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Using the Lessons of Katrina to Rebuild Smarter After Disaster

Photo via <a href="http://www.stbernardproject.org/new-orleans.html">the St. Bernard Project</a>.
Photo via the St. Bernard Project.

To mark the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, this week Curbed is exploring how the housing, architecture, and neighborhoods of New Orleans have changed since the storm. Here, a look at the St. Bernard Project, an organization that is using what it learned constructing homes in New Orleans to improve post-disaster rebuilding—and disaster preparedness—elsewhere.

Patricia Woskowiak will gladly tell you the worst thing that happened to her home after Hurricane Sandy hit Howard Beach, the waterfront neighborhood in Queens, New York, where she's lived for nearly four decades. It wasn't when the storm surge seeped into the home she shares with her husband, Joseph, damaging hardwood floors and creeping so far up the walls she had to start throwing things up the stairs. It wasn't when salt from the floodwaters that came three years ago seeped into the soil surrounding her 164th Avenue bungalow and bleached her trees, turning them golden-yellow from the salt.

No, the moments that really frustrated Woskowiak were the times that people offered her "help." It was when contractors came in "like the guys from the Chainsaw Massacre" and tore up the trim in her living room. When she had to have the sheetrock in her walls repaired for the third time. When it got so cold due to a broken heating system that she resorted to pouring herself a glass of wine, sitting in her car, and making phone calls at night from the front seat, where at least she could stay a little warmer. This was a home her father had fixed many times, a man so handy he could have "built a house that flew." She and her husband had received money from FEMA, but repeated experiences with bad contractors left them unable to finish repairs. But after she connected with Friends of Rockaway, a local affiliate of a New Orleans-based organization that applies the lessons of Hurricane Katrina recovery to post-disaster rebuilding efforts elsewhere, her home has benefited from the work of dozens of volunteers from around the country. She's even starting to discuss a ribbon-cutting ceremony later this month.

For Friends of Rockaway and its affiliate, the St. Bernard Project, sparking that optimism is part of the point. "Because they don't come out of the traditional response community, they're not as wedded to 'this step has to happen first,' then we go on to rebuilding," says Nicole Wallace, a reporter for The Chronicle of Philanthropy. "They seem focused on the idea of starting to rebuild almost as a sign of hope for people who have been through a really tough time."

Proudly showing off new hardwood floors, and the western motif that enlivens the once-flooded first floor, Woskowiak is beaming. While talking about a volunteer who has been working on her house for months, she says "This is a guardian angel." Her home hasn't felt like her home for three years, she says, but finally, she feels comfortable having someone over for a home-cooked meal.

Hurricane Katrina showed the country what doesn't work when it comes to rebuilding after a natural disaster. After the outcry, anger, and botched initial response to a storm that damaged 70 percent of the homes in Louisiana and left many stranded in trailers for months, thousands of Louisiana homeowners are still waiting to go home, and the hard-hit Ninth Ward still has a fraction of its pre-storm population. Recent statistics from the National Center for Environmental Information suggest that we're seeing an upward swing in massive and costly natural disasters, but it appears that we're not getting any better at solving the problem. While the Road Home program meant to help Gulf Coast homeowners rebuild and recover was riddled with abuse and waste—one investigation found half a billion dollars was distributed to homeowners who never actually rebuilt homes—the opposite issue has plagued East Coast residents trying to recover from Sandy. New policies for insurance claims made in response to Katrina mean payouts have been both reduced and painfully slow. Even with billions of dollars pledged to help and streams of volunteer labor ready to assist, local officials hear the complaints of those squatting in their own homes, instead of the sound of hammers and drills fixing the problem.

Amid the handwringing, retrospectives, and what ifs, one organization is pushing to rebuild not just homes, but also the way recovery is organized in America. Named after the New Orleans neighborhood where it started Katrina relief efforts in 2006—with, admittedly, no idea of what to do—the St. Bernard Project has repaired hundreds of homes in an effort to prove that rebuilding requires not just dollars, but also discipline. The organization has taken the lessons it learned from Katrina and worked with local partners to assist in Joplin, Missouri (tornado), San Marcos, Texas (floods), as well as the Rockaways, New Jersey, and Staten Island (hurricane). And if it has its way, it will eventually bring these strategies to cities across the country.

Read more:
Uncovering a New Orleans Shotgun House's 'Good Bones'
New Orleans Locals on a Decade of Post-Storm Change, Part 1
New Orleans Locals on a Decade of Post-Storm Change, Part 2

"Working hard isn't enough,"says Zack Rosenburg, a former lawyer who came to New Orleans in 2006 with the idea of donating a month of his time and ended up co-founding the St. Bernard Project with his wife, Liz McCartney. "You have to be willing to innovate and change. If you're satisfied with results, you have to do the same thing. If you're not satisfied, you need to do things differently. Where there's no struggle, there's no progress."

