It is significant that the first, fourth and sixth largest home builders in the 14 parish New Orleans Metro region, according to the New Orleans CityBusiness Book of Lists, were Habitat for Humanity affiliates. The New Orleans Habitat for Humanity affiliate, which includes Orleans, Jefferson and St Bernard Parishes, is the number one home builder in the region with 283 homes in 7 different neighborhoods, followed by West St Tammany Habitat for Humanity at fourth and East St. Tammany Habitat for Humanity at sixth. Musicians’ Village, supported and promoted by Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. is probably the most well known of the Habitat projects, but they have also built in other areas of the Upper Ninth Ward (141 houses including 77 at Musicians’ Village), 26 houses on the Westbank, 1 in Plaquemines, 13 in the St Roch neighborhood, 16 in Central City, 23 in New Orleans East, 2 in Kenner, 15 in Hollygrove and 46 in St Bernard. Jim Pate, Executive Director, says that Habitat will go where there is a need and where there is evidence of some critical mass returning to the area.
This is part two of a four part series describing the Habitat for Humanity model, the experience of the Habitat New Orleans team in the immediate period after Katrina and finally what they have accomplished and where they go from here. This segment in the series describes the experience that the core team from Habitat New Orleans experienced in the immediate period after Katrina and how they were able to mobilize. To read the first segment in the series, click here. To read the third segment in the series, click here. For the final segment, click here.
Jim Pate is the Executive Director for Habitat for Humanity New Orleans. His job, after the storm, became part public relations and part cleanup and part rebuilding. The saga, like many experiences in those days, makes for good story telling. Immediately after the storm, The Today Show planned a week-long celebrity home build in Rockefeller Plaza in New York City. The built home would be shipped to New Orleans as part of a program called Operation Home Delivery, a Habitat Gulf Coast Katrina relief effort. They needed a house plan suitable to New Orleans however the plan books were in New Orleans and inaccessible. Plans for other cities were considered inappropriate based on proportion and lot size, says Jim Pate. The house plan used for the week-long event was retrieved from a volunteer T-shirt. Habitat staff member, Billy Puckett was in Beaumont, Texas where he had evacuated. When Jim called he took his t-shirt to Kinko’s to make a copy and fax it to the headquarters in Americus, Georgia where it was redrawn and sent up to New York for the event. Fourteen different Gulf Coast Habitat for Humanity affiliates ended up using this plan in their jurisdiction in the period after Katrina.
Simultaneously, Jim managed to get back into New Orleans 11 days after the storm to complete an assessment of their existing homes. No homes flooded and there was minimal damage which Pate credits to what he calls “volunteer friendly construction” – his belief that volunteers build stronger buildings because they make sure that every nail they put in is just right and if its not, they add another one.
Pate says, Habitat for Humanity is not a disaster relief organization but he and five of his staff members returned and began to get organized. In reality it was three of his staff members and two boyfriends who became the core for Habitat after the storm. Elizabeth Lisle, Director of Operations; Gina Stilp, a VISTA Fellow and full time development staff member; Sara Evans, a VISTA Fellow and Director of Family Services; Michael Hayes who became the Camp Hope Coordinator handling all of the incoming volunteers and Ali Soke who became the Financial Manager, supported by a part-time accountant in Dallas.
A critical component of the Habitat model is the volunteers and post Katrina, they came in droves. Habitat estimates that since Katrina, approximately 130,000 volunteers in groups and as individuals came down to help. Right after Katrina, the numbers were so great and the housing options for them so limited that Habitat New Orleans actually took on quite a few roles beyond their normal scope, including hospitality. Working with David Dysart, now the Chief Administrative Officer for St Bernard Parish, who at the time was with the Kansas National Guard, Jim Pate and his skeleton crew secured 250 beds at Camp Premier in St Bernard Parish at the Port of Chalmette. Pate acknowledges the cooperative spirit of people who came down to help in the immediate aftermath when he talks about a group of recreational vehicle owners who had come down to assist. They stayed on to help coordinate the logistics of getting the volunteers to and from the work sites. And with David Dysart’s logistical help, Habitat and crew were able to gut 2400 houses in St Bernard between October 2005 and March 2006.
After six months at Camp Premier, the camp was shut down by FEMA, and Habitat, working with Senator Landrieu and David Dysart and St Bernard Parish, moved down the road to an elementary school, which they gutted and cleaned out. This became the first Camp Hope, housing up to 450 volunteers at a time. Initially, Habitat didn’t charge for room and board and provided three meals a day solely on donations. Later they began to charge $10 a day per person. After one year, they had to move again to a facility near Violet where they could house up to 850 volunteers at once. They again called this Camp Hope. At one point, due to the struggles of the hotel industry, Habitat was the 3rd largest hospitality facility in the region. At the height of managing these facilities, Habitat was providing kitchen staff and maintaining the facility which, Jim Pate says now, “was weird.”
Habitat has also benefited from the assistance of Americorps volunteers. They came in for nine month long commitments in exchange for a stipend of $800 per month, health insurance and loan forgiveness for a portion of their student loans for taking classes and committing a certain number of hours each day to Habitat. Currently Habitat employs eight of these volunteers. In addition, there are teams of volunteers that come for 6 weeks at a time that Habitat trains and directs through community service projects in the local schools.
Habitat for Humanity New Orleans demonstrated incredible stamina and determination in the post-storm environment to harness the enthusiasm and incredible desire people had to contribute to the recovery of New Orleans. As Jim Pate states, “New Orleanians together with incredible volunteers have rebuilt New Orleans.”
To read the first segment in the series, click here. To read the next segment in the series, click here. The final segment, click here. To receive the remaining segments of this series and other articles on New Orleans real estate and economic development, subscribe to be notified when the articles come available. Ideas for other articles on economic development or rebuilding in New Orleans neighborhoods? Please email firstname.lastname@example.org