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As FEMA shuts trailers in New Orleans, rebuilding need mounts

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Plans to discontinue use of FEMA trailers in New Orleans have added a new sense of urgency to Southern Baptists’ Operation NOAH Rebuild, a three-year initiative to rebuild or repair Hurricane Katrina-ravaged homes.

“We need more volunteers because FEMA wants to get homeowners out of the trailers and back into their homes because of the formaldehyde threat,” said David Maxwell, Operation NOAH Rebuild coordinator. “If we had 500 volunteers a week, we could get an awful lot done.”

Thirty months after Hurricane Katrina and its floodwaters wiped out their homes, thousands of New Orleans residents in FEMA-provided trailers are having to pack and move again.

Due to the threat of formaldehyde produced by a chemical reaction between the trailers’ interior walls and manufacturing glue, FEMA announced in February that it would expedite the removal of flood victims from the trailers to alternative housing, including apartments, hotels and motels.

“We moved out of the FEMA trailer about four months ago,” said Leticia Robinson, whose family and other relatives -– seven in all -– now live in a two-bedroom house.

“I became sick and so did members of my family,” Robinson said. “We had headaches, burning eyes and respiratory problems.

“I wanted to get out of the trailer and yet I didn’t want to go because of the inconvenience of moving,” said Robinson, a licensed practical nurse. “Not only were we inconvenienced, the family members we moved in with are inconvenienced.”

Robinson’s home on St. Roch Avenue in New Orleans’ Seventh Ward was inundated with 10 feet of water from Hurricane Katrina flooding. They lost everything. The Robinsons lived in a FEMA trailer for two years.

Andrew F. Thomas of FEMA public affairs said use of the trailers has declined from a peak of 23,280 in Orleans Parish down to 7,282 today. Thomas said nearly 6,800 of these trailers are on sites such as residents’ driveways and front yards.

“FEMA’s goal is to have every family now resident in a FEMA trailer moved into permanent housing by June 1,” Thomas said. “… [W]e will work with each of these families, one-on-one, to help them return to their homes.”

Through the end of March, some 18,450 Southern Baptist volunteers from 49 states have participated in Operation NOAH Rebuild, spearheaded by the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board, the Louisiana Baptist Convention and Baptist associations and churches in the metro New Orleans area.

Volunteers have rebuilt 136 homes from gut-out to completion and another 1,160 flood-damaged homes and churches have been repaired.

Operation NOAH Rebuild, begun in April 2006, was scheduled to end on Aug. 31, 2008, but now has been extended to Aug. 31, 2009.

“We need skilled carpenters, drywall people, plumbers, electricians, framing carpenters and finishing carpenters,” Maxwell said, adding that volunteers usually come in on Sunday and stay until the next Friday or Saturday.

Maxwell, who served as pastor at Ridge Avenue Baptist Church in West Monroe, La., before joining Operation NOAH Rebuild, said skilled team leaders are particularly needed.

“We can have a team of youth and they can put a roof on if they have a skilled team leader who knows what to do,” Maxwell said.

“We also want and need people who may not [be able] do carpentry work, but who can do evangelism,” Maxwell added. “All the work we’re doing down here as Southern Baptists earns us the right to share the Gospel. We encourage teams that can’t do construction to come and do evangelism in different ways. That’s a tremendous part of who we are.”

Operation NOAH Rebuild can house 600 volunteers a week, 460 of them at Household of Faith Church, a 74,000-square-foot African American church in east New Orleans. Another 142 can be housed at Hopeview Baptist Church in St. Bernard Parish.

“God has blessed,” Maxwell said. “We’ve had a lot of volunteers but we live or die with the volunteers. If they stop coming, Operation NOAH Rebuild will be over.

“Our people are loving people coming down here to help. The people in New Orleans have been in a dire situation, not physically able to do for themselves. They didn’t receive funds from insurance companies to totally rebuild their homes. Most people didn’t have federal flood insurance and even if they did, the maximum amount was $150,000.

“So Baptists and other faith-based groups that have come down are helping tremendously with the residential rebuilding. If it hadn’t been for our volunteers, many of these houses wouldn’t have even been gutted out, much less rebuilt.”

Maxwell said many volunteers return for the second, third or fourth time after they see the tremendous needs and challenges in New Orleans. “And it’s going to be this way for several years.”

Robinson is grateful for the new roof on her home provided through Operation NOAH Rebuild and she hopes to resume living there in the coming year.

“There are a lot of people who are in need of help,” she said. “But they [Southern Baptists] have so many people in need and only so many volunteers to go around.

“It’s hard to be patient because progress has been slow, but I know I’m not the first one or the only one affected,” Robinson said.

For volunteer opportunities in construction, e-mail [email protected] or call 1-877-934-0808 (toll-free) or 504-362-4604. For opportunities in evangelism or church planting, e-mail [email protected] or call the same phone numbers. To donate to Operation NOAH Rebuild, access NAMB’s website at www.namb.net and click on the NOAH logo.
Mickey Noah is a writer with the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board.

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