In other words, Rosenburg believes in channeling his dissatisfaction productively, iterating and reworking, with an eye toward common sense and constant improvement. Almost without fail, he'll note that the process his organization utilizes "isn't rocket science." After all, he and his wife came to the city in 2006 and, without any experience, turned shock at the situation they saw ("the luckiest folks were living in FEMA trailers") into an organization that's built nearly 1,000 homes and raised more than $16 million in contributions and grants last year.


The organization's whiteboard.

At the heart of the organization's success is something unglamorous: project management. Compared to Make It Right, which benefits from the celebrity of founder Brad Pitt and earns plaudits from the design press for funding high-tech and high-design new construction, the St. Bernard Project wants to recover wrecked homes, find a better way to fix broken plumbing, and establish a process that will make recovery smoother next time. At the auto shop-turned-headquarters currently serving as the organization's base of operations in the Rockaways, a beachfront community next to Patricia Woskowiak's neighborhood, the impression is more air traffic control than aeronautics. A large whiteboard stretches across one cinder block wall, with a column of addresses representing current rebuilding sites and a multi-colored code of letters and initials signifying what has been accomplished at each building. In a big storeroom behind the white board, pre-packaged kits of supplies and raw materials are arranged and stored. The contents of a drywall kit are listed in detail on a printed page taped to the wall: one package utility blade knives, five tape measures, four jab saws, and so on. Organized like an anal-retentive Home Depot, the kits sit, ready to be picked up, used, and turned into a mark on the big board.

According to Kelly Riordan, a recent college graduate and corporate relationship manager for the St. Bernard Project, the organization has been successful because it created a system that's realistic, accountable, and fast (they use a whiteboard, not a spreadsheet, to make sure the timeline is always top of mind). Whereas the St. Bernard project initially needed 110 days to build a home, they've trimmed the process down to 60 days by streamlining and adapting the famous Toyota Production System. Construction is broken down into repeatable, easy-to-teach steps (except skilled trades such as electric and plumbing), gear is organized and transparency lets the whole team know how far each home has come. They try to move fast, share expertise, and not be too deferential: this is the kind of organization where, if a CEO has volunteered to help with a home and is painting incorrectly, the college student running the site will quickly take him aside and correct him.


Supplies for St. Bernard Project construction.

Like parts of New Orleans, the Rockaways, in Queens, New York, is a neighborhood and a world unto itself, a place where a surf shop isn't just  a hipster affectation—and where deep roots mean people aren't willing to abandon rotting homes. The mixed-income neighborhoods aren't as prone to having large pockets of poverty, which means that, often, damaged homes aren't as visible as they are on the Gulf. The Rockaways suffered in part because of its geography, as a beach community clustered around a small peninsula that juts out from the western edge of Long Island. The thin finger of land, surrounded by water on both sides, was hit especially hard by the storm. And like homeowners in, say, the Ninth Ward, those in the Rockaways often didn't get enough insurance money and FEMA assistance to fully rebuild at market rate construction costs. That discrepancy, and the huge need, led to shady construction companies bilking desperate homeowners; the group says the contractor fraud rate in the Rockaways hit 60 percent, and in New Orleans, 71 percent.

"I think the deep dysfunction in the industry that we saw from the very beginning was seared into our DNA," says Rosenburg, when asked how the experience in New Orleans altered the way the organization approached recovery after Sandy. "We've seen what doesn't work. And it really keeps us honest, make sure we're working towards measurable outcomes. We've seen people die at home, or before moving home, WWII veterans not able to get a trailer because of paperwork issues, kids who moved 11 times before getting to more permanent housing. This isn't about just fixing roofs, it's about things people really care about, kids doing well in school and having great formative years. Time matters."

St. Bernard and Friends of Rockaway have finished 101 homes total since they started in the area shortly after Hurricane Sandy, all for owners who met all their criteria for assistance (they owned the home before the storm, intend to live there and won't flip it, can't afford market-rate construction, and aren't using it as a vacation home). They've already done 40 homes this year, well on their way to hit their goal of 60. Part of the reason they're still there years after the storm is because they're almost the only game in town.

