Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana in the last days of August 2005, carving a gouge into the Gulf Coast which, nearly six years on, still hasn’t been healed. Thousands of New Orleans residents are still living in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers both inside and outside the state.

While the tracks of that mammoth storm are still visible, and as long as there are Americans unable to return to their homes, there are people from all over the country ready to lend their time, strength, money and expertise to rebuilding one of the oldest communities in North America.

The St. Bernard Project was started in March 2006 by Zack Rosenburg and Liz McCartney after the couple volunteered in St. Bernard Parish just one month previous. During that first month, they met people who were willing to look right at the devastation the hurricane wrought on their community and get to work. So far they have completed 380 homes.

Follwing Her Lead

Joe Koenig, owner and president of Trim-Tex of Lincolnwood, Ill., followed his daughter’s example and has been giving his money and time to help the still-beleaguered city get back on its feet.

Koenig’s daughter, Lindsey, and members of her high school class volunteered to take part in the St. Bernard Project. Almost two dozen students and a handful of teachers from North Shore Illinois Country Day School headed down to New Orleans to pitch in back in 2009. She liked the experience so much that she and a smaller group of friends went down again after the end of her senior year to do it again as part of her senior community service project.

She went down again during her winter break from Kalamazoo College, in Michigan. Around the same time, the Koenig Family Charitable Foundation got involved and made a sizeable donation. The Koenig family itself, Joe and his wife Deb, are also taking part.

Koenig says he’d like to see people in the industry do more to help out the people in St. Bernard-Trim-Tex is an official sponsor of the project. He’s used what contacts he has to bring more of them down to Louisiana.

“I’ve got friends and peers that I’ve known for years from trade and industry shows. You meet a lot of people after 41 years,” he says.

Construction Project Needs Construction Experts

“I want the drywall industry to do more, to get more people involved in the effort to rebuild New Orleans,” Koenig says. “If we get more people involved, we’ll get more people back into their homes. It’s six years on (after Katrina) and there are still people living in FEMA trailers.”

He says friends and family are planning to go down to New Orleans again this fall to take another whack at the problem. This time, he’d like to hit the problem with some numbers.

“I’d like to go down there with a bunch of drywall experts,” Koenig says. “Hopefully, we can knock out five or six houses at once.”

“The drywall phase of the Contractors Build month is the week of September 25th,” Koenig said. “Any professional hangers or finishers that are willing to donate a week of their time to help knock out several homes, please contact Kate Schuman, Development Coordinator at (504) 261-0345”

The mission of the St. Bernard Project is to create housing opportunities so that Hurricane Katrina survivors can return to their homes and communities. The St. Bernard Project, a nonprofit, community-based organization carries out its mission through programs for rebuilding, housing placement and community mental health.

Development Coordinator Kate Schuman said the original organizers of the program started out wanting to help in February of 2006. They saw the level of devastation and were doubly impressed by the spirit of community and strong sense of family that pervaded the area and decided to stay. By Christmas 2006, they had worked on 10 houses.

The surface has been scratched but that’s it.

“There are 27,000 homes in St. Bernard’s that were destroyed,” Schuman said. “[The Department of Housing and Urban Development] estimates there are 10,000 people in temporary housing who want to return but can’t.”

Big Hands, Big Hearts, Big Job

Schuman said the project has been aided by construction companies and suppliers who have made what they do possible. Toolmaker DeWalt has contributed more than 150,000 tools used at jobsites, American Standard has provided interior bathroom fixtures for 120 homes this year and the energy provider Entergy has clocked in the most financial support with $500,000 in donations so far and another $350,000 promised for the near future.

The federal government has also stepped up. Aside from providing technical help via Americorps, they’re also bringing in the Department of Energy to make the homes in the new St. Bernard Parish a model for energy efficiency. It’s the donations, of cash, supplies and expertise that make the project successful.

“We do everything we can in-house,” Schuman says. “That keeps the cost of the homes down to $15,000 to $25,000 for materials.”

The project will soon launch the “Good Work, Good Pay” program which will hire veterans to do labor on the project sites. Veterans have a higher unemployment rate than other sectors of the society and the program will give them a place to work and develop the kinds of skills that will pay them well in the future.

In terms of the future of the project, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Schuman said the various non-profit groups working in Katrina-affected areas did a study last summer to find out how much work there is yet to do. If the groups can keep up the level of activity at which they’re currently producing, they will still be working for the next 15 years.

Those wanting and willing to lend a hand can find out more about individual and group support for the St. Bernard Project