posted on Tue, Jan. 17, 2006
‘If anybody’s going to get it done, Dave can’
Area resident plots Katrina recovery
The Kansas City Star

Marine reservist Lt. Col. Dave Dysart deployed twice to Iraq to rebuild Fallujah, a war-blasted city with a broken power grid and raw sewage oozing in its streets.

The devastation was overwhelming.

In Louisiana, he remembered Fallujah as he patrolled the streets of St. Bernard Parish just days after Hurricane Katrina. The devastation there was massive too.

But not overwhelming. Dysart thinks he knows how to fix it.

The 44-year-old Lee’s Summit man has a new mission: Repair the infrastructure of St. Bernard Parish, east of New Orleans, and bring hope to residents who just want to come home.

“One hundred percent of this town was flooded,” Dysart said in a telephone interview from his FEMA trailer in Chalmette. On top of that, more than 1 million gallons of oil spilled into the floodwaters. The oil further damaged homes and businesses that were flooded again a few weeks later by Hurricane Rita.

The damage “far exceeds what happened in New Orleans,” he said. “… It’s catastrophic.”

Only 8,000 of the 65,000 former parish residents have braved the mold and muck. Most leave before nightfall each day. Fewer than 200 people have actual homes to sleep in. The area is still under curfew. There’s still no electricity, no gas stations, no water. The sewer lines are clogged with debris, so every rainfall brings potential for more flooding. There are empty foundations, trashed homes and businesses, broken utility poles, dead appliances and discarded, moldy drywall.

Dysart’s voice, so businesslike as he discusses St. Bernard’s reconstruction problems and issues, breaks when he talks about the people: Families striving for normalcy in a one-bedroom, 15-foot FEMA trailer. Children playing among the blight.

He emphasizes again and again that he is “not the hero here. They (the residents) are.”

He came to the parish with his Marine Reserve unit to help after Katrina. His experience and knowledge caught the attention of parish residents. They watched him take charge of each situation, and in those early days after the storm, there were many. They watched Dysart delegate Marines rescuing and stranded people and pets, and searching homes grid by grid.

Councilman Mark Madary said the parish needed somebody who could get the area back on track.

“We needed someone with expertise bigger than what we had,” he said. “He (Dysart) does whatever it takes to get the job done. If that means working from 6 in the morning until 4 in the morning, he’ll do it. … We needed him.”

They offered him the job of rebuilding their community.

When his deployment to Louisiana was over, Dysart came home and found the words to tell his wife, Kim, in Lee’s Summit that they would be apart again. Four months, he told her. Maybe more.

Kim Dysart remembered nodding as he talked. She understood. She agreed. Yes, she cried. But the 39-year-old knew her husband could help. His sacrifice would be hers, too.

“How could I say, ‘You can’t help those people?’ ” she asks. “If anybody’s going to get it done, Dave can.”

They try to see each other twice a month. They call daily. Just a few weeks ago, Kim Dysart visited her husband in Louisiana. During big holidays, he has made it home for brief stays in Kansas City. But both of their birthdays passed quietly, something that happens often in a military marriage.

From his experience in Fallujah, Dave Dysart knows that the first task is debris removal. He came up with a plan to do the work with volunteers, saving taxpayers millions.

Faith-based organizations and other volunteer groups such as Habitat for Humanity signed on. Each week for 15 weeks, 2,000 volunteers will visit St. Bernard to gut homes and eventually build new ones.

But the volunteer effort hasn’t begun yet because FEMA lawyers worried about liability for the workers.

The delays frustrated Dysart.

“In Fallujah, when a general said ‘Make something happen,’ it happened,” he said.

After weeks of meetings and proposals, FEMA last week approved the plan, spokesman James McIntyre said in Baton Rouge. The agency will provide the volunteers a base camp with shelter, food and buses to work sites.

One organizer of the army of volunteers is Jim Pate, New Orleans director of Habitat for Humanity.

In New Orleans, which has churches and tent cities that can house volunteers, “faith-based groups have already gutted more than 200 homes in the last six weeks,” Pate said.

Despite the frustration, the delays and the bureaucracy, Pate estimates that at least 35,000 volunteers will come to St. Bernard Parish over the next few months. An army of strength and will that might bring a community back from despair.

“You know,” he said, “God has a great tool with Colonel Dysart.

First glance

A Marine reservist from Lee’s Summit shoulders big responsibilities for rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.

To reach Lee Hill Kavanaugh, call (816) 234-4420 or send e-mail to