Tools, attitude put evacuee to work|[11/7/05]

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 7, 2005

Cornelius &#8220Popcorn” Singleton was no stranger to tragedy when Hurricane Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast Aug. 29.

His sister died the week before the storm, and she was buried the day before he evacuated. Singleton’s wife, Wanda, and his daughter, LaToya, had already evacuated to Florida, so on Aug. 28, he and his two other sisters drove north on Interstate 55 looking for higher ground.

&#8220I didn’t want to have to drive to Arkansas to get to the nearest hotel,” he said.

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Singleton left his home in Gretna, outside New Orleans, with only one suitcase and a few changes of clothes. His two most valuable possessions turned out to be his electrician’s tool belt and a desire to work.

&#8220My other two sisters and I were just riding around, trying to find a hotel. At that point, I just didn’t want to keep driving,” Singleton said.

Singleton, 44, and his two sisters, Yvette and Yvonne, landed at Bovina Baptist Church, where a shelter had been set up. A few days later, they joined hundreds of other evacuees at the Vicksburg Convention Center.

About a week after Katrina, staffing agencies, temporary labor services and a church-run program to place evacuees in jobs and housing were under way.

During the storm, evacuee numbers peaked at about 1,200 in Vicksburg shelters plus uncounted numbers in hotels, motels and with family and friends. It was the most ever to seek shelter here, at least since the Mississippi River flood of 1927.

As it became clear many would not be able to return to coastal areas for months, nearly 400 students were enrolled in public schools and others in private programs.

Almost immediately after meeting Singleton at the convention center, VCC director Larry Gawronski knew he had to help him find a job.

&#8220From the brand-new steel toe shoes and saying to us constantly, ‘I want to work,’ he was just ready to go,” Gawronski said.

Singleton’s T-shirt even looked pressed, Gawronski said.

By the day after Labor Day, Singleton had a job. He joined the permanent crew of Joe Gay Electrical Contractors Inc.

&#8220There are your usual types that come into town usually asking for work,” Gay said. &#8220Some are just on the run from the long arm of the law.”

Gay quickly found Singleton was different.

&#8220He stepped in and within a few days handled every job real well and has been a heck of an asset to us,” Gay said.

Singleton has been a journeyman electrician since soon after his high school football playing days ended.

He earned the nickname, &#8220Popcorn,” on the gridiron, starring for West Jefferson High School as a quarterback, running back and defensive back from 1975 to 1978.

&#8220I used to pop people on the field and pop the nets on the court,” Singleton said.

After high school, he entered an apprenticeship school and started a career as an electrician. Along the way, he worked for some of New Orleans’ biggest electrical maintenance firms. For a brief time in the mid-1980s, he worked a few jobs in New York that left lasting impressions.

&#8220I worked on a generator in one of the World Trade Center towers and did some work in the subway,” he said.

Now, he plans to make Vicksburg his home. He’s gotten an apartment, and it will be ready for his move this week.

Singleton will spend Thanksgiving in Florida with his wife and daughter.

My wife &#8220just hates to fly,” he said.

But, as soon as he moves into his apartment, he plans to bring his family here.

&#8220I’m moving into my apartment as soon as I get my furniture together,” he said.

Singleton said he’s grateful for the assistance he received from charitable groups here. His hotel bill was covered by the American Red Cross. The United Way of West Central Mississippi has given him some furniture. The Vicksburg Lions Club gave him a new pair of eyeglasses.

&#8220I’m very appreciative of all the help I got there,” Singleton said. &#8220All of them helped make it happen for me.”