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In a week, Navy Seabees build temporary housing for 74 families

PASS CHRISTIAN, Miss.—With a pneumatic hammer that can spit a nail into plywood in a microsecond, Seabee Builder Jason Speck and a couple of his buddies can install a floor in a 32-foot-long cabin in no time at all.

"That one took 10 minutes," Speck, of Chamberlain, S.D., said one afternoon this week. "We can go a lot faster if they keep enough material coming to us."

The cabin will house one of 74 families that will become part of a village that 26 U.S. Navy Seabees are building in a former public park in Pass Christian.

Leaders of this storm-wrecked Gulf Coast community were searching for ways to help about 300 families from their city that have been living in shelters since Hurricane Katrina struck. The families needed some semblance of privacy and dignity, not a communal "circus tent," said Pass Christian attorney Don Rafferty, a housing volunteer.

The answer: the Seabees, the Navy's military construction arm, formed during World War II. Its motto: "We Build, We Fight."

Construction began Sept. 23, and families are expected to move in by Monday.

Construction on two similar areas, one in Pass Christian and the other in nearby D'Iberville, will begin soon. The temporary housing is being built at no cost to the cities. The Seabees also built Pass Christian a new police department headquarters to replace the one demolished by the hurricane.

In the village taking shape, each family will live in a 32-by-16-foot cabinlike unit raised about three feet off the ground on wood pilings. The cabins have wooden floors and walls and insulated plastic roofs supported by a lumber framework. They can be heated or air-conditioned. Each has a front and back door and stairs leading to hastily constructed streets.

A bank has set up an office in a recreational vehicle across the street. A school bus is expected to show up Monday to take children to three area schools that have reopened. Another team of Seabees is finishing two large storage buildings for showers and laundry services.

The three communities, when completed, will house about 200 families that will be encouraged to stay as long as it takes to arrange for permanent homes, Rafferty said.

No such units are scheduled for construction in Louisiana, said Navy Master Chief Matthew Cabral. "We haven't been asked," he said.

Navy Chief Troy Emery of Norfolk, Va., said the crew can build quickly because the sections of each housing unit are prefabricated at a nearby Seabee base in Long Beach and need only be fastened in place.

"The motivation for these guys is all around," said Emery, 39, whose wife grew up in Long Beach. "Just look at these wrecked homes. They want to work hard. They're happy to do it."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): STORMS-SEABEES

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