Voluntourists and Preservation Organizations at Forefront of New Orleans Revitalization

Thousands of visitors to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina have discovered that the historic city has long survived by the affection of their fellow travelers and grit of her citizens. Every tragedy – in the city’s biblical list of fires, floods, plagues, insects and blight – has mustered legions of devotees who won’t let New Orleans fall victim to its undeserved moniker, the “city that care forgot.”

Jim Turner, a renovator from Detroit, came to New Orleans shortly after the storm as a volunteer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “I told my son that I had fallen in love. She was on hard times, bedraggled and down, but still beautiful, and she needed me,” he said. His passion for New Orleans, his love of her neighborhoods and people, and her tragic neediness inspired him to open a shop in the city.

Turner is not alone. New Orleans has become home, first or second, to scores of volunteers who were initially inspired by the devastation they saw on TV, and then couldn’t let go. New Orleanians welcome each one in their inimical style, and a match is made. Beware of the allure, but embrace it if it happens to you. New Orleans still needs volunteers, and the opportunity to visit the city’s restaurants, see the beautiful architecture, hear some great music, and walk its magical streets can now be combined with the satisfaction of helping to save her soul.

Thank You and Keep Coming

The world literally came to the rescue after Katrina. “Voluntourism” became the new Adventure Travel, and its impact, as well as the continued generosity of so many, is making a daily difference across New Orleans. Nowhere is this outpouring more noticeable than in the historic neighborhoods, the heart of the city, where volunteers have worked with preservation groups to bring people back to their restored shotgun houses, bungalows and Creole cottages.

“New Orleans’ historic neighborhoods embody the real spirit of this one-of-a-kind city,” said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in early September, 2005. “That they must be preserved is indisputable; it simply must be done.”

The National Trust and the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans (PRC) were on the ground within days of the tragedy. The two organizations, which have worked in tandem since the 1974 founding of the PRC, didn’t need any training for the task ahead. Neighborhood revitalization was their business; their programs needed to be magnified, not invented as happened with so many non-profits jumping in to fill the great need.

Immediately, the Trust opened a field office at PRC’s headquarters in New Orleans’ Warehouse District and helped fund the distribution of cleaning supplies to thousands of homeowners coping with washed out memories in the muddy residue that saturated their houses. Over the course of the following year, the Trust and the PRC sponsored more than 1,000 volunteer specialists – architects, contractors, preservation experts and structural engineers among them – to work directly with homeowners assessing damage and offering renovation advice.

“My brother and I could hardly breathe after going inside our grandmother’s house shortly after Katrina,” said Donna Duplantier, who works for the U.S. Justice Department and had been temporarily relocated to Pennsylvania. “We were standing on the front porch getting some air when we saw a mirage on the deserted street.”

The mirage turned out to be volunteers from the Trust and PRC who were scouting the historic section of the Lower Ninth Ward known as Holy Cross. Immediately, a partnership was formed, and after extensive renovations by the Trust, Duplantier’s family home was finally back and better. This was one of the 20 HOME AGAIN! NEW ORLEANS houses brought back to life by the Trust. More than 100 others have been totally renovated by another volunteer-based project of the non-profit Preservation Resource Center.

No Skills Necessary

The majority of volunteers who continue to come to New Orleans to help save the neighborhoods and bring families back to their homes are unskilled in the trades but eager to help. A great opportunity to make a difference is available through Rebuilding Together New Orleans, part of the Preservation Resource Center as well as an affiliate of the National Rebuilding Together organization based in Washington, D.C. The Trust has also worked closely with Rebuilding Together New Orleans, whose mission is to renovate the homes of elderly and disabled owners, police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians. Since its founding in 1988, the PRC program has repaired more than 1,100 homes. Before Katrina it was the largest weekend volunteer effort in the city, with more than 4,000 New Orleanians participating. Since the storm, however, visiting volunteers have filled the gap left by the locals, who have been consumed by rebuilding their businesses, schools, homes and civic institutions. The PRC program has renovated 112 homes, and more than 5,000 volunteers have contributed over 150,000 hours to the post-Katrina effort.

“People come with their corporations or church groups and feel so good about what they are doing to help rebuild the neighborhoods that they come back with a small group of friends,” says Camille Lopez, assistant director of Rebuilding Together New Orleans. “Our projects need big groups like the Starbucks employees who are coming this fall, medium-sized groups like the New Orleans Saints team, and small groups of friends who want to mix volunteering in with a visit to the city’s great attractions.”

Rebuilding Together is dedicated to bringing families back to their homes, but PRC has a complementary program known as Operation Comeback which actually buys, or is given, vacant properties in targeted historic neighborhoods, renovates and sells them to first-time homebuyers. The National Trust recognized Operation Comeback with one of its highest awards, and the program has been emulated in many cities.

The combination of the two PRC programs has changed the face of many parts of New Orleans. In one Uptown neighborhood where no lenders would tread, Operation Comeback renovated and sold a row of decaying shotgun houses. Within two years, there were more than 200 private projects in the area. On the opposite side of town, in the Lower Ninth Ward historic neighborhood of Holy Cross, Rebuilding Together and Operation Comeback have been a substantive part of the revitalization since the 1990s. It was slowed tremendously by Hurricane Katrina but picked up again with a tenacity fueled by visiting volunteer groups. Initially volunteers in the neighborhood were a more frequent sight than residents because the city administration had a “look and leave” policy in effect for almost a year after the storm. Even now as residents return home neighbors love the volunteers, and there is a quick camaraderie between the visitors and the homeowners.

“The destruction of our historic neighborhoods is unnecessary, avoidable and, once it happens, irreversible,” says Kevin Mercadel, who manages the HOME AGAIN! NEW ORLEANS project for the National Trust. Thanks to thousands of visitors who have volunteered their vacations to save the historic neighborhoods and help homeowners in need return to their communities, there is far less in jeopardy than feared.

The need for volunteers continues. Come to New Orleans. Abandon your own cares while you care for a town that is still in need. Then have a great meal, listen to some embracing jazz, drink one of the city’s famous “hurricanes” in the French Quarter and walk the serene streets of the Garden District. Rest content in your memories of both.