I saw this great sign the other day," says Liz McCartney, co-founder of the St. Bernard Project, as she peers out the passenger window at the heavy fog lifting off West Judge Perez Drive in Chalmette. "It said, 'The greenest homes are the ones that are already built.'"
It's just before lunchtime on a gray December day, and on St. Bernard Parish's main thoroughfare, only a few other cars make up midmorning traffic. Amid the many strips of blighted commercial properties, a handful — mostly rebuilding-based operations, but also some retail shops and restaurants — have their windows alight, signaling they are among the roughly 50 percent of parish businesses that have reopened since the levee failures in 2005.
"One of my great regrets is that I never knew what it looked like before the storm," says Zack Rosenburg, McCartney's boyfriend and business partner. He makes a left turn onto Pakenham Drive and parks at his destination: a modest two-story structure with a POD storage unit parked in front. It's the house of Joseph Burkhardt, a World War II veteran and lifelong parish resident, who is standing in the driveway to greet his guests when they arrive.
There are hearty handshakes and broad smiles before the reason for the visit is revealed: Through the efforts of the St. Bernard Project, on the coming Friday — after more than 40 months of living away from his house, a dwelling that has been in his family for more than four decades — Joe Burkhardt is moving home.
His is the latest of 156 residences rebuilt by McCartney and Rosenburg's nonprofit since its inception in the summer of 2006. Like the project's other 30-plus job sites, the gutted and renovated Burkhardt home, which now features all-new fixtures and mahogany cabinets chosen by the owner, will be completed in less than 12 weeks with a total price tag around $12,000, every cent of which is covered by donations.
"I love it," Burkhardt says of his new home, the same (mostly) as his old home.
And, like the other grateful residents getting help from McCartney and Rosenburg to repopulate the decimated parish, he, too, has a simply worded sign posted in his front yard: "St. Bernard Project — In Partnership With United Way."
"I want that sign when you're finished," Burkhardt tells the pair as they leave for their next construction site. "I may frame it and put it on my wall."
Posted on the door to the St. Bernard Project's Parc Place headquarters is a picture of Liz McCartney's head superimposed onto Wonder Woman's body. When asked which admirer is responsible, the demure 36-year-old blushes and shrugs.
The truth is, it could have been almost anyone. In November, CNN crowned McCartney its Hero of the Year, after viewers selected her from a pool that included emergency responders and charitable organizers. Almost overnight, two of south Louisiana's best-kept secrets became national celebrities.
McCartney, a former middle school teacher, and Rosenburg, a 35-year-old defense attorney, first came to St. Bernard Parish from Washington, D.C., in February 2006 to help with the rebuilding efforts. Each had previous organizational experience at nonprofits: McCartney with a group called Capitol Hill Computer Corner, which held technology sessions for public school children via after-school and summer programs; Rosenburg through a mentoring and tutoring group he founded with friends from law school.
Landing in the parish was a matter of chance, McCartney says. "I sent out a whole bunch of emails saying we wanted to volunteer, and the only group that responded was the one in St. Bernard. We thought that between fund-raising and recruiting volunteers and the other skills we'd developed, we'd hear from a bunch of organizations. But they were the only people that replied."
The United Way-funded group, Emergency Communities, had set up a large tent in a field off Judge Perez Drive, not far from the current St. Bernard Project offices. There, McCartney, her mother and Rosenburg camped out for weeks, working with a cross-section of the community they would come to admire and later return to serve.
"We just met a bunch of residents who were like our family in so many ways," Rosenburg says. "These were people who weren't affluent but who were doing fine. They owned homes, they raised their families, they worked, they paid taxes. [Some] were in the military. In many ways they were better Americans than we were."
An 83-year-old World War II veteran, camped in his pickup truck for three months until FEMA gave him a trailer," he recalls. "Every night he slept in the FEMA lot in his little blue Ford Ranger. We thought, 'We should do something.'"
Sitting on a couch in their makeshift offices — soon to be converted into a community wellness and mental health center, a collaboration with the LSU medical school's psychiatry department — the pair now laughs, thinking back on their grand plans after returning for good in June 2006. "Remember how [we] were going to buy people appliances and furniture?" McCartney asks. "Remember how [we] were going to send kids to camp? We had a lot of ideas. When we came back three months later, I really thought all these houses would be built."
They weren't. The logjam of houses needing gutting ("Phase I," Rosenburg says) had preempted the rebuilding of many houses that were ready to go ("Phase II"). That organizational pedantry, more than any other factor, defined the fledgling project's mission: to get people back into their homes as quickly and painlessly as possible.
Thus, they started building. The United Way funded the first 25 houses. With help from local donors, 25 became 50, which became 100. (The owner of the 100th home, Joycelyn Heintz, now works with the project as a client liaison.) Recruiting volunteers from all 50 states, McCartney and Rosenburg have seen the project grow into a $2.7 million operation. Rosenburg estimates that as of New Year's Day, 10,000 people have signed up to rebuild St. Bernard Parish.
Still, they say, the volunteer efforts barely keep up with demand, and donations from primary sponsors like Entergy and Motiva Enterprises are spent as quickly as they come in. There are anywhere from 40 to 70 projects always moving through the system. "We've never had a week where we got fewer than five applications," Rosenburg says. "We're still grossly understaffed, working on 34 houses at a time."
In 2009, the couple wants their next focus to be in Orleans Parish — provided that support increases and partnerships emerge to keep their engine running. Gentilly and Central City are two areas in particular where they believe the St. Bernard Project business model could be easily replicated.
"These are solvable problems," Rosenburg says. "Twelve thousand bucks to get a family home. Think of what government supports — outside of housing — are necessary for people who have been traumatized by living in a FEMA trailer for so long. Alcohol abuse is up. Domestic violence abuse is up. Mental health issues are tremendous. We have seniors who aren't able to age with dignity and grace, as they ought to. So many, especially in New Orleans, were in some sort of civil service, whether it was the military, police, firefighters, teachers. These are people who served, and now they're languishing."
"For 12-grand, to have people who are going to be stable, long-term residents here, what a great investment," McCartney adds. "It not only helps them as a family, it helps the whole neighborhood — the school system and all these civic groups. This community really needs young families."