‘Still Work to Do’ a Decade after Hurricane Katrina

Alumna and 2008 CNN Hero of the Year Liz McCartney reflects on rebuilding efforts in New Orleans as co-founder of the St. Bernard Project.

Alumna Liz McCartney, M.A. ’06, (pictured with Anderson Cooper) was named a 2008 CNN Hero of the Year for her post-Katrina humanitarian work. (C) 2009 CABLE NEWS NETWORK. A TIME WARNER COMPANY. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
August 28, 2015

By Brittney Dunkins

Ten years ago, a tropical storm over the Bahamas quickly morphed into a Category 5 hurricane named “Katrina” whose path of destruction left much of the Gulf Coast and the city of New Orleans—a historic, bustling coastal city— in ruins.

In the aftermath of the storm, which made landfall as a Category 3 hurricane, thousands of volunteers slogged through what remained of the city to rebuild communities and assist residents.

George Washington University alumna Liz McCartney, M.A. ’06, and her husband, Zack Rosenburg, were among the wave of volunteers staged in St. Bernard Parish just outside of New Orleans. More than 200,000 homes required repairs when they arrived in February 2006, Ms. McCartney said.

“We met so many people who reminded us of our own families: hardworking homeowners who had lost everything, who could barely feed their families,” Ms. McCartney said. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘Can we really just wish them well and go back to D.C. knowing that so many people need help?’”

They could not.

Armed with a van full of tools and $20,000 in donations given by friends and family over a large pot of gumbo, Ms. McCartney and her husband returned to Louisiana just a few months later to launch the St. Bernard Project (SBP).

Though the nonprofit organization was initially established to complete small repairs, donate furniture and offer tools from a lending library, SBP was able to provide help where it was most needed—in rebuilding homes.

“It struck us that there was a lack of organization and a plan for how people were going to recover, so we decided to just get to work,” Ms. McCartney said. “The first day, it was just us and four volunteers hanging drywall.” 

Ms. McCartney (center) leads a "welcome home" ceremony for St. Bernard Parish resident Francita Clemmons with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and AmeriCorps member Michelle Buck.  

Thanks to word of mouth and support from the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity and other organizations, SBP expanded and its budget ballooned to $1 million in one year.

SBP gained more momentum in 2007 after CNN anchor Anderson Cooper interviewed Ms. McCartney. The next year she was named a 2008 CNN Hero of the Year following a nomination from a local chef at a volunteer camp in St. Bernard Parish.

After the award, the phone wouldn’t stop ringing, she said.

“I can’t say we had any master plan,” Ms. McCartney said. “We were very, very lucky to have a national platform to get the word out.”

The so-called luck was buoyed by a persistent work ethic and refining policies over time that allowed the organization to reduce the time to rehabilitate a home from 120 day to about 60 days.

To date SBP has hosted more than 80,000 volunteers from all 50 states and more than 50 countries. The diverse groups of volunteers range from professional carpenters to bachelorette parties, students on spring break and families on vacation, according to Ms. McCartney.

SBP has led successful recovery efforts across the United States in areas marked by disaster. The group rebuilt nearly 200 homes in Joplin, Mo., following a 2011 tornado. And there are volunteers stationed in New York and New Jersey to work on rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy and in San Marcos, Texas, to support relief efforts after flooding earlier this summer.

SBP also provides education about community resiliency and recovery planning, she said. For example, a recent phone call from a woman in Vermont whose community was affected by Hurricane Irene prompted SBP to share disaster relief training materials.

“The country’s attention span is short, and people have forgotten about Sandy, Katrina and other disasters,” Ms. McCartney said. “The reality is that there are thousands of people trying to rehab their homes who desperately need support.”

SBP recently completed rebuilding 920 homes nationally and more than 600 homes in New Orleans, but there is still work to do—especially in New Orleans, Ms. McCartney said.

 “The reality is that there are large parts of New Orleans that have recovered better than anyone could have dreamed, but the challenge is that there are other parts of the city where homeowners have not been able to rebuild because they never received enough money to begin with or they suffered at the hand of contractor fraud, forced mortgage payoff or any number of problems,” Ms. McCartney said. “It’s hard to move back into your house when there is a lot of blight in the rest of the neighborhood.”

SBP also rehabilitates abandoned homes and lots and rents or sells them to qualified low-income homeowners at affordable rates to aid residents who have been priced out of the real estate market because of skyrocketing property rates in the city.

“They said it would take 15 to 20 years for recovery, and so in these last five years we really need to look at how to get the message out that there is still work to do,” Ms. McCartney said. 

George Washington University students have been volunteering in New Orleans since 2006. The GW Alternative Breaks application for the January 2016 trip with Rebuilding Together New Orleans opens on Sept. 12. 

Applications will be accepted until Sept. 24. 

More information about GW Alternative Breaks programs and information sessions is available online.