Our BlogtourNOLA trip to New Orleans was not just about interior design. Our organizer, Veronika Miller, wanted us to have the opportunity to understand New Orleans as a community that has and continues to suffer. We were invited to visit with neighborhoods deeply affected by Katrina and witness their rebuilding efforts firsthand.
Photo Credit: Barbara Elza Hirsch | Chez Elza
Our first tour is organized by the Storehouse of World Vision, a network of six storehouses which supply donated goods such as building materials, school supplies, personal care items and clothing from corporate partners to more than 2.2 million people annually in low-income communities. As part of the upcoming National Kitchen and Bath Industry Show (KBIS) which took place in New Orleans April 19-21, World Vision partnered with New Orleans St Paul’s Homecoming Center and the National Kitchen & Bath Association (NKBA) to help three deserving families rebuild their homes.
We are invited to tour these homes in Gentilly, a neighborhood located near the levees that has seen only 60% of its homes rebuilt. Efrain Perez, Jr., Corporate Relations Director of World Vision explains how his organization partners with companies to donate products to help those in needs. New Orleans continues to need all the support it can get: corporate donations are essential in this reconstruction. Connie Uddo, director of St Paul’s Homecoming Center, explains how her local community was affected: “100 000 trees were destroyed by salt water and 80% of homes flooded”. Connie tells how contractor fraud had affected the already demoralized inhabitants. When the government money came in, people started hiring contractors. Unfortunately, some of these contractors profited from the situation and took the money and ran.
It is hard to transcribe here the level of raw emotion, determination and courage the locals shared with us as we visit with them.
Connie guided St Paul’s Episcopal Church effort to offer the post-Katrina community a place where they could find volunteer help, housing, tools, computer access, mental health and much, much more. She speaks in an energetic, focused and dedicated manner about her community: “We just held each other up, pulled ourselves by the bootstraps and we continue to today”. Gentilly’s middle class neighborhood was under water 8 years ago. It has been a very slow process to rebuild. Connie works tirelessly with volunteers like Joe Robert, a contractor whose home was entirely destroyed during Katrina.
Joe Robert and Connie Uddo tell us their story in front of one of the homes being rebuilt in Gentilly. Photo : Barbara Elza Hirsch | Chez Elza
Joe was in the process of rebuilding when all his tools and floors were stolen out of his house. He owns one of the homes currently being helped by donations from World Vision, and which he helps rebuild, along with other homes, after his workday.
A team of volunteers from The Home Depot help construct the Davis’ family home, as their daughter explains that her father so wanted to meet with us but is currently in the hospital. This family did not have flood insurance. The little money they got for their contents was stolen by a fraudulent contractor who ran off with $32,000. Photo : Barbara Elza Hirsch | Chez Elza
A special ceremony is underway. White doves will be released in the sky to symbolize the rebirth of these homes and give strength and courage to all. Photo : Barbara Elza Hirsch | Chez Elza
Everyone holds their breath as the doves are about to be released. The owner of the birds explains what will happen.
And there they go! Photo Credit: Barbara Elza Hirsch | Chez Elza
Our last stop is Joe’s home. His property abuts the levee and he tells a heart wrenching story. Since his home’s destruction 8 years ago, he and his wife have had to live with a family member. Their home rebuilding project is finally on the right track. He is torn between moving back here, to a neighborhood he and his ancestors grew up in, and his wife’s fear that the brand new levee will not protect them in case of a another disastrous storm.
Note how the homes’ levels are elevated and have doors at every floor: this is the new approach to re-building homes in the area.
In Joe’s driveway, we ask for permission to walk to the newly constructed levee and are struck by how eerily close to the homes these are.
I climb on a ledge to take this shot and assess the water level. Joe’s house is 50 feet to the right of this view.
Joe lifts his arm as he tells the story of how high the water went. Later he will show us a street sign, about as high as our tour bus. The water reached that sign’s level. We can still see the water stains. Photos : Barbara Elza Hirsch | Chez Elza
Inside the home, boxes of donated items are ready to be opened. A kitchen that for most of us is a simple commodity is a luxury long awaited for here.
Corporations who donated to this project should feel proud:
It is time to say goodbye. Tears are shed. We leave our new Gentilly friends behind with a heavy heart. The mood in the bus is morose as we grapple with all we’ve seen and heard.
