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LA Katrina recovery continues

"You'll see neighborhoods with houses up and down the street, but they're all vacant. There are only a few places where people have moved back in. It's an eerie feeling at night; there are few lights because no one's here."

BY HEATHER MOYER | CHALMETTE, La. | February 16, 2007

"You'll see neighborhoods with houses up and down the street, but they're all vacant. There are only a few places where people have moved back in. It's an eerie feeling at night; there are few lights because no one's here."

Joan Taylor is talking about St. Bernard Parish and the Chalmette area near New Orleans. There to help out with Hurricane Katrina rebuild work by Church of the Brethren Disaster Response, Taylor and her husband Phil are amazed by both how far there is to go and the resiliency of those families who have returned.

"They're continuing to demolish homes here," said Taylor, assistant project director with her husband for the Church of the Brethren Chalmette project site. "They'll bring in 18-wheelers, which they'll load up after they bulldoze a home. And yet some homes are being put back together, too. The families are still inspired to come back and rebuild."

Church of the Brethren opened the project site the week of Feb. 11 and has volunteers scheduled for every week from now until the summer. "What we're doing this week and what looks like for the foreseeable future is helping those living in a (Federal Emergency Management Agency) trailer in their yard," Taylor explained. "The volunteers are helping put in insulation and drywall."

The incoming Church of the Brethren volunteers get projects assigned to them by the St. Bernard Project, the long-term recovery agency in the parish. The agency's co-founder said they are focusing on families that may have otherwise fallen through the cracks in the recovery process.

"We have walk-in clients who heard about us via word-of-mouth or from local churches," said Liz McCartney, who co-founded St. Bernard Project with Zack Rosenburg last summer. "We also are helping those who didn't qualify for some the grant programs. So maybe they have enough money to buy supplies but not enough to hire the labor."

The St. Bernard Project brings in volunteers to work on the homes as free labor for those families, and also utilizes a collection of funding agencies, including Church World Service, to help other families secure building supplies and other recovery needs. McCartney said the project has helped between 60 and 70 cases so far, but many more are in need.

"Seventy percent of these homes were owner occupied before Hurricane Katrina," she explained. "It was a good and thriving community and not the place where people needed much charity or social service. It was disheartening to see what was once a thriving community now destroyed."

The parish had more than 65,000 residents before Katrina struck, said McCartney, and some 18 months later, only about 7,000 residents have returned.

McCartney, a Washington, D.C., native, said she was inspired to start the St. Bernard Project because the families were reminiscent of her parents, grandparents and of her childhood neighborhood. During area volunteer work with co-founder Rosenburg last winter, the two decided to start the long-term recovery agency and partnered with numerous national disaster relief agencies and local social service groups. The St. Bernard Project was up and running by August of 2006.

Since then, volunteers have poured in to help families repair homes. McCartney said those signs of life have inspired the community. "If you work on one house on one street, we've learned that it has a real powerful effect on the rest of the street," she explained. "People see 'Miss Jones' doing it and then think they can do it too. Having our volunteers go out to these homes each day and doing quality work with care spread a lot of hope. Many of the families feel forgotten, and the (recovery) process is demoralizing. The volunteers spread hope."

Taylor noticed the same this week when Church of the Brethren volunteers worked with one family. "The residents are excited. One family came out to help the volunteers do repair work," said Taylor. "They even did a lot of work in the evening when the volunteers weren't around. When the volunteers went back the next day, the family had removed nails and things so the volunteers could put up the drywall more easily."

Taylor added that volunteers are encouraged to talk to to the families when it's possible. "We've come to get the work done, but it's very important to talk to the families and hear their story. We tell our volunteers, 'Don't feel like you can't take the time to sit and talk to them.'"

McCartney said the St. Bernard Project will stay open for as long as it's needed. "We're here until we work ourselves out of a job," she laughed. Yet more volunteers, funding and building supplies are necessary to keep the recovery moving forward. There is plenty of comfortable space for volunteers, too, as the agency has a partnership with the parish and is using several county trailers to house the incoming crews.

The St. Bernard Project founders had no disaster relief or construction experience before starting the agency, but say everything came together because everyone is so willing to work together on a common goal.

"It's been challenging, but also very fulfilling," said McCartney. "We found that having really good partnerships has helped us grow and meet the needs of our clients way better than we could have done on our own."

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Related Links:

Church of the Brethren Disaster Response

The St. Bernard Project

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