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Hudson man helps Louisiana flood victims rebuild

Travis Gustafson returned from a weeklong rebuilding mission to a suburb of New Orleans with a new appreciation for what he has.

Every day in a house with four walls, a roof and dry floor is a good day, he says.

The 28-year-old Hudson resident spent the first week of 2006 in Kenner, La., helping repair two houses and remove fallen trees at three other residences.

He traveled there with a group from Woodland Wesleyan Church - his boyhood church in the tiny northern Wisconsin village of Dairyland, located on Hwy. 35 about halfway between Webster and Superior.

The seven-person group included two of his brothers - Rick, 42, and Kelsey, 36 - and enough skilled tradesmen for them to be designated as builders. Other groups of less qualified volunteers were put to work pulling moldy Sheetrock and insulation from homes, but the Wisconsinites repaired walls and windows, hung new Sheetrock and built a fence, among other things.

Kenner, located on the west side of New Orleans and bounded on the north by Lake Pontchartrain, had floodwaters two to four feet deep when the levies broke in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Almost all of the houses had water in them six inches to two feet deep.

Gustafson, an operations and supply chain manager at 3M Co., took a week's vacation to participate in the mission.

The group departed northern Wisconsin at 8 p.m. on New Year's Eve, traveling in a van and a Jeep. They drove straight through, arriving in Kenner at 6 p.m. New Year's Day.

The next morning, they went to work repairing the two houses. They put in five days altogether, including one spent removing trees that had fallen on top of backyard sheds.

They slept on air mattresses in a Wesleyan Church named Family of Faith Community Church along with three other volunteer teams from California, Iowa and Indiana. The church provided them with food to make their breakfasts and lunches, and church members cooked them supper each evening.

World Hope International, a Christian relief organization affiliated with the Wesleyan Church, organized the mission.

Gustafson says the homeowners were extremely appreciative of their help. "It brought them to tears to see how much progress was made over a couple of says," he reports.

All of the homeowners World Hope International has set out to help were either uninsured or underinsured, according to Gustafson.

He said the organization is concentrating on rebuilding Kenner, for the moment, because it has electrical power, and water and sewer service.

He guessed that more than half of the community's residents are back, living either in their houses or FEMA trailers parked in their front yards.

The single mother of four children that the Wisconsin team assisted still had her job at a facility that makes food flavoring.

The husband and father in the other household had been out of work for a few weeks when the chain shoe store he had worked at was destroyed. But he had since been transferred to a different store.

Much of New Orleans wasn't as lucky as Kenner, Gustafson says. His team drove through the city from one end to the other, witnessing neighborhood after neighborhood of destroyed and deserted homes.

"It becomes overwhelming as you sit in the car for a couple of hours and you haven't left the destruction," he says. "We drove for miles and miles and saw much of the same."

The only variation, he says, was how high the floodwaters rose, or if the damage was caused by wind.

"I don't know how people who aren't in their homes yet are dealing with it," he says.

Some areas are so badly damaged that it might not make sense to try to rebuild them, he says. But on the other hand, the people of New Orleans have a strong attachment to the city.

"It's going to be a long rebuilding process as they try to figure that out," he said.

Gustafson says he wasn't involved in organizing the Wisconsin work crew, but he made the trip for the same reason they did.

"Whenever something happens, people talk about helping and never see to get around to it. They decided they were going to do something about it this time ... The time was right and the need was great."

Gustafson is glad he decided to join the crew.

"We helped people who really needed it and we had fun while we did it," he says.

Enjoying 70-degree weather in January also was enticing to a native of Wisconsin's north woods.

Gustafson's faith also provided motivation.

"It was a chance to serve other people. It was a chance to be an example of love to your neighbor - a neighbor that lives 1,200 miles away," he says.

Gustafson and his wife, Jean, came to Hudson in April of 2002. They own a home on Kinnickinnic Street and are members of First Baptist Church.

Their daughter, Grace, was born a year ago and they have another child on the way.

Travis and Jean were sweethearts at Webster High School, and later attended UW-Eau Claire together. Jean's father was the band director when they were in high school. One of her sisters now has the job.

Jean currently is a stay-at-home mom and does contract technical writing. She was editor of the North Iowa Times in McGregor when Travis worked at the 3M facility in Prairie du Chien.

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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