NEW ORLEANS "Everyone should be able to go green. And it's going to help with our high utility bills," Lois Ruffin said, as she sat with her elderly mother, Lula, and her daughter, Riandra, in a shady spot beneath the sweltering Louisiana sun. Behind them, a group of volunteers busily hammered, measured and sawed, rebuilding the house that has been unlivable since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, exactly five years ago.
"I wanted my mother to live in a home, and my children to experience a home," Lois explained. They've been staying in apartments since the storm, but it has always felt temporary to them. Soon, the family will move into this quiet, revitalized street in the Gentilly section of New Orleans, and they will benefit from Energy Star appliances, efficient insulation and windows and solid construction.
Gentilly is on the city's north side, on the southern shore of Lake Ponchartrain. It is low lying and was heavily damaged when the levees breached during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, sending in floodwaters up to 12 feet deep. However, Gentilly hasn't received near as much national attention as the practically flattened Lower Ninth Ward. Gentilly is largely low and middle income and is predominantly African American.
Gentilly is also the target of the Fifty For Five program, the largest volunteer rebuilding effort in the city in the five years since Katrina. During the week of August 24 to 29, 2010, more than 1,000 volunteers from all over the country came to help rebuild 50 homes for low-income families. Projects ranged from minor exterior repairs, such as building fences and painting siding, to complete "guts."
Fifty For Five is administered by Rebuilding Together, a national nonprofit network with more than 30 years of experience in renovating and preserving affordable housing. Rebuilding Together's headquarters are in Washington, D.C., although most of the work in New Orleans has been coordinated by the group's local affiliate chapter. For Fifty For Five, 46 other regional chapters of Rebuilding Together sent teams, as did Americorps, and Morgan Freeman's PlanItNow.
Numerous companies sent volunteers as well, including Shell, Wells Fargo, Meredith, Cricket, HGTV/DIY Networks, Choice Hotels, and Sears and Kmart (which are both part of the same company). The marquee sponsor for Fifty For Five is Sears, which covered this reporter's travel and accommodations to New Orleans for a few days of research and volunteer participation in the rebuilding. (Yep, I rolled up my sleeves and pitched in.)
Addressing the volunteers, the national president and CEO of Rebuilding Together, Gary Officer, said, "We're here to celebrate five years of extraordinary progress since Hurricane Katrina. We were all horrified by the images of Katrina and the forgotten storm, Rita, and the great global city of New Orleans became the symbol for the devastation along the Gulf Coast." Officer said there have been many important lessons learned since, including the ways in which people try to maintain their dignity in the face of disaster. "We can engage and provide for those who are less fortunate," he added.
Former executive director of Rebuilding Together New Orleans (and current New Orleans city council member) Kristin Gisleson Palmer told the volunteers that her group had been working in the community for decades, and was about to begin their 1,000th home revitalization project when the storm approached in August 2005. "So when Katrina hit, who was in the best position to rebuild? Rebuilding Together," she said. "Sixty percent of our nation lives on the coastlines, and we are increasingly vulnerable, and we know the only way is if we rebuild together," Palmer added.
Daniela Rivero, the current executive director of Rebuilding Together New Orleans, added that the key ingredient for recovery is a "wonderful city that people want to come back to." There was a common thread of resilience and determination all week among volunteers and city residents. Still, there remain many challenges, and the oil spill in the region hasn't made anything easier. According to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, more than 50,000 of the city's houses -- about 27% -- remain vacant, the highest proportion of any city in the country. Roughly 100,000 people have not returned since the storm, putting the city's current population at around 355,000.
This fact is eerily apparent almost anywhere you drive in New Orleans (outside of the tourist-mobbed, and largely undamaged, French Quarter and Garden District). Even busy thoroughfares are punctuated by many abandoned and partially demolished houses and commercial spaces. In Gentilly, a large, brand new house may sit between a badly roughed up, yet inhabited, home and a caved-in structure that is being rapidly reclaimed by Mother Nature, with a driveway so overgrown with bushes and grasses that it is hardly recognizable. Many families had to use any payments they received from insurance companies or the government for medical bills or living expenses instead of rebuilding, while others saw their funds swindled by the raft of unscrupulous contractors who took advantage of the chaos after the storm.
