NOAHH Looks Back on the Eight Years Since Katrina

As NOAHH celebrates its 30 years of building homes, we also pause to consider the eighth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the resultant flooding (for an overview of the past eight years, see the Times-Picayune’s coverage). 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.


Construction

The primary focus of the affiliate’s growth is often in terms of homes built. Simply put, it’s how we fight 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.

(For a complete picture of our impact in New Orleans, see our Economic Impact Report. Click any image to see a full sized version.)

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 our successes. Each home built is a family that has been served by NOAHH, but our operations don’t stop merely at homes built. We have multiple ongoing programs that help us bring our mission to a wider community. The A Brush With Kindness program provides external repairs to homeowners in need. We have engaged in Attack the Block programs that provide neighborhood cleanup, and we have partnered with local organizations through our 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. We gathered the volunteers who came to us 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 our various programs. To read about some of them, click on our Build Gallery.

Jobs
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, we have employed subcontractors to do to the plumbing, electrical work, and more on our homes. Some, like Freeman Electrical Service, began solely as subcontractors for NOAHH before expanding. We have also hosted numerous AmeriCorps NCCC teams and VISTA and Direct members of the AmeriCorps program. Their help has been invaluable in expanding and stabilizing our organization. For more on our AmeriCorps, see some of our older stories here and here.

And then there are the volunteers who make our 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 our partner families. Over 100,000 people have volunteered with NOAHH, providing over 2.5 million hours of work. In the wake of the storm, our volunteer numbers spiked significantly, and like the rest of the organization, they have leveled off since.

Employees
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 our cause their own. Three presidents (the aforementioned Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, and then-Senator Barack Obama) have visited our sites, as well as the foreign dignitaries such as the Crown Prince of Norway or the Patriarch of All Armenians.

Families
It has not all been progress, but every challenge we’ve faced, we’ve risen to. We’ve weathered two other storms (Gustav and Isaac) with minimal damage to the homes we’ve built or were building, and we’ve remediated 216 of our homes. And over the last eight years, we’ve established lasting partnerships with many organizations, both sponsors and volunteers, and made a lasting difference in the New Orleans area—and we’re not finished yet. After the peaks of 2007 through 2009, our 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.”

Volunteers

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