Close to five years post Hurricane Katrina there are still some 60,000 blighted homes on the property roll in New Orleans, approximately half of them belonging to homeowners displaced by the August 2005 hurricane.
Counted among the displaced are Silva and Anthony Blanchard, long-time residents of the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans who, with the help of Episcopal Community Services of Louisiana's rebuild program and sweat equity of volunteers, are just a housing inspector's OK away from moving back into their home.
But it almost didn't happen. In mid-April, ECSLA launched a fund-raising campaign aimed at collecting $60,000, enough money to finish the eight homes remaining under construction in the rebuild program, said Nell Bolton, ECSLA's executive director, in a telephone interview, adding that the organization has since raised more than $75,000.
"It's been an incredible month for us," Bolton said, noting that ECSLA calculated its 2010 rebuild budget based on a federal grant awarded in September 2009; dollars haven't been distributed yet pending project approvals.
Rather than shut down the program with eight homes in the current cycle still under reconstruction, "the board felt we needed to raise the money to finish the houses we were working on," she said.
The fact that ECSLA was able to raise more than $75,000 in just a few weeks illustrates the greater church's commitment to rebuilding New Orleans. "It's an extraordinary example of how deeply people all over this country still care about the rebuilding effort and how invested the Episcopal Church is in rebuilding New Orleans. It has been phenomenal for us to see the volunteers who understand how long this will take … They took the fund-raising appeal and ran with it and raised all this money in a few weeks," Bolton said.
Volunteers from St. Anne's Episcopal Church in Reston, Virginia, are among those who have made the long-term commitment Bolton spoke of.
"It's sort of the mission philosophy of this congregation -- when we make a commitment anywhere, we make a long-standing one," said the Rev. Jim Papile, St. Anne's rector, in a telephone interview.
A one-time carpenter, Papile and a group of four headed to New Orleans in the spring of 2006 and spent a week and a half gutting houses. Since then a group from St. Anne's has gone back every year, with the most recent group of eight having gone in March.
ECSLA formed in the fall of 2005 as part of the Diocese of Louisiana's Office of Disaster Response with emergency response funds from Episcopal Relief & Development. ECSLA has assisted more than 3,500 families displaced by the hurricane to return home, and helped more than 60 rebuild their homes.
Many New Orleanians were able to get funds to rebuild from the Road Home program, which was designed to help home owners cover the gap between the home's pre-hurricane value and the insurance settlement, but that still left many homeowners, especially with rising construction and building material costs, without enough money to rebuild.
"The people we work with didn't have any other resources," Bolton said.
For two years following Katrina, the Blanchards lived in Baton Rouge, making weekend trips to New Orleans to cut the grass and work on their home, while working through the red tape to secure funds to rebuild it, Silva Blanchard, 59, said in a telephone interview.
Then, in January 2007, her husband, Anthony, 63, suffered a massive stroke, becoming bed ridden, forcing Blanchard to quit her job and give full-time care to her husband. Around that time, Blanchard said she read about ECSLA in the newspaper.
Finding ECSLA, she said, "was a blessing ... It stopped me from feeling stressed out. I didn't have to think about the house and could worry [instead] about my husband. It took the stress off me since I got involved with the diocese."