Making a difference in New Orleans

When presented with a home to gut and renovate after Hurricane Katrina, the smell of mold is strong, unforeseen problems of wiring and plumbing are expected and the labor is intensive, dirty. This is not what a Habitat for Humanity home project is all about. It requires square 90-degree angles, a sledge hammer for accuracy, freshly cut lumber and three kinds of nails depending upon working with foundation, floor or frame of a house.

For more than three years, the disaster recovery teams of Indianapolis' Southport United Methodist Church-The Journey have helped the Gulf Coast recover from the devastation of 2005's Hurricane Katrina. Until April 2009, this group had only renovated and was not part of new Gulf Coast construction. As a member of a New Orleans Habitat for Humanity team, these returning team members now have the distinction of placing their feet in both worlds - one in hurricane recovery and one in new construction designed to remain standing after the next major hurricane.

Traveling more than12 hours to Mississippi or Louisiana, either with a trailer in tow, bulging truck beds or overflowing SUV backseats, a core of six volunteers continue to return to the Gulf, which remains incomplete in disaster recovery.

After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, the first place the Southport volunteers reported to was D'Aberville, Miss., then on to a long-term com in New mitment at Trinity UMC's recovery station in Gulfport, Miss.

In 2009 New Orleans, the work, though still back breaking, requires the pinpoint accuracy of a speed square and hitting thousands of nails without blistering a thumb with fatal attempts. The mosquitoes, this time, are not visiting the crew. Little green lizards are curious but have not claimed the new construction as a permanent residence. New characters to the home site include: local cats confiscating volunteers' sack lunches and roosters at 20-minute intervals two doors down from the build.

The smell of saw dust scatters in puffs of debris near circular saws and a neighboring wisp of Asian cuisine mixes with the dampness of the morning dew. The utility poles are close by with electricity. The pole is pinned with a button to designate building beyond the New Orleans' area historic flood level of 12 feet. Instead of just getting people back into homes, the team builds to withstand another hurricane - the Habitat for Humanity standard.

For many on the team, including group leader Dick Bender, the emotional connection with a Habitat build was different than home reconstruction. He said the attachment to working on an existing structure also includes the homeowner's family memories of where they raised their kids and maybe held the property for generations.

With Habitat, it could be transferring another family away from a FEMA trailer, but it also could be giving a young woman a chance to thrive with a new home, a secure mortgage and sense of dignity.

For renovation, it may be returning the home better than it was before Katrina; in new construction, the Habitat home is anchored with rope wire connected to a support buried 22 feet underground. The house's possibility of "going anywhere," when 120 mph wind gusts hit or flood waters swirl around the foundation for days after a levee breach, is highly unlikely.

Whether it is starting from scratch or making the damaged home new again, this is about a partnership with the Gulf Coast. Habitat for Humanity has been a new opportunity for the team to serve in missions. For others, it is about stretching their wings in a new state with new flavors and customs. Either way, the Southport UMC-The Journey recovery team will take the long trip down I-65 South for as long as they are needed - swinging a hammer into fresh wood or maybe to scoot into a crawl space that hasn't seen a human being for 40 years.

Sharon Dunten is a freelance writer as well as member of Southport UMC - The Jouney