The devastation of Katrina compelled Julie Davis to help more than six years ago, and she and her husband Ken have been repeat volunteers ever since. They once were "snowbirds," or retirees who visited the South in search of warm weather each year, but now they spend weeks at a time each winter performing volunteer work in disaster-torn areas like Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Chatting with displaced homeowner Deloris Mack as her husband worked on the woman's rebuilt house, Davis said volunteering is addictive.
"We are definitely junkies because you get it in your blood and just can't quit," said Davis, of Girard, Penn. "(It's) just the satisfaction of knowing that you are helping someone, that they aren't expecting anything and you just come up."
Mack said such volunteers aren't just random people who help out — she believes they are sent by God.
"To me they're angels. Only a God-sent person would come out and build a home for free," Mack said. "So many homes were destroyed. People were lost and didn't know where to go and, like me, don't have the money and the resources to do anything."
An estimated 44 percent of Americans claim to perform volunteer work. A study published by the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues in 2004 said volunteering typically is a "long-term behavior" that people repeat over an extended period once they've tried it the first time. The study said the "vast majority" of volunteers get involved through service or religious organizations, with the latter being the most common.
That's what happened to Elliott, who takes vacation time off work in California to volunteer for Samaritan's Purse, a Christian organization based in Boone, N.C. His first volunteer experience was after Katrina, and he's been on at least 10 more trips since then.
Experiencing the aftermath of a disaster was intriguing and adventurous, he said, but the work mainly gave him a way to live out his Christian faith with others. At times, Elliott said, volunteering is a stunning experience, such as when he first arrived in Tuscaloosa last year to begin helping with the cleanup.
"I was floored. You can see disaster on television ... but unless you're actually walking in it, it really doesn't hit home," said Elliott. "The experience of being here and seeing the devastation was just .... I was awestruck at the amount of sheer power that caused the devastation here."
Burton, who supervised a tornado rebuilding project where Elliott helped, said the repeat volunteers break down into different categories.
"We do the disaster relief operations, which is the initial people that come in. There's a group that just does that. That's what they love, cleaning up or mucking out after floods. Then there's another group that loves to do the rebuild process. They're kind of the rebuild junkies. They just keep coming wherever we are in the United States," he said.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.