Video: Getting close

By Mike Brunker Projects Team editor
updated 8/28/2006 6:39:43 AM ET 2006-08-28T10:39:43

Aulton Vann. Jr. almost didn’t live long enough to fulfill his dream of rebuilding his beachfront home after being flattened himself by a pair of heart attacks that his doctor said should have killed him. But following an amazingly quick recovery, he figures he’s just days away from beginning construction and just a couple months from “the best feeling that you can ever have” – walking into his new house.

The excitable 57-year-old insurance agent says it was a “combination of ... the hurricane, the workload, the stress” of trying to settle 3,000 insurance claims while simultaneously working to replace his business offices and home that caused his heart to go haywire in early April and rev up like a NASCAR racer.

“The doctor told me later, ‘Aulton, you should be dead,’” Vann recalls. “… Your heart should have exploded at 266 beats per minute.”

A shot of lidocaine administered by emergency personnel slowed it down to a slightly more reasonable rate of 225 and enabled him to survive the ambulance ride to the hospital.

Following a similar attack a few days later, doctors implanted a defibrillator under the skin of Vann’s chest, regulating his heart and allowing him to quickly regain his strength for what has become his overriding mission – cutting through what he sees as petty rules and regulations that are getting in the way of rebuilding the Gulf Coast.

“Sometimes one inspector says you can’t do it this way and another inspector says, ‘Yeah, you can do it that way,’” he says, his voice ascending to a high tenor register. “It’s just little silly stuff like this ... that aggravates the stew out of you.”

Vann says local planners and the federal government are both to blame for the “headaches and heartaches” that the confusing regulations impose on weary residents.

“Pascagoula people are …strong; we don’t want a lot of help,” he says. “All we want to do is be able to put our homes back and get back to that normal lifestyle that we’ve always had here. … But our city officials and the government people – FEMA – have just put so many restrictions on us that it’s breaking (people) down.”

Despite a series of delays arising from building code complexities and battles with planning officials, Vann this spring reopened his offices in a new metal building on the downtown corner where the family business has stood for years. And he figures he’s just days from breaking ground on his new, smaller beachfront home.

As a reminder of the tumult that Katrina injected into his family’s lives, Vann had his architect incorporate the front steps of his old house – virtually the only remnant left behind by the storm – into the staircase of the new one.

He’s already anticipating how it will feel to walk up those steps and open the front door for the first time.

“It’ll probably be as good as when my first child was born or when my wife said she would marry me,” he says, his voice growing thick with emotion. “…To walk up these steps and go into my house is going to be … going to be great.”

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