By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 21, 2008
CHALMETTE, La. Not so long ago, it was tailored suits, power lunches and a comfortable Capitol Hill apartment for Zach Rosenburg and Liz McCartney.
These days, they wear battered shorts, munch donated power bars, work in a storefront office and sleep far from their former lives in a leaky "shotgun" house in hurricane-prone New Orleans.
Days spent in quiet offices have been replaced with hammering and drilling. Their colleagues are no longer fellow lawyers and nonprofit managers but volunteer carpenters and plumbers. And just as Rosenburg and McCartney have transformed their own lives, they are hoping to transform the lives of thousands still homeless because of Hurricane Katrina.
Two years ago, the couple gave up jobs, friends and comfortable salaries in Washington to move south and start, from the ground up, an organization that rebuilds homes in St. Bernard Parish. The gritty community of blue-collar workers, fishermen and oil refinery workers was all but wiped from the map when Katrina blew ashore in 2005.
Even though they barely knew which end of a hammer to hold, they embarked on a mission that they simply called the St. Bernard Project. First learning basic construction skills, then growing more sophisticated and using their professional expertise to seek grants and donations, Rosenburg and McCartney slowly but surely built an organization. It has turned into one of the largest of its kind in the region because of two things: a steady supply of volunteers and an even more constant flow of people in need.
As the Gulf Coast rebuilds after Hurricane Ike and work continues long after Katrina, the St. Bernard Project may be a model of how small nonprofit organizations can help private property owners who lack insurance.
"If it weren't for this place, we wouldn't be in our house," said St. Bernard resident Charlene Huerstel, 45. The group built her three-bedroom home after she and her husband, David, disabled with chronic hepatitis C, had run out of money.
"It's wonderful," she said. "They come down and help people they don't even know. It's the great American spirit."
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On their first trip to New Orleans in January 2006, the couple did not plan to become the Bob Vilas of the volunteer crowd.
They had met at a bar during a Scrabble tournament and have been together six years. Rosenburg, 35, went to American University law school and played golf with a 16 handicap. McCartney, 36, grew up in Washington, attended Georgetown Visitation and George Washington University and ran marathons.
Like thousands of Americans, they traveled to New Orleans after Katrina to see how they could help. They ended up in St. Bernard, southeast of New Orleans, serving food and dispensing clothing. They heard the horror stories of bodies floating by, of homes ripped from their foundations, of entire families homeless and distraught. All of St. Bernard's 27,000 houses were damaged or destroyed.
Before going back to their comfortable lives in Washington, the couple walked and talked through New Orleans: Rosenburg, short and intense, the impulsive visionary of the pair, and McCartney, cool and detail-oriented.
"It really was gut-check time," Rosenburg recalled. "You look in the mirror and see what you're all about."
On one night's walk, Rosenburg suddenly declared: "I'm coming back."
From his tone, McCartney knew he meant for longer than a week or two.
She offered a question -- and a commitment: "What would we do?"
They were already people inclined to help others. His law practice represented indigents; her nonprofit group, the Capitol Hill Computer Corner, offered computer training to the poor. But in St. Bernard, they had found people who needed even more help.
Before leaving New Orleans, she canceled a job interview, and he began arrangements to wind down his practice.
They went home long enough to pack up the apartment, then returned in June. Their initial plan was to build a community center, a camp for kids and a co-op for residents to share tools. But soon after they arrived, they realized the needs were more basic. Residents were living in smashed homes, garages or even tents. Only a fraction of people had returned, and few had money to rebuild.
The couple decided to renovate houses -- once they learned how.
Frank White, 65, who owned a flooded-out appliance-repair store in an industrial section of Chalmette, offered his store as office space for them if they rebuilt it. And as it quickly became clear that McCartney and Rosenburg had no experience with hammer and nail, White tutored them.
It did not come easily. White pointed to the dropped ceiling in one of the project's two first-floor rooms. "Took me four hours" to install, he said. Next door, he chuckled, "took me six hours -- Zach helped."
Still, Rosenburg and McCartney persisted. Renovating houses during the week and the office on weekends -- while McCartney held down a job to pay living expenses -- the couple did their best alongside a growing number of volunteers. McCartney used her grant-writing skills from her nonprofit life in Washington to write applications for foundation and corporate funding, and the pair traveled around the country pitching the program to potential donors and volunteers.
"They were producing a significant result with a minimum amount of funding," said Gary Ostroske, president of the United Way for the Greater New Orleans Area, which has given the group tens of thousands of dollars. "They were able to get people -- the elderly and single parents -- back into their homes who otherwise would have had a very difficult time after the hurricane."
With a budget this year of $2.7 million in donations and a staff of 32, the St. Bernard Project uses 150 to 500 volunteers a week in the largest organization of its kind in the area. The project has rebuilt 145 homes and has ambitions to keep going until it stops receiving applications.
"No one," said Mike Ginart, a member of the St. Bernard Parish Council, has "been able to achieve anything close to their success."
It has not been easy. With each hurricane season comes the threat that all their work could be undone. This month, Hurricane Gustav disrupted plans for a 24-hour rebuilding marathon meant to mark Katrina's third anniversary. Rosenburg, McCartney and their volunteers were forced to evacuate.
Anxious residents came by as they packed tools and boarded up windows and wondered whether the couple and volunteers would come back if Gustav hit them hard.
"We are committed to this community," Rosenburg told them. "And simply because the government hasn't built the levees the way they should be built doesn't mean we are giving up on you the way the government gave up on you. We see value in the community, and we believe in you."
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Spared by Gustav's shifting path, the project's work continues. Although St. Bernard's main commercial strip has come back with beauty parlors, fast-food restaurants and car repair shops, many side streets are a mix of abandoned homes and concrete slabs. Only about half of the parish's residents remain.
The project's offices are always in a state of organized mayhem as staffers -- most of them rotating teams of AmeriCorps members -- and volunteers rush to and from jobs. Currently, 36 houses -- owned by disabled people, senior citizens and families with children that do not have enough money to hire a contractor -- are being worked on.
They say they can transform a gutted shell into a finished house in less than 12 weeks at an average cost of $12,000.
For some parish residents, the St. Bernard Project is their only hope. And those who first reacted with doubt to the newcomers' arrival are now regulars in the office.
Stephen Gonzales, 64, a former courier whose job and home were wiped out, settled into the couch in the office one day recently just to visit. He is living in a trailer on the concrete pad of his former home. His wife, Joanne, passed away in his arms several months after the storm, which killed his seven cats and his dog.
Gonzales reminisces. "We had 32,000 Christmas lights on our house -- not on the shrubbery, just the house," he said, fighting back tears.
Rosenburg and McCartney have gotten to know many of the people and feel their losses. "Our clients didn't just lose their houses, their belongings and all their property," Rosenburg said. "They lost a sense of community and an understanding of where they fit in society. And so, what our volunteers and staff do is let our clients know that they are not forgotten, that they are American, and people still believe in them."
The trauma three years after the hurricane is so severe that Rosenburg and McCartney plan to start a mental health clinic in January with counselors from Louisiana State University's Health Sciences Center.
These days, the couple don't do much construction themselves -- to the relief of their volunteers.
Instead, they focus on running the organization. McCartney writes grant proposals, handles paychecks and supervises the team that does the purchasing; the project spends upward of $50,000 a month at the nearby Home Depot, making it the store's largest customer. Rosenburg meets with funders as the public face of the organization and its immovable force of optimism.
He considers eventually returning to Washington and resuming his law practice, but the couple see more immediate needs calling to them.
"It's hard to think about what's next when there is still so much to do here," McCartney said.