When Zack Rosenburg, founder of the St. Bernard Project, came to New Orleans to volunteer in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he was only expecting to stay for two weeks. However, his stay in New Orleans in the wake of the storm opened his eyes to the magnitude of the disaster facing the community, and he could not bring himself to leave. Instead, he founded the ““St. Bernard Project to help homeowners rebuild their homes and get back on their feet. Even now, eight years after the storm, the St. Bernard project is still helping the citizens of New Orleans rebuild the homes they lost.
Zack Rosenburg didn’t grow up in New Orleans—he grew up outside of Boston. In fact, when Hurricane Katrina hit, he was working as a lawyer in Washington DC. Due to what Rosenburg calls “an interesting compilation of life events,” he, his mother, and his sister decided to volunteer in New Orleans for two weeks instead of taking a family vacation. Rosenburg said, “After about two weeks, it was time to go home, but we got to know the people really well. We couldn’t just leave and tell people, 'Have a good life, good luck, hang in there.'”
Rosenburg said that he and his family were inspired by the “meaning of home” here in New Orleans. He believes that here, home means more than just a house—home means family, a chance to raise your children in the same place that you were raised, and the ability to walk to your parents' and grandparents' houses for Sunday dinner. In New Orleans, home and community are intertwined. So, when the two week mark came and went, he began searching for an organization that was helping to rebuild the city. “We couldn’t find any groups that were really aggressively building houses," Rosenburg explained. "We asked the traditional disaster recovery groups when they were going to start building, and the answer we got was a little cavalier and unsatisfying. They said, 'Listen, building is phase two. First we have to gut all the houses; that’s phase one. We’ve done disaster recovery this way for 30 years, so why would we change it?' And we were like, that’s crazy. So, we decided we would just have to do the work ourselves.”
Thus, the St. Bernard Project was formed. Though Rosenburg would never have guessed it, even now they have a waiting list of families hoping to get their homes remodeled. He added, “After that initial visit, we thought we’d stay here for a year, we’d do what we can do, and we’d get back to our lives. But we saw that the need was great, and we contacted a partner who helped us build a really great model in the St. Bernard Project. Right now, we’re having a pretty massive impact. Every year at Christmas we think, 'This year we’ll get to the bottom of the waiting list.' But we still get about ten requests each week.” Those requests come from homeowners who have still been unable to rebuild their homes, often due to contractor fraud and/or a lack of funds, and who are, on average, 61 years old.
Despite the great work the St. Bernard Project has accomplished, they’ve still got a lot left to do. According to Rosenburg, there are still between 6,000 people waiting to come home. Unfortunately, eight years after the storm, national and international funders have begun to turn their attention to other disasters, leaving the St. Bernard Project with fewer resources. In response, the St. Bernard Project is launching the NOLA for NOLA Campaign.
Rosenburg revealed that the NOLA for NOLA Campaign is born out of three needs. "One, there’s a lot more left to do. Two, a lot of our national funders are turning their attention to other disasters. And three, we need the local New Orleans leaders and stakeholders and community to help us finish this recovery.” The launch of the campaign will coincide with the 500th house completed this summer and the 8th anniversary of the storm. The Fort Lauderdale-based Salah Foundation has agreed to match every donation of $5,000 or more up to $150,000, in an effort to incentivize local donors. “We hope to raise $300,000 from the campaign. It’s about $25,000 worth of building supplies per house. So we’re hoping that this campaign will fund ten to fifteen families, at least," Rosenburg said.
Still, even when the St. Bernard Project finally completes its original mission, Rosenburg has other plans for the organization. “I think in New Orleans we’ll still be turning blighted properties into affordable housing, into properties that people who work can afford. At the same time, I hope we’ll be training communities all over the country in the model so that they can recover as quickly and efficiently as possible, so they don’t have to endure the wait and the dehumanization that so many New Orleans families had to endure.”
Through their experience and partnerships, the St. Bernard Project has developed a comprehensive approach to disaster recovery in communities. Rosenberg plans to share this model with other communities in need so that the nation as a whole comes to have a better system of recovery. In fact, during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the St. Bernard Project found partners in the New York and New Jersey state areas who had the resources to implement their disaster recovery model. Furthermore, Rosenburg believes that the model will be valid, with some adjustments, in many disaster situations outside of hurricanes, and that its streamlined, cost effective, fast-paced style represents a distinct improvement over traditional models.
The St. Bernard Project has been committed to helping families in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and rebuilding New Orleans as a whole. Now, the organization is asking the New Orleans community to give back so that they can finish the job and have a whole city once more. In the future, St. Bernard Project will continue to grow across the nation and help other communities in need, while still giving back to its roots here in NOLA.