Light shines on Katrina survivor


The "Guiding Light" crew with homeowner Ethel Curry, standing second from left in black jacket.

TESS VIGELAND: Ethel Curry lost her house to Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005. She survived the flood waters by climbing into her open refrigerator, which was floating against the ceiling of her home.

ETHEL CURRY: And I say, "Lord, please take it down, because if it come any higher, I can't swim." Well, I was through the rafters, holding my head up. Trying to keep it, you know, from getting in my mouth, because I couldn't stand it.

Last time we visited with her, a year after the disaster, she was still living in a FEMA trailer — and still waiting for help from volunteer groups rebuilding homes on the Gulf Coast.

Stephen Smith of American RadioWorks tells us the help finally came this Winter, from an unlikely place.


STEPHAN SMITH: In the wake of a disaster like Hurricane Katrina, some people get back on their feet more slowly than others. Some not at all. Circumstances and luck can have a lot to do with it.

For 61-year-old Ethel Curry, bad luck and bad circumstances left her ineligible for most of the government and nonprofit recovery programs in Mississippi.

Then came Guiding Light. And we're not talking about a faith-based organization.

GUIDING LIGHT THEME: Family, destiny, light, hope, charity, friendship, love . . .

This year marks the 70th anniversary of "Guiding Light," the longest-running soap opera in history. The show was first created on radio by Irna Phillips, a godmother of the daytime drama.

ELLEN WHEELER: Irna had started the show to represent the brotherhood of man.

That's Guiding Light's executive producer, Ellen Wheeler.

WHEELER: . . . and to represent what happened as you reach out into the lives of other people, and what that makes come back into your own life. And so we wanted to spend our 70th anniversary celebrating that.

And so, the soap opera teamed up with a nonprofit group called the Hands On Network, which has been rebuilding a lot of houses on the Gulf Coast.

The gutted remains of Ethel Curry's place was one of three houses Guiding Light adopted in Biloxi.

ETHEL CURRY: We'll have four bedrooms here. This area will be the dining room and kitchen, it's gonna be open.

Ethel Curry had spent 16 frustrating months trying to find someone to help her rebuild her house. And then, standing in Curry's driveway, was the legendary soap character Reva Shayne.

[SOUND: Soap opera organ]

You'll recall that Reva is the housekeeper's daughter, married and divorced three times now from Josh Lewis, the billionaire's son. She's the one who drove off a bridge, got amnesia, and then naturally, spent five years living in an Amish community.

Well, anyway. Here was Reva Shayne, in Ethel's driveway, wearing a tool belt and a baseball cap.

KIM ZIMMER: We just want to get you back in your house.

ACTOR: Yeah. One squeeze on the trigger . . .

Actor Kim Zimmer, who plays Reva, spent the better part of a week with her colleagues in Biloxi — no makeup or wardrobe — nailing up studs at Ethel Curry's house. They also taped a special installment of the show about the work they did. It was Guiding Light episode 15,108.

GUIDING LIGHT ACTOR (crying): Actual walls we put up, doorways, drywall, nails . . .

At the end of the Biloxi episode, several actors said it was the most moving week of their lives.

GUIDING LIGHT ACTOR: Leaving our mark that way, hopefully we can encourage more people to come and volunteer and leave their mark as well.

Now, it would be easy to dismiss Guiding Light's trip to Biloxi as so much marketing smarm. But for Ethel Curry, it means a change in personal fortunes that had grown nearly hopeless. It means a rebuilt house she can move into a few months from now, complete with new furniture.

CURRY: It is really a gift. A great gift. Got a lot of smiles and a lot of things to smile for now.

Guiding light will be back in Biloxi to tape Ethel Curry's triumphant return to her rebuilt house. Meanwhile, there are hundreds of others in Biloxi still struggling to piece their homes back together a year and a half since Katrina hit.

From American RadioWorks, this is Stephen Smith for Marketplace.

About the author

Stephen Smith is the executive editor and host of American RadioWorks, the highly respected documentary series from American Public Media.

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