NEW ORLEANS In many ways, New Orleans is back. The economy, fueled by rebuilding efforts and open ports at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico, is robust, with unemployment at 3.8 percent. More than 400,000 people attended the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival last month.
But vital statistics don’t tell the whole story.
On the residential streets that Don Snipes drives every day, the rot on most homes from the flooding of Hurricane Katrina nearly three years ago is still evident.
For every freshly painted, spick-and-span rebuild, there are three, maybe four, that look dilapidated. A few have weeds growing waist high and the letters TFW (toxic flood water) still spray-painted on the front of the houses in the aftermath of the 2005 disaster.
Not everyone will return and some houses will be demolished, yet the task that remains seems overwhelming, said Snipes, the SBTC’s on-site coordinator for Southern Baptists’ Operation NOAH (New Orleans Area Hope) Rebuild effort.
Snipes, who came to the