"Dad, you've got to do something"

Bill Hammond, Courtney Jones, and Karl Buder.
(From left) Bill Hammond, Courtney Jones, and Karl Buder with a Nissan Pathfinder, that was donated to Mr. Hammond by a man from Cape Cod. Photo by Karl Buder

By Julian Wise - October 19, 2006

The first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina has come and gone, but millions of people in and outside the Gulf Coast region continue to live with the aftermath of the storm. This is the second in a series of three stories in which The Times reports on Islanders with personal links to both the region and the storm.

When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast area a little more than one year ago, Thorncroft Inn owner Karl Buder had no idea that his fate would become intertwined with one couple who were victims of the catastrophe. Through a series of unfolding events, Mr. Buder found himself helping this displaced family get back on their feet in the wake of the storm. His story details a quiet determination to help others in need, born of religious faith and firm resolve.

Mr. Buder and his wife, Lynn, have spent the last 25 years owning and operating the Thorncroft Inn in Tisbury. Mr. Buder, a former federal probation officer, and Ms. Buder, a former insurance company executive, made the career transition to inn-keeping in the early 1980s. Their two sons, Hans and Alex, have passed through the Island school system and are now enrolled at Duke and George Washington universities, respectively. Mr. Buder is currently nearing the end of four-and-a-half year program to become a permanent deacon in the Roman Catholic Church.

When Hurricane Katrina unleashed its fury and the media began to expose the unfolding chaos in New Orleans, Mr. Buder e-mailed both of his sons at college to point out the inequities in the federal response. "This was a classic case of poor people being thrown as cannon fodder," he recalls. "It was morally reprehensible to me."

When his son Hans called on the phone and mentioned wanting to travel to New Orleans to help the relief effort, Mr. Buder attempted to dissuade him, saying the scope of the disaster was more than a college student could handle. "Little did I know he was half way to New Orleans when we were talking," Mr. Buder says.

In the following days, Mr. Buder would learn that his son and his friends loaded up a Hyundai Elantra with water, created false press passes, and drove to the New Orleans convention center to hand out bottled water. His son and friends were stopped by armed vigilantes, who let them pass when they learned of their humanitarian mission. Hans and his friends drove several people out of the city to safety in Baton Rouge, skirting National Guard blockades along the way. Their efforts gained them media coverage on FOX, CNN, MSNBC, MTV, The New York Times, and the Atlanta Constitution Journal.

One of the individuals rescued by Hans and his friends was Bill Hammond, a 49-year-old African American electrician in New Orleans who escaped with his wife, but lost his home and equipment to the deluge. Mr. Hammond spoke with Mr. Buder and described his son's heroism.

"His wife said that my son and the other guys were like the three wise men. They fought through all they had to fight through to bring them out to safety. The situation was pretty bad where they were."

As Mr. Buder learned more of Bill Hammond's plight, including his resettlement in the outskirts of Dallas without the benefit of his trade equipment, he decided to take a personal interest in Mr. Hammond's welfare. "God put these people in front of us for a reason," he says. "We can't let this go by. There's an actual face of the tragedy. These are concrete people with problems you can delineate."

Mr. Buder put out an appeal for help via e-mail in his deacon community. Before long, contributions began to roll in. One man on Cape Cod donated a Nissan Pathfinder while another donated a full kit of electrician's tools to put Mr. Hammond back in business. Others in the church community donated clothing, kitchen supplies, and gift cards to Home Depot.

In the first week of October 2005, Mr. Buder left Cape Cod in the Nissan Pathfinder and drove to Dallas to deliver the Pathfinder and the donated goods to the Hammonds. Once in Dallas, Mr. Buder helped Mr. Hammond register and insure the Pathfinder. In short order, the two became friends.

"Bill's witty, he's articulate, he's great fun to be with," Mr. Buder says. "The guy is very cool, and I had the greatest time being with him. He's a standup guy, aces as far as I'm concerned."

Bill and his family have returned to New Orleans. His wife has returned to her job at the convention center and Bill is working on various electrical projects. The two have spoken with Mr. Buder about the rebuilding efforts in the city.

"They said that their current experiences in New Orleans are disappointing," Mr. Buder says. "The city has changed essentially. There are fewer poor black people there than before. It's a city in transition. They felt very comfortable there before, but less so now. The final chapter has not been written and may not be written for several years."

Those who wish to assist the Hammonds rebuild their lives are encouraged to contact Mr. Buder at the Thorncroft Inn. He describes the Hammonds as "very proud, hardworking people" who want to rebuild their lives and live with dignity.

Through his work with the Hammonds, Mr. Buder has seen the lapses in the federal response to the needs of the poor in New Orleans. When his son Hans was interviewed by CNN's Aaron Brown, he said he was "sick and tired of being an armchair humanitarian" and felt he had to do something.

"I could not fault that judgment," his father says of his son's decision to enter the risky disaster zone. "All of my parental exasperation went by the boards because he was right. He told me that if he had 5,000 college students and 2,000 Hyundai Elantras they could have emptied the convention center, and our trillion-dollar government couldn't do the same."

When Hans encouraged his father to do something in response to the tragedy, his father viewed the request in light of their father and son bond.

"I think I would have let my son down had I not gone to the lengths I went to in order to help Bill Hammond. I remember talking to Hans on the phone when he was coming back from Baton Rouge and he said, 'Dad, you've got to do something.' That convinced me he had confidence in me. How was I going to let him down?"

Julian Wise is a frequent contributor to The Times, specializing in music, film, and the performing arts.