Read more:
Spray-Painted FEMA X Still Marks the Storm in New Orleans
Revamping and Living in a 'Love Project' of a House in New Orleans
Turning a 'Falling Apart' NOLA Colonial Into an Artist's Home Base

The organization pulls funding from a variety of sources: corporate donations, private donations, volunteer donations, and foundations. For the Rockaways work, they've also tapped into the Disaster Case Management network, a group of charities such as the Salvation Army that form following a disaster and dissolve two or three years later. They've also begun to take advantage of money from the Build it Back program, which has given out $82 million for rebuilding homes in New York City but has been faulted for bureaucratic morass, as have other Sandy relief programs (one veteran recently told the New York Times he'd rather return to Fallujah than deal with FEMA's red tape). Mayor Bill Di Blasio overhauled the program, initiated by the Bloomberg administration, last year to allow it to work better with nonprofits; St. Bernard fills in the gaps in funding that aren't covered by insurance or other programs or foots the bill for those who don't qualify or aren't covered.

"There are groups doing great work here, including Habitat for Humanity and Rebuilding Together," Riordan says, "But they're not based here, and not working to this scale. We're the only Queens-based organization working, and we'll still be receiving many applications from residents for years."

Even though the St. Bernard project was on the ground in the New York and New Jersey area as the storm hit, according to Reese May, Director of East Coast Operations, they're still dealing with the relative trickle of funding coming from the government, a pendulum swing from the unfettered spending post-Katrina.

"From my perspective, New Orleans and Katrina was the first disaster of that scale in living American memory," says May. "What we learned is that, no matter what the initial response is, there won't be enough to get everybody home. It took awhile to see that in New Orleans. But once you understand it, that there won't be enough taxpayer subsidies, that charitable giving just won't do it, that it'll take a full-scale, long-term community investment to return the community to normalcy, it removes the tendency to wait and see. In New Orleans, there was a lot of wait and see. With Sandy, as the storm curled up the eastern seaboard, we started to worry about the worst possibilities. We could tell as soon as it stopped raining that there would be a lot more need."

At a worksite in Far Rockaway, a first-floor apartment on Aquatic Drive, a team of volunteers with Friends of Rockaway/St. Bernard Project are working on the home of Edmond Lem, a former licensed real estate appraiser. Part of a nondescript block of apartments, the interior looks like the "in-process" part of a real estate TV show about flipping property. Drywall is being ripped up, tape outlines where new fixtures and plumbing are going to be installed. The crew of about a dozen rotating volunteers has spent the last few months renovating the mold-infested building so the owner and his aging mother can return.

Sarah Evers, a 24-year-old urban planning student at Pitzer College in California, joined as part of Americorp, which helps provide low-cost labor for St. Bernard, and, along with volunteers, forms the bulk of the group's workforce (11,000 people have volunteered this year alone). She initially came to New York to learn about cities. After stints at the Van Alen Institute, a heady urban think-tank, and the Lowline, a group trying to build a futuristic park in an abandoned rail tunnel underground, she arrived at Friends of Rockaway in April to gain first-hand experience with housing issues. She literally walked in with no experience, getting a crash course in framing houses in Breezy Point, near the tip of the peninsula, for two months before beginning to work on Lem's home. She remembers that it smelled like mold. She'd estimate they have about three weeks left, but then again, she's never trimmed a house before.

"It's scary to think people live in places like this and don't have proper work done," she says. "For me, it's interesting to think about how housing is such a huge financial asset; it can be someone's whole financial existence. That can really make New York vulnerable."

The group serves 160 families and has 120 still on the waiting list. They're making progress, May says, but not nearly enough and not nearly fast enough.


St. Bernard Project volunteers.

After rebuilding comes prevention. The St. Bernard Project is developing the Disaster Resilience and Recovery Lab and creating a playbook that homeowners, small business owners, and municipalities can utilize based on the lessons they've learned: what insurance to get, how to keep records FEMA-compliant, and how to draw up action plans that are faster and more efficient.

"We won't have the same model in five years," says Rosenburg. "We'll be training other groups to use our model, and work on resilience and risk-reduction strategies. We hope, in two years, to change how the industry measures success. I think a lot of our heavy lifting will be done in a few years."

"I'm still pretty focused on what's not done," says Rosenburg. While his organization continues to grow, they're staying local, building a new headquarters on Broad Street in New Orleans after growing out of the original building and a handful of those next door. He's also stayed in town since he moved down from Washington, D.C. as part of that initial volunteer trip. While he says many things have changed in New Orleans—there's a great business climate, housing prices up 46 percent,  schools are better—the infant mortality rate is the same it was pre-Katrina, with fewer children. So he sees more to do.

"There's no magic bullet," he says. "We're a direct service agency. Our mission and values keep us focused; reduce time between disaster and recovery. But are we doing the work in a way that we'd want to do for our own loved ones?"

· Eye on New Orleans coverage [Curbed]
· Surveying Queens' Rockaway Peninsula After the Storm [Curbed New York]