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Churches Steer Spring Break Volunteers Towards Gutting, Rebuilding

c. 2007 Religion News Service NEW ORLEANS _ Kara Huselton, a Boston College freshman from Rochester, N.Y., muscled a dead washing machine out the second-floor door of a vacant duplex and, with the help of two friends, tipped it over a railing to fall two stories with a satisfying crash. Vile water spilled out of […]

c. 2007 Religion News Service

NEW ORLEANS _ Kara Huselton, a Boston College freshman from Rochester, N.Y., muscled a dead washing machine out the second-floor door of a vacant duplex and, with the help of two friends, tipped it over a railing to fall two stories with a satisfying crash.

Vile water spilled out of the bent machine. “Cockroach water,” declared a disgusted Kristen Dacey, a 19-year-old who hails from New Hampshire.

Visitors to New Orleans for a week, they had been at the house the day before as well, masked and gloved, tearing out its interior in the familiar, sweaty and nasty ritual that prepares a Hurricane Katrina-damaged house for repair and reoccupancy.

Elsewhere in town, others of the 52 Boston College volunteers were installing wall insulation and hanging drywall under the supervision of Southern Baptists from Arkansas.

Those were relatively simple jobs, but a sign of measurable progress as well, because they lie across the demarcation that separates mere cleanup from the first stages of rebuilding.

In the second spring after Hurricane Katrina, more than 10,000 college students and other volunteers once again have skipped spring break’s traditional beachfront bacchanal and instead poured into metropolitan New Orleans to work hard. It’s a volunteer wave that will reach its high point in the next week or so and continue into April before tailing off.

But this year is markedly different in the sophistication of the agencies managing the influx of volunteers, and in the work they are being sent out to do.

Once again, the volunteers represent schools ranging from the University of Texas to Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory, N.C., to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Travis Scruggs, a relief coordinator at First Baptist Church of New Orleans, said he had bookings for 1,000 volunteers in March. Catholic Charities is full, with 1,200 incoming volunteers, said Joan Diaz, director of Operation Helping Hands.

“This is not falling off,” said Courtney Cowart, who directs storm relief for the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana. “If we had more capacity for housing people, we’d have even more volunteers than we do.”

Spring break is the high point on the year-round calendar of volunteerism in New Orleans. Even as the memory of Katrina becomes more distant, thousands of volunteers ebb and flow through the city every month, relief directors say. Since spring break 2006, secular nonprofits such as the Common Ground Collective and nearly a dozen major Christian relief agencies have benefited from another year’s experience, fine-tuned their goals, beefed up their programs and become increasingly adept at marshaling and directing volunteers.

Now volunteers are housed in networks of long-term bunkhouses established in gymnasiums, fellowship halls or ruined sanctuaries of vacant churches. A coalition called the Greater New Orleans Disaster Recovery Partnership acts as a booking agency that finds available bunks for many.

Southern Baptists long ago leased three floors of New Orleans’ World Trade Center to house up to 500 volunteers. A Salvation Army center houses up to 200. A Common Ground encampment at a closed elementary school holds 300 or more.

For most of the 18 months since Katrina, those agencies have trained their volunteers in the simple skills of house-gutting, then deployed them in the wastelands of New Orleans, St. Bernard and parts of Slidell.

No one knows how many homes private volunteers have gutted across the metropolitan area.

Among just a few of the major groups, Catholic Charities reports having gutted more than 1,600 homes and apartments; Southern Baptists, more than 1,000; Samaritan’s Purse (Franklin Graham’s Christian relief agency), more than 500.

This spring, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and a number of secular nonprofits and faith-based disaster ministries have joined forces to launch a Gutting Task Force.

Private relief agencies for the first time have pooled their separate databases to estimate how many owners still want their houses gutted, presumably in anticipation of rebuilding. The task force also is taking new requests from owners.

But even with an expected growth in new addresses solicited by the program, the numbers in the database are plunging, said Mary Sutton, a FEMA official who coordinates that agency’s work with private relief groups.

A few weeks ago, the task force’s list of houses thought to be in need of gutting stood at about 4,800. Scrubbing out obvious duplications quickly cut the number to 4,100. More inspections and phone calls to owners will whittle it down still further, Sutton said.

“I suspect the bottom is near 2,000 homes in New Orleans,” she said.

After 18 months, she said, “You can see the end of the last chapter coming, although we’re not yet on the last page of the chapter.”

With an end to house-gutting at least on the horizon, major denominations for months have begun a shift toward rebuilding houses.

Arkansas Baptist Builders have specialized for months in hanging drywall, installing insulation and rewiring houses. Operation Noah Rebuild, another Southern Baptist agency, similarly has been importing teams of skilled and semi-skilled workers to help underinsured homeowners with major repairs.

The Catholic Church’s Operation Helping Hands helps match applicants with contractors who have pledged not to soak them at top-of-market rates. Other groups, such as the Episcopal Church’s Jericho Road project and the Presbyterian Church’s “Build Blitz,” seek to rehabilitate badly damaged homes.

The Rev. David Crosby of First Baptist Church of New Orleans said Baptists hope to focus on the Upper 9th Ward over the next few years. The goal is to build 300 homes and help an additional 1,200 families return to their neighborhoods.

Relief managers say fulfilling that mission will require a shift toward volunteers able to quickly pick up simple construction skills under supervision.

“Our volunteers are getting more sophisticated,” said Crosby. “We’re getting repeat visitors who really know what they’re doing.”

(Bruce Nolan is a staff writer for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans.)


Editors: To obtain photos of college students participating in spring break cleanups, go to the RNS Web site at On the lower right, click on “photos,” then search by subject or slug.