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Volunteers Who Moved to New Orleans Post-Katrina Say Passion for Rebuilding Communities Hasn't Faltered

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, volunteers from all over the world flocked to the heavily damaged areas of the Gulf Coast to aid those who had their lives turned upside down. As the 10-year anniversary of Katrina has come and gone, volunteer efforts remain strong in hard-hit areas.

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, more than one million volunteers have served along the Gulf Coast in the decade since Katrina, making it the largest volunteer response to a natural disaster in U.S. history. Currently, 9,500 AmeriCorps members and Senior Corps members continue to serve at 1,000 locations in Mississippi and Louisiana.

Habitat for Humanity of the Mississippi Gulf Coast (HFHMGC), based out of Gulfport, Mississippi, has helped 25,000 local and national volunteers devote their time and energy. Since 2007, more than 300 homes have been rebuilt while nearly 600 have been rehabbed.

The group still assists low-income homeowners who have struggled to rebuild, said Adele Lyons, director of development for HFHMGC. As part of commemoration activities, the group is building three homes in Pascagoula, Mississippi.

There is also still great need in low-lying areas such as the community of East Biloxi, which Lyons said remains somewhat vacant, with a lot of homes still being built.

The amount of volunteers is fewer than it once was, but local corporations, in addition to annual spring break trips from colleges, continue to make a difference, according to Lyons.

The fact that 10 years have passed and people still take time off from work and pay their own way to the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a place where weather conditions aren't the most favorable for spending long hours outdoors, keeps Lyons optimistic.

"We get a little bit of some cooler temperatures, but for the most part it's pretty warm and humid here, so it's not the greatest working conditions," Lyons said.

"And when the people leave, or even when they get here, they're thanking us for the experience, they're thanking us for how they've felt like they've helped and been impactful, when we absolutely owe them the thanks," she added.

After growing up in rural Pennsylvania, Jon Skvarka first came to New Orleans as part of the AmeriCorps Vista Program in 2006 to work for Rebuilding Together New Orleans (RTNO) as part of an alternative spring break program.

After devoting a year of service, he knew New Orleans was where he wanted to reside and help make a difference. Today, he lives in New Orleans year-round and serves as executive director of RTNO, which was founded in 1988 but modified its mission in 2005 to aid displaced Katrina victims.

The organization has recruited more than 25,000 volunteers over the last 10 years and helped complete nearly 500 projects, with the help of AmeriCorps. RTNO also continues to see long-term groups spend time in the city, including college students for alternative spring break opportunities. Skvarka said they are already fully booked for groups to come down and work with them next March.

"It's kind of a right of passage now for anybody interested in public service or volunteering or the non-profit world to come down during spring break or winter break," Skvarka said.

"It shows the passion of young people and the passion of people to work in a place [like] New Orleans," he said.

Zack Rosenburg and his wife, Liz McCartney, were living and working in Washington, D.C., when Katrina struck. After seeing the devastation, they immediately flew to New Orleans and spent two weeks in St. Bernard Parish, assisting anyway they could.

Two weeks turned into four and eventually they became close with the community members they were assisting. After seeing how long it was taking to rebuild homes and seeing people living in cars, attics and garages, the couple founded the St. Bernard Project in March 2006.

Now, like Skvarka, Rosenburg and McCartney reside permanently in New Orleans. The St. Bernard Project, which has opened offices in Joplin, Missouri, Rockaway, New York, and Monmouth County, New Jersey, to assist in recovery efforts for those storm-ravaged communities, has rebuilt about 950 homes nationally and over 600 in New Orleans. The current goal is to rebuild over 260 homes in New Orleans in the next three years, Rosenburg said.

While the St. Bernard Project continues to see an increase in volunteers, more homeowners are coming to them in need of assistance, with an average of 17 requesting help per week, according to Rosenburg.

"The good thing is we're on track for more volunteers than ever before. So right now we're on track for a 20 percent increase in volunteers over last year," he said.

The organization continues to work in some of New Orleans' hardest-hit neighborhoods, including the Lower Ninth Ward, Gentilly and New Orleans East.

For Rosenburg, the best feeling is when a homeowner can finally lock their door from the inside, rather than locking it from the outside as they wait for the repair process to be completed. Leading up to the 10th anniversary, from Aug. 26 to Aug. 28, they led a 48-hour build marathon throughout New Orleans to help 48 families get closer to calling the city home again.

Yet, in the decade since the most damaging hurricane in U.S. history, Rosenburg said that plenty of work remains to be done and the citizens who are waiting to return home shouldn't be forgotten.

"Running 17 miles is a long distance, but it's not a marathon. And the recovery's not over," he said. "If we're going to run a marathon, or complete a recovery, we gotta keep working."

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