Still, there are some positive trends happening in New Orleans as well. Entrepreneurs are starting new businesses there at a higher rate than the national average, and there are more restaurants open now than before Katrina. About two-thirds of the city's children attend charter schools, and federal funding continues to come in for rebuilding efforts.
Becky Carter, who works in communications for the national office of Rebuilding Together, explained that Fifty for Five is the group's biggest week anywhere. She pointed out that the group works on about 10,000 properties a year across the country, engaging 200,000 volunteers. Carter added that the idea for this year's program grew out of work they did with Sears last year for Katrina's fourth anniversary, as well as their partnership on the Heroes at Home project, which has provided more than $9 million in assistance to veterans and military families in need.
Most often, Rebuilding Together works with homeowners who are elderly, disabled, or who have young children. The group often gets referrals from religious, government and nonprofit agencies, including Habitat for Humanity, which typically focuses on complete home builds for first-time homeowners, while Rebuilding Together focuses on revitalization of existing structures. Habitat beneficiaries typically have to contribute something financially to their new home, as well as provide sweat equity, whereas Rebuilding Together tends to only request sweat equity (as long as recipients are physically able), according to Tiffanie Kinney, the group's director of grants program. Kinney explained that the costs for rebuilding are typically found through a mix of corporate sponsorship, HUD block grants and state programs.
Building It Green
EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson grew up in Gentilly, and she came to observe the Fifty For Five project. Jackson issued a statement, saying she "really appreciates the efforts to bring back my community."
But that wasn't the only green connection to the rebuilding efforts. As Kinney explained, Rebuilding Together affiliates (including the one in New Orleans) often salvage materials that are recovered from work sites, and make them available at low cost to others (similar to Habitat's ReStores). Kinney added that Rebuilding Together's Green Housing Program also focuses on establishing healthy, safe indoor environments that are also energy efficient. To that end, the group had teamed up with Sears and GE to donate efficient Energy Star-rated appliances to those families out of the 50 who requested them. This included a "hybrid" hot water heater with a heat pump for added efficiency, a choice of refrigerators, stoves, air conditioners, laundry machines and more.
Homeowner Onaje Lombard, who was helping Fifty For Five volunteers paint his house in Gentilly, said he was excited about energy efficient appliances. "When you have an energy bill that's over $300 a summer, you're certainly interested in reducing that," he said.
"This city isn't just coming back, it's coming back better," Tom Aiello, a division vice president for public relations of Sears, told the volunteers at the wrap-up ceremony. "We're putting in GE Energy Star appliances for lower bills." Aiello links that effort to his company's Big Switch program, which is aiming to replace 5 million aging, inefficient appliances in American homes with new Energy Star models.
Kevin Brown, Sears' vice president and chief marketing officer for home appliances, was on hand to explain that the goal is to ensure that every replaced unit gets responsibly recycled. He said the company is providing dropoff locations and is offering a home pickup service, for a fee he called "highly competitive."
Rebuilding Together isn't the only green re-building effort in New Orleans. Brad Pitt was also reportedly in town this past week, supporting efforts of Global Green. The group held a ceremony for its Holy Cross Project, which consists of five green single-family homes, an 18-unit apartment building, and a community center/sustainable design and climate action center. Global Green has also been working to green up area schools, and has been providing information and other assistance to homeowners who have been interested in improving the footprint of their renovations.
New Orleans is a vibrant and multicultural town, where jazz really does fill the evening air, and the seafood is spectacular. There is still a great deal of rebuilding to do, but there are also some bright green developments.
Photos by Brian Clark Howard
Disclosure: Sears covered the travel and accommodations for this reporter's visit to New Orleans.
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