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Slow road home in St. Bernard Parish

Volunteers bring progress to community devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

BY WALT WILTSCHEK | CHALMETTE, LA | June 3, 2009

It’s been a slow road back for St. Bernard Parish, located just southeast of the city of New Orleans. But thanks to the non-profit St. Bernard Project, it’s making progress.

“It’s definitely getting traction,” St. Bernard Project co-founder/director Liz McCartney says of the region. “It’s definitely coming back.”

She says local officials estimate that 50 percent of the pre-Hurricane Katrina population has returned to the parish, and about 40 percent of businesses have re-opened. Some of those restaurants and shopping centers are evident along Judge Pérez Drive, a major thoroughfare, while a large Wal-Mart and others remain shuttered.

This mostly working-class and middle-class region was devastated by Katrina. Levees failed, water flowed in, and the resultant floods left every house in the parish uninhabitable. Many residents had too much income to qualify for special programs but not enough to rebuild. That’s where the St. Bernard Project comes in.

McCartney and her friend Zack Rosenburg came to the area from their Washington, D.C., home six months after Katrina, intending to help in a short-term recovery project. When they got there, though, they were stunned by the extent of devastation and captivated by the people they met.

Three months later, in June 2006, they left good careers and came back for the long-term. They began work on their first client’s home in August and gradually shaped an organization that rebuilt its 210th home as of mid-May.

“They key is being flexible, and treating people like they want,” McCartney says, describing the organization’s approach. “We’ve had to do things differently than they’ve ever been done before.”

They have about 45 people on staff, including a large contingent of Americorps workers, and up to 200 volunteers come through daily, some from partnerships with a variety of faith-based and other organizations. Those numbers and the available funding allow the project to do about 100 homes a year from start to finish.

How does that stack up against the needed work? Rosenburg says about 7,000 to 8,000 homes in the parish were knocked down after Katrina, leaving only concrete pads or vacant lots. About 10,000 others have been gutted and rebuilt by various means since then. After all that, up to 9,000 more are still waiting to be rebuilt.

“We want to ramp up (our capacity) significantly,” McCartney says. “We’d like to do 1,000 homes a year. Just get it done, get the people home and get the community back on its feet.”

They have also started expanding a bit. A few weeks ago they started their first projects outside St. Bernard Parish, taking on the homes of two older couples in New Orleans. And in addition to rebuilding work, the organization offers a popular community health and wellness center in its headquarters building, especially focusing on mental health.

In November, McCartney was named CNN’s “Hero of the Year” for her work with the project. It brought a $100,000 award that McCartney donated to the project’s work, along with some welcome attention and awareness.

John and Mary Mueller, local coordinators for St. Bernard partner Brethren Disaster Ministries, says the attention and award are well deserved.

“We hit it off with Liz and Zack from the start,” Mary Mueller says. “They’re just wonderful people. We tell the volunteers, if you want to see the power of one—or in their case the power of two—to look there.”

“They’re just an excellent partner,” John Mueller adds. “They have excellent funding, no issues with materials, and an excellent support system. They’ve done a great job.”

McCartney and Rosenberg admit they’ve had their share of frustrations: projects ready and just awaiting funding, the challenges of bureaucratic process, the enormous scope of the work, and more. It hasn’t dampened their resolve, though. They’re keeping the goal in sight.

“The more people that are back, the more people who will come back,” McCartney says. “We’re getting there.”


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