Man finds life's calling in Katrina

Retiree who couldn’t stay retired coordinates rebuilding efforts in New Orleans

BY WALT WILTSCHEK | NEW ORLEANS | May 22, 2009


Leonard Carter stands by a long list of addresses awaiting work on a whiteboard in his New Orleans Uptown office.
Credit: DNN/Walt Wiltschek

Neat shelves of tools await volunteers at the United Methodist Church's Southeast Louisiana region disaster recovery ministry.
Credit: DNN/Walt Wiltschek

Leonard Carter is good at a lot of things. Staying retired isn’t one of them.

Carter retired from the Air Force in 1976. He did some work for an insurance company, then went to work for the Orleans Parish School Board. He retired from that in 1999. Two years later his daughter connected him with Goodwill Industries, and he went to work for their contracts department, working with placements for the handicapped.

He spent a year in Texas after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. When he moved back, he bumped into a former colleague who said, “I’ve got a job for you.” “Doing what?” Carter asked. The answer: Building homes for those who lost them in Katrina.

“No problem,” Carter said. He submitted a resume, was quickly hired, and went to work as a project manager for the Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church Disaster Response in February 2007. More than two years later, he’s still going full throttle.

“I tell people all the time, the military was enjoyable, working for the schools was enjoyable, but I love this,” says Carter, now 72. “I love when I go to people’s homes and can tell them, ‘We can help you,’ and then to see the hope in their face. To see their face light up, that’s one thing that encourages me every day.”

He gets plenty of opportunities. A whiteboard in his office bears a long list of addresses of various projects awaiting some stage of repairs: roofs, insulation and drywall, doors and trim, floors, texturing and painting, and more. Keys to the homes line another wall.

The projects in Carter’s Southeast region span the entire south shore region of Lake Pontchartrain, including work in several parishes as the ministry expands.

“There have been times that I say, ‘Lord, how are we going to do this?’ ” Carter says. “Then next thing you know, it’s done!”

Carter likes to get an early start on that work. He arrives by 6:30 each morning, eager for a new day. On this particular morning, he did an orientation for a new group of 26 college students and advisors who were volunteering for the week. Some weeks, the groups number as many as 80. An impressive map in the building shows where all the volunteers have come from, covering most of the U.S. and numerous other countries.

The volunteers sleep and cook their meals in the same building where Carter’s office is located, a converted day-care center in the city’s Uptown neighborhood. In other rooms are shelves after shelves of tools, all arranged with military precision to fulfill the checklists for any task. Carter jokes that even his drills are standing at attention.

Four site managers assist the rebuilding work, doing assessment and supervising the volunteers and subcontractors at each house.

All the effort has brought big results: Through December 2008, the ministry had put more than 1,000 families back in their homes and serviced a total of 10,000 clients by meeting other needs, such as replacement appliances or other supplies.

Carter says he’s glad to have a chance to give back. He has enjoyed good health and takes no medications. He’s blessed with children and grandchildren, even great-grandchildren. He’s active in his own Baptist church, too, chairing two commissions and serving as an usher.

“It makes me want to go out there and help, because the Lord’s been so good to me,” Carter says. “Especially for the underprivileged and the poor, whatever I can do, we’ll do for them.”

He says his goal is to work himself out of a job, because that would mean everyone was back in their homes. For now, though, he knows “the Lord’s not through with me yet,” and he doesn’t mind a bit.

“I love every minute of it,” Carter says. “I could have done this all my life.”


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