

This past week, Mrs. Hankins finally had a chance to meet the people whose bake sales and garage sales raised some $3,000.

"Everything that was sent was appreciated," she said. "I'd like to thank everybody for what they did."

The fundraiser was the idea of Paula Tebben, one of Mrs. Hankins' granddaughters and a customer service employee at Rice Home Medical.

Mrs. Hankins, 84, was evacuated from Covington, which lies northeast of New Orleans on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain, ahead of the hurricane. She placed some of her belongings in storage, but most of a lifetime's worth of possessions had to be left behind.


"She's never had to face anything like this. She's never run from anything in her life but this time something told her to leave," said Pat Jones of Hawick, Tebben's mother and one of Mrs. Hankins' five children.

After Katrina, relatives returned to Covington to discover that Mrs. Hankins' home, where she had lived for 38 years, was severely damaged in the storm.

Hundreds of miles away in Minnesota, Tebben wanted to help. She came up with the idea of a workplace fundraiser.

Staff and supervisors at Rice Home Medical were quick to join the effort.

"That was a general consensus of staff," said Carol Laumer, director of Rice Home Medical. "We all decided that's what we really wanted to do. We knew that someone would be helped."

Employees held a garage sale, a bake sale and a silent auction to raise money. They sold Katrina ribbons and wristbands.

It's a custom of Rice Home Medical to give employees money for their birthday each year, Laumer said. This past year, every employee contributed some of their birthday money to the fund for Mrs. Hankins.

Over cake and coffee this week, everyone finally had a chance to meet each other in person. It was the first time Mrs. Hankins has visited Minnesota since the hurricane; she has been staying with her daughter in Hawick since the beginning of October.


One by one, Rice Home Medical employees shook hands and introduced themselves.

Photos taken after the storm show the extent to which Mrs. Hankins' home was damaged. A large branch crashed through one of the windows; an entire side of the 150-year-old house collapsed.

The damage was most likely caused by a tornado spun off from the hurricane.

The property used to have an orchard of fruit trees -- kumquats, tangerines, lemons and grapefruit. It was shaded by 50 pine trees. More than 30 raccoons lived in the surrounding woods, coming out each day when Mrs. Hankins put out food for them.

Grandchildren loved visiting the house, Tebben said. "You were in the middle of town, but you didn't feel like it was in town because of all the trees."

The fruit trees and blackberry bushes are gone now, as are most of the pines. The house has been leveled.

Jones, who visited Louisiana this past August with her grandson, saw firsthand what was left.

She said she still gets emotional about it. "She loved this place," she said of her mother. "It was home. Now it really is not the same. The house is gone. The trees are gone."


After the hurricane, Mrs. Hankins lived for three months in a trailer provided by FEMA. She now lives with a daughter 10 blocks away from her former home.

"I look at it this way: The Lord said it was time to leave," Jones said.

Mrs. Hankins was able to salvage some of her belongings but the rest -- accumulated over the course of 80 years -- was lost. "In one night it got thrown away. So really I don't care about anything any more," she said.

In 1969 she also experienced Hurricane Camille, which devastated the Gulf Coast and caused severe inland flooding, resulting in 259 deaths.

Mrs. Hankins didn't evacuate for Camille. One of the things she remembers most is the wind. "Nobody knows what it is until they've been through it," she said.

If another hurricane were to hit Covington, "everybody says they'll leave," she said.

Even a year after Katrina, Jones saw people living in tents when she visited Louisiana in August. She was in New Orleans on the anniversary of the hurricane.

"It was sad," she said. "If more people came to see what it looks like, they would understand. These people will live with it forever. It'll always be in their hearts and minds."

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