NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Three years ago, New Orleans residents escaped a city that, in just a few days, had changed forever. Nearly half would leave for good because they had no reason to return after Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge forced Lake Pontchartrain through the city’s levees and into their streets and living rooms.
Those who later returned came back to the eerie silence of a city under siege by disaster -— a silence interrupted only by the mechanical buzz of construction equipment and military vehicles.
“It was like a ghost town,” says Freddie Arnold, a North American Mission Board-supported church planter missionary, who only salvaged some cast-iron cookware and crystal from his own flooded New Orleans home. “To come back and see all your stuff moved around the house … furniture rotting….”
Even as the smooth notes of jazz and tourists again fill the French Quarter, large parts of various communities surrounding the city center may never be rebuilt.
In parts of the Lower Ninth Ward, for instance, former home sites have been claimed by overgrowth — a plight made all the more poignant as alleged corruption siphons off a multi-billion-dollar stream of government funds.
Despite a world of challenges, from bureaucracy to pocket-lining scam contractors, residents and churches still continue to repair and rebuild — some with insurance money, many with the materials donated by Southern Baptist Convention churches and volunteer manpower.
From Brad Pitt’s $5 million “Make It Right” campaign to the continued tireless efforts of Southern Baptists, some of whom spend six months or more out of the year in New Orleans with Operation NOAH (New Orleans Area Hope) Rebuild, volunteer labor across denominations and organizations has injected life into a city on life support after Katrina’s onslaught of Aug. 29, 2005.
Since Operation NOAH Rebuild started in the spring of 2006, more than 23,000 Southern Baptist volunteers have rebuilt 148 homes, made 1,200 more homes livable and 13 churches operational again.
“God wants us to go wherever and whenever He wants,” said Andy King, a 66-year-old retired pastor, farmer and drywall specialist with the Baptist Bricklayers of Tennessee.
King started on his first rebuild project in Pascagoula, Miss., in March 2006 and also has worked in Slidell, La. He and wife Charlene have lived out of their RV for most of two years, traveling back to Tennessee occasionally to help with their son’s harvest on the family farm.
“I’ll go home [this fall] to help with the soybeans, and then we’ll be back here again,” said King, who has been “drywalling” since age 24.
“There’s nothing like seeing the faces of the people you’re working for,” King said. “They are so grateful.”
Charlene does administrative work at the NOAH headquarters on the Mississippi River’s west bank, while King is the only drywall specialist on the NOAH team at present.
“It’s tough work and very few people want to do it,” said King, working his spackle knife along a rough ceiling seam. “You want the mud to flower out like this so you don’t have any rough spots.”
This house along Dreaux Road is King’s 24th renovation project and reflects how far Operation NOAH Rebuild has brought hundreds of residents and churches in three years.
The interior is unfinished but brand-new. Past volunteers have left behind inscriptions on door frames of Bible verses such as John 3:16 and Ecclesiastes 3:1. Soon, interior doors and fresh coats of paint will bring the house back to life for the owners who are now temporarily living in Texas.
The Dreaux Road residence also represents some of the challenges that NOAH faces as awareness wanes about volunteer needs. While the summer of 2008 drew as many as 500 volunteers per week to New Orleans, most of the volunteer labor was drawn from unskilled workers such as church youth groups.
“Skilled volunteers are an essential part of our work down here,” said David Maxwell, Operation NOAH Rebuild’s project coordinator. “Having someone who can do plumbing work or skillfully set drywall, those people are hard to come by. What we need are crew chiefs who can do sheetrock, plumbing or electrical work and teach others.”
Just as Katrina changed the physical landscape of New Orleans, the storm also transformed the makeup of the city’s population. The Hispanic population — particularly Hondurans — began growing following Hurricane Mitch in 1998 as thousands moved in to take jobs in hospitality and construction.
Before Katrina struck, more than 150,000 Hispanics lived in the New Orleans area. Three years after Katrina, that population is finally back and growing again. A U.S. Census Bureau report in June estimated an additional 14,000 Hispanics had moved to the area in response to the rebuild.
As a result of the continued influx of Hispanics, the local construction industry, local culture and local ministry all have changed.
The Greater New Orleans Baptist Association is placing greater emphasis on this emerging population. Some churches have ongoing ministry to homeless Hispanics who work during the day and sleep under Interstate 10 bridges at night.
New challenges also abound in inner-city ministry, said Larry Miguez, director of the Rachel Sims Baptist Center.
“Our numbers are much smaller now. They had grown real big,” Miguez said. “Our teen boys program was averaging around 60 a night. Now it’s about six.”
Competing youth factions have spawned violent tension in once-peaceful areas south of the business district. Now fights and gunfire break out, fueled by crowds and even squabbles involving something like MySpace, the online social network.
“Some kid notices that his girlfriend is talking to another guy on MySpace and he’ll get angry and possibly violent,” Miguez said. The youth must learn to “solve those problems amongst themselves…. There are great opportunities out there for ministry.”
The Baptist center still serves as a hub for volunteer teams and as a place where nearby residents can access computers, send their young children to ministry programs and where mission teams can come in and share the Gospel.
The sky may the limit for sharing the Gospel in post-Katrina New Orleans, where Southern Baptists have already made a name for themselves.
“My priest was nowhere to be found, but those Southern Baptists gave me food, water and shelter” is a common sentiment heard from Katrina victims, a sentiment that has even found its way into the New Orleans Times-Picayune on occasion.
As Operation NOAH Rebuild enters another year, its staff is looking for ways to partner with churches near and far and with the Baptist Association of Greater New Orleans, the Louisiana Baptist Convention and the North American Mission Board to reach deeper into the heart of the city.
While the object of NOAH has always been to represent Christ in tangible ways, the focus of the operation will shift to reaching homeowners as they return home, said Mickey Caison, head of NAMB’s adult volunteer mobilization team.
“We have a real opportunity here still,” Caison said. “After a couple of years, you can lose that opportunity as things return to normal. The needs will still be great, but people will not be open to the Gospel forever.”
Adam Miller is associate editor of On Mission magazine at the North American Mission Board. To volunteer for work in New Orleans as part of Operation NOAH Rebuild, visit www.namb.net/noah.