Rebuilding: One Box at a Time

Tampa Bay residents are helping build homes for hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast cities — without leaving Florida.

click to enlarge Habitat for Humanity homes under construction in Thibodaux, La. - David Connolly
David Connolly
Habitat for Humanity homes under construction in Thibodaux, La.

The devastation inflicted upon the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina last year was matched only by the philanthropic mood that swept the nation in its aftermath. In the months following one of the deadliest storms in U.S. history, it seemed every charity, school and private enterprise had launched some sort of drive to bring funds, food or shelter to the storm's victims.

But one year later, much of the Gulf Coast is still in ruins. To date, no reconstruction plan is in place for New Orleans. The National Guard continues to patrol some Gulf Coast cities. And local fishermen have just begun pulling trees out of beach waters.

Yet the Red Cross, the largest recipient of donations after the hurricane, left ravaged areas months ago. Food banks stopped sending donations and returned to their own cities' needs.

"It's actually gotten to the point where there is such a dire need [for housing]," says David Connolly, construction director for the Hillsborough County chapter of Habitat for Humanity.

Connolly, a Tampa resident, traveled to Thibodaux, La. over the July 4 weekend to help residents rebuild their small community. He saw for himself the amount of devastation still visible along the Gulf Coast.

"They recovered a little better than New Orleans," he says of the town 60 miles southwest of the Crescent City.

But he says many residents remain homeless.

Habitat for Humanity is one of the few organizations still active in relief work along the Gulf Coast. The 30-year-old organization specializes in building homes for poverty-stricken families, so taking part in the post-Katrina rebuilding effort fit naturally within the Habitat mission. And the group is sending help in uniquely Habitat style; while other organizations ship food, clothes and medicine to storm victims, Habitat is sending homes.

Literally.

"It's a home in a box," says Clinton Mueller, the Hillsborough County chapter's resource director.

A very big box.

Dubbed "Operation Home Delivery," the nationwide program attempts to augment relief efforts by rebuilding a community from hundreds or thousands of miles away. It works like this: Volunteers in, say, Tampa build the interior and exterior frames for a 1,100-square-foot three-bedroom, one-bath house. Then they dissemble the structure and ship it to a Gulf Coast community. At the final destination, volunteers re-assemble the framed home and complete construction with the help of the future residents.

"It essentially makes it almost like Lincoln logs," Mueller says. "Basically, all the pieces are pre-assembled so it's like snapping them together. It's making the building dramatically quicker."

The whole process can be completed in about a week, he says.

Nationally, Habitat for Humanity has constructed and shipped over 400 homes since the hurricane hit a year ago. The goal is 1,000 by mid-2007.

"There's still a huge amount of people who are displaced in the New Orleans area," Mueller says. "Rome wasn't built in a day, so to speak, and neither will New Orleans."

Each home in a box costs $70,000, paid for by a sponsor. For Hillsborough County's first attempt at the program, the National Association of Realtors is the sponsor.

Construction will begin on Oct. 4. Connolly, the construction director, urges anyone interested to volunteer. Experience is not required.

click to enlarge Habitat for Humanity volunteers hoist a frame as part of Operation Home Delivery. The Pinellas County chapter's volunteers shipped this home in a box to Jackson, Miss. last November. - Jamie Cataldo
Jamie Cataldo
Habitat for Humanity volunteers hoist a frame as part of Operation Home Delivery. The Pinellas County chapter's volunteers shipped this home in a box to Jackson, Miss. last November.

"When I started out, I knew nothing about construction," he says. "I'm used to people who don't know which way the hammer swings."

Other organizations continuing the rebuilding effort include:

* Katrina's Angels (www.katrinasangels.org): This nonprofit based in Winter Haven, Fla., matches evacuee families with a local volunteer who helps the family find housing, jobs and day-to-day living expenses. The organization maintains katrinahousing.org and sponsors several drives for children.

* Relief Spark (www.reliefspark.org): For single mothers and the elderly, attempting to rebuild a flooded home can be a daunting task. Before any rebuilding takes place, owners must "gut" their houses — a dangerous and time-consuming venture. Enter Relief Spark. This New Orleans-based organization has successfully gutted 56 homes (and counting) in the hardest hit areas of the city. A rarity among other rebuilding groups, Relief Spark offers housing in New Orleans to committed volunteers.

* Volunteers of America (www.voa.org): Besides serving food and opening free medical clinics across the Gulf Coast immediately after the storm, the faith-based Volunteers of America recently began a rebuilding program called "One Family At A Time." It focuses on providing a variety of resources to help individual families, one at a time. The 110-year-old organization is looking for monetary donations and volunteers willing to help out along the Gulf Coast.

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