NOAHH Looks Back on the Eight Years Since Katrina

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Over 400 Homes Built, 100,000 Volunteers, and Counting

As NOAHH celebrates its 30 years of building homes, the affiliate’s staff also pauses to consider the eighth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the resultant flooding. While NOAHH’s commitment to the city began in 1983, the storms and floods of 2005 brought a rise in support, awareness, and need that galvanized the affiliate.

The primary focus of the affiliate’s growth is often in terms of homes built. Simply put, it’s how the organization fights substandard housing—by creating an alternative. Before the storm, NOAHH had completed 101 homes—no small endeavor even in 22 years. It began as a small, mostly volunteer organization, building at most three homes a year. During the early part of the 2000s, the affiliate made some progress and was building around 10 to 15 homes per year. Just before the storm, Baptist Crossroads committed to build 40 homes with NOAHH, a commitment they kept even after the storm.

Long term volunteer, former board member, and good friend of NOAHH Dennis Kehoe described his work with Habitat before and after the storm. “As with just about everything connected with New Orleans, the history of Habitat in our city is divided into two phases, before Katrina and after Katrina…. At first, [New Orleans] Habitat was a very modest operation—we would build one house at a time, with a very small staff. There was something nice about this. Since the operation was small, many functions depended on volunteers alone, and we all felt a great sense of community. But we were also striving to become bigger, and sometimes this was a frustrating process, as we struggled to develop ways to build more houses and have a larger staff that could take on more responsibilities.”

Since the storm, NOAHH has completed over 400 homes, with more to come. For several years, NOAHH was even the top home-builder in the state. The centerpiece of the rebuilding effort was Musicians’ Village. Conceived with Harry Connick, Jr., and Branford Marsalis, Musicians’ Village was designed with the intention of helping to preserve the musical heritage of New Orleans. It served as the focal point of NOAHH’s efforts for years, and its completion in 2011 was a major milestone in the affiliate’s progress.

But there are other measures of success. Each home built is a family that has been served by NOAHH, but its operations don’t stop merely at homes built. NOAHH has multiple ongoing programs that help us bring its mission to a wider community. The A Brush With Kindness program provides external repairs to homeowners in need. NOAHH has engaged in Attack the Block programs that provide neighborhood cleanup partnered with local organizations through the HUG Initiative, which provides unused lots for gardening projects. Furthermore, NOAHH has rehabilitated a handful of homes over the last eight years when the opportunity arose.

Just after the storm, when infrastructure was not in place to continue home building, NOAHH did not lie idle. New Orleans Habitat staff gathered the volunteers who came to the city and went to work gutting homes, clearing out the debris and damage so that they could be restored. Before home building operations returned a few months later, New Orleans Habitat gutted 2,400 homes. Over the past eight years, NOAHH has served over 3,000 families through various programs.

NOAHH has also helped the local economy significantly. Over the last eight years, over 3,000 jobs have been created, with over 1,300 of them being jobs created directly through New Orleans Habitat’s operations. Not only has NOAHH staffed hundreds of people, New Orleans Habitat has employed subcontractors to do to the plumbing, electrical work, and more on the homes built by the affiliate. Some, like Freeman Electrical Service, began solely as subcontractors for NOAHH before expanding. The organization has also hosted numerous AmeriCorps NCCC teams and VISTA and Direct members of the AmeriCorps program. Their help has been invaluable in expanding and stabilizing the organization.

And then there are the volunteers who make this mission possible. By providing their efforts free of charge, volunteers make it possible for New Orleans Habitat to provide safe, affordable housing with no-interest mortgages to NOAHH’s partner families. Over 100,000 people have volunteered with NOAHH, providing over 2.5 million hours of work. In the wake of the storm, the volunteer numbers spiked significantly, and like the rest of the organization, they have leveled off since.

Speaking of what brought so many volunteers to the city, Kehoe said, “Habitat provided an outlet when there was so much uncertainty about the city's recovery; volunteering with Habitat at least seemed to be doing something positive.”

Each year since has seen milestones and major events that have brought more support and attention to the fight against poverty housing in the New Orleans area. From the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project in 2008 to the fifth anniversary Build-a-Thon in 2010 to the Super Saturday of Service that came with this year’s Super Bowl, NOAHH has been fortunate enough to be involved in many special events and the host of many public figures, media personalities, and celebrities who have made NOAHH’s cause their own. Three presidents (the aforementioned Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, and then-Senator Barack Obama) have visited work sites, as well as the foreign dignitaries such as the Crown Prince of Norway or the Patriarch of All Armenians.

It has not all been progress, but every challenge faced has been met. The city weathered two other storms (Gustav and Isaac) with minimal damage to the homes NOAHH has built or were building, and the affiliate remediated 216 homes built by NOAHH. And over the last eight years, NOAHH established lasting partnerships with many organizations, both sponsors and volunteers, and made a lasting difference in the New Orleans area—and it’s not finished yet. After the peaks of 2007 through 2009, the organization has found stability.

“In recent years, our level of activity has been modified somewhat as we move out of post-Katrina recovery, but we still draw many fine people to volunteer,” said Kehoe. “Now our program is at a level where I think we were hoping to get it before Katrina. But the sense one has volunteering remains the same: we are continuing to work away at eliminating poverty housing one family at a time.”

Through it all, NOAHH has remained focused on the mission to eliminate substandard housing in the New Orleans area, while expanding the organization’s programs to meet those goals. The affiliate rose up to meet the needs of the city in the aftermath of the disasters of 2005, and it has since stabilized at over three times the capacity and output of before the storm. In the last year, New Orleans Habitat opened a new ReStore and consolidated office and warehouse into the same space, making the organization more efficient and capable of handling what new challenges lay ahead. As the affiliate celebrates its 30th year in the New Orleans area, it has taken a new look at its mission, seeking to bridge the gap between rebuilding after the storm and making a lasting difference in its affiliate area, through innovation, dedication, and cooperation with the communities served. While the influx of volunteers and donors is not at its post-Katrina peak, NOAHH is more able now than ever to find new ways to fulfill its mission. The affiliate was here fighting poverty housing before, and it will be here until the job is finished.

New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity, an independent affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International, is a 501(c) 3 non-profit organization. NOAHH builds new houses in partnership with sponsors, volunteers, communities, and homeowner families to eliminate poverty housing in the New Orleans area while serving as a catalyst to make decent shelter a matter of conscience and action. Since its inception in 1983 NOAHH has built over 500 new homes for low-income families in need of adequate shelter. NOAHH plans to continue to build homes in the New Orleans area. http://www.habitat-nola.org
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Aleis Tusa
New Orleans Area Habitat For Humanity
504.251.5710
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