Next stop is another neighborhood, the Lower 9th Ward, a historic working class community which was also hit hard during the hurricane. 1,200 people perished here and only 20% of the original population has returned. When Brad Pitt visited New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward two years after Hurricane Katrina, he was shocked by the lack of rebuilding progress in this community. Pitt decided to help rebuild in the hardest hit area of the city and created Make It Right, which is committed to building high-quality, sustainable homes designed by architects for communities in need. All Make It Right projects are LEED Platinum certified and Cradle to Cradle inspired – meeting the highest standards of green building. The homes are sold at a very low price and buyers need to be previous neighborhood residents. 90 homes have already been rebuilt. 350 people have been brought back home thanks to Make It Right.
Photo Credit: Barbara Elza Hirsch | Chez Elza
The homes here are designed with the architect according to the homeowner’s taste and preferences. Each is unique. The U.S. Green Building Council named Make It Right‘s work in the Lower 9th Ward “the largest, greenest neighborhood of single family homes in the world.”
Photo Credits: Barbara Elza Hirsch | Chez Elza
Many renowned architects have designed homes for this project, such as Frank Gehry’s pink house above. Photo Credit: Barbara Elza Hirsch | Chez Elza
An empty park awaits the return of its children. Photo Credit: Barbara Elza Hirsch | Chez Elza
Well ventilated homes, built to optimize light and shade, as well as bright colors are a signature of the Make it Right homes. Photo Credit: Barbara Elza Hirsch | Chez Elza
Help from corporations and individuals is key to the success of the Make It Right project and companies such as Benjamin Moore, Cosentino (owner of Silestone) and Shaw Floors are active partners in this reconstruction.
We visit one home where one older woman has reintegrated her neighborhood. She is happy and loves the new space. Two members of Make it Right can’t seem to agree on whether her home was designed by a Japanese architect or a Chinese architect. Is it really important at this point ? I don’t really care. I’d much rather meet and hear the locals.
This afternoon visit to the Lower 9th Ward feels very different than Gentilly’s tour. Having someone like Brad Pitt bring attention to this area is like a double edge sword. It is a wonderful initiative, yet many of us can’t help feeling there is something surreal about the whole thing. Is it because we are shown around in a very rapid and business like manner, making this feel less about the local people than about the design concept behind these green designed homes? Something is missing. Suddenly the amount of publicity brought to this area feels very unfair compared to what we saw in the morning. Would we have felt differently had our day started in the Lower 9th Ward?
The truth is, I am not from New Orleans. I only visited two neighborhoods. I am sure the reconstruction initiatives and the politics behind these are more complex than what they seem.
One thing is for sure: New Orleans is still not out of the woods. People are still suffering. I am hoping to plan a trip to Gentilly with my family and help hammer and paint.
How can you help?
“Everyone can help us rebuild, even families with children who want to come visit and help out”, says Connie. St Paul’s Homecoming Center is a “boots on the ground” program.
As explained on St Paul’s website, each volunteer group is matched with a project suited to their unique qualifications. When skilled construction workers are here, they may do carpentry, drywall, roofing etc. If a group of unskilled people are here to work, they might be asked to do landscaping, painting, or community-related improvements. Because of the variety of needs in the New Orleans area, St Paul’s is able to provide a project for any group, regardless of age or skill level – they even have families that come to New Orleans and work for a few days during their vacations.
Cash Donations are welcome and I have affixed a direct link here to St Paul’s Homecoming Center here as well as on the right of my blog, where it will be part of CHEZ ELZA’s ongoing effort to help rebuild New Orleans.
If your corporation wishes to donate to The Storehouse of World Vision, please click here.
To donate to Make It Right and help bring more sustainable homes around the world, consider donating here.
Make It Right is committed to hiring and training local workers in green building practices. Because of this commitment, they don’t use volunteers for daily construction work. They do sometimes ask for help with landscaping, gardening and light maintenance around their construction sites.
I urge you to consult the Make It Right Library here. It offers free resources about green building.
Everyone should have a home they can call their own. New Orleans decided to expand on its swampy areas to grow the city centuries ago. We cannot, as some suggested 8 years ago, just eliminate entire neighborhoods that have been home to families for generations. We need to make sure levees are rebuilt appropriately and drainage is set in place all over the area. New Orleans is part of this country’s unique history and I believe Americans should come together and help rebuild and preserve its beautiful heritage.