I spent some time over winter break rebuilding flood-ravaged homes in New Orleans. When I say some time, I mean four hours. The rest of our five days in the city, we toured around, ate tremendous food, made sure the Sazerac cocktails were as good as I remembered, and generally rebuilt New Orleans one tourist dollar at a time.
But in the Katrina-devastated Gentilly neighborhood, my family and I met up with representatives of the St. Bernard Project, and we tried to be of some use.
The first thing you have to ask is, of course, this: Wait, wasn’t Katrina five years ago?
Yes, and there are still 400 families living in Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailers parked in front of their storm-damaged homes, 6,000 families who can’t afford to rebuild or repair their homes, 100,000 New Orleanians who haven’t returned to their city, and only one out of every 10 homes in the Lower Ninth Ward is inhabited. There are 40,000 vacant or blighted homes in the city, and homelessness has doubled. Two days after Christmas, eight homeless youths were burned to death when the fire they started to warm themselves in an abandoned home spread out of control.
The second question to me would be: Weren’t you just in New Orleans? Yes; in early November, I attended the annual convention of organized Jewish communities there. I learned that Jewish communities around the country contributed $30 million to the post-Katrina rebuilding effort, some of which was funneled to groups like the St. Bernard Project.
In November, I was reminded how much I love New Orleans — the food, the people, those Sazeracs. So, when it came time to get away for the holidays — and half the globe was snowed in — New Orleans called me back.
Again, I don’t want for an instant to give the impression that my family devoted our vacation to volunteer work for the needy. Our entire hands-on, sweat-of-the-brow, roll-up-your-sleeves time amounted to four hours each, minus the half-hour it took for a very patient and good-natured AmeriCorps fellow named Willem Dalbotten to explain how to “mud drywall” to four people whose first question was, “What’s drywall?”
Later, I called Zack Rosenburg, a co-founder of the St. Bernard Project, and thanked him for the opportunity to help out. I told him my only fear was that our family’s homebuilding skills probably set New Orleans’ rebirth back a week.
“Every volunteer hour helps,” Rosenburg said. “Really.”
Rosenburg is impressive. He grew up in Boston, the son of an Italian Catholic mother and a Jewish father.
“I think without a doubt there is a sense of responsibility that Jews have that has impacted my thinking,” he told me.
Rosenburg was working as a defense lawyer for indigent clients in Washington, D.C., when Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005. A few months later, he and his girlfriend, Liz McCartney, drove down to see if they could help. They were shocked to find that very little had been done.
“There was nowhere to get food,” he said. “Zero grocery stores, just two gas stations, a car wash, a tattoo parlor and a liquor store. We thought, ‘What if this had happened to our family?’ ”
Two weeks of planned volunteer work turned into a month, then Rosenburg and McCartney went back to D.C., packed up their belongings and returned to New Orleans, where they founded the St. Bernard Project. They had no construction background, but they knew something about organizing and fundraising.
“You have to do work that wouldn’t get done if you didn’t do it,” Rosenburg explained to me. “There were other low-income defense attorneys in Washington. There was a void in New Orleans. I felt it was our responsibility.”
Rosenburg commuted between his job in D.C. and New Orleans for a year and a half before he and McCartney settled permanently in New Orleans. The St. Bernard Project has since rebuilt 319 families’ homes with the help of some 23,000 volunteers. The project also offers social and psychological services to aid families in coping with the ongoing struggles. Out of nothing, the St. Bernard Project has helped bring entire neighborhoods back to life. In 2008, CNN named McCartney its Person of the Year.
There is still work to do. Our government, which has spent about $1 trillion to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan since 2005 — that’s not hyperbole, a trillion dollars — can’t seem to find the $20,000 per home it would take to finish helping Americans in New Orleans.
“People want to come back,” Rosenburg said. “They absolutely want to, and they can’t.”
It is dispiriting, on the one hand, to see what happens when government misplaces its priorities and shirks its duties to its citizens.
On the other hand, it is uplifting to witness what people can do to fix things. The city has indeed rebounded to a great degree — the public school system is better than it was before Katrina; entrepreneurship has skyrocketed; tourism is way up — and the food, you should know, is spectacular.
Rosenburg ends almost every statement about New Orleans by reiterating that the city has a “solvable problem.” But that same statement also could be applied to so many of the issues we face. Consider the challenges before us as 2011 begins: climate change, religious extremism, poverty. Our ability to find solutions to these solvable problems is directly proportionate to our commitment to resolving them. And that, as Rosenburg pointed out, all begins with one crucial thing: a sense of responsibility.