Fifteen years later, the Crescent City’s most vulnerable still struggle. But for the past decade and a half, the national nonprofit Rebuilding Together has helped families recover, making critical repairs to 1,750 homes there.
Rebuilding Together was born out of necessity in Midland, Texas, after a small group of residents saw a growing need in their community.
“It started as a great grassroots, community-based organization of neighbors helping neighbors getting together to repair low-income residents’ homes,” said Caroline Blakely, president of Rebuilding Together.
The organization now has 130 affiliates across the country and over 100,000 volunteers with a simple mission: repair homes, revitalize communities, and rebuild lives.
“Our beneficiaries are homeowners who are low-income (and) can receive critical repairs to their homes to let them stay in their homes,” Blakely told CNN. “We need communities to stick together to help one another and allow for homeownership, which is the greatest asset to create generational wealth.”
When structural racism and a disaster collide
Katrina was no equal-opportunity storm. Although tourist areas and many of the city’s predominately White neighborhoods have recovered, many Black homeowners haven’t had such luck.
“If you drive through the Ninth Ward, you still see Katrina in every other street,” said William Stoudt, executive director of Rebuilding Together New Orleans.
Blight, empty lots and desolation are still common throughout the Lower Ninth Ward, a predominately Black part of town.
“Policies made it harder for African American families to come back,” said Stoudt.
Decades-old racial disparities and segregation before Katrina forced many Black families into less desirable neighbors that are not as safe from flooding and have lower home values.
“What you were given to rebuild was directly tied to what your house was worth, not how much it costs to rebuild,” Stoudt said.
Residents had no choice but to cut corners on repairs, and, even worse, live in conditions that threatened their health and safety. Fifteen years after the flood, very little recovery money flows into the city, and that is why Rebuilding Together is committed to its work.
Vietnam War veteran struggles to rebuild
“They called us refugees, refugees from New Orleans,” Felix Lewis said.
Lewis, affectionately called “Mr. Felix,” is a Vietnam veteran and 65-year resident of New Orleans. He spent years trying to piecemeal his house back together after it was flooded following Katrina.
Stoudt said Lewis used what little insurance money he received to reframe the house, replace siding and do electrical and plumbing work, Stoudt said.
“But that wasn’t enough,” he said.
“He was essentially living in a gutted, partially rebuilt home.”
Finally, in 2019, Lewis connected with Rebuilding Together.
“With our partners and volunteers, we were able to bring that all together to get him back home,” Stoudt said. “There are hundreds of ‘Mr. Felixes’ out there still to this day, 15 years later, that haven’t had that opportunity.”
Pandemic heightens need but stifles volunteer work
Home repairs have become even more daunting during the coronavirus pandemic. Rebuilding Together has seen skyrocketing demand for help.
“People are out of work, and they have literally no way to make a home repair,” Stoudt explained. “It could be a small leak, or it could be a massive renovation pipe break; you name it, they have no resources.”
The organization relies heavily on volunteers from corporate sponsors, but in this remote-work environment, volunteer capacity has dried up. Now, they rely heavily on contract workers, which cost more.
“We’re doing more with less,” Stoudt said. “While the pandemic is so scary in so many ways, we know that our work is now more important today than it was six months ago.”
Most of those impacted are older adults who rely on Rebuilding Together to keep their homes safe and livable as they age.
“Our work keeps people out of nursing homes, which are typically more high-risk during this pandemic,” Stoudt said. “We need to be here, and we’re going to figure out a way to make it work.”
“We need people that want to get involved, that want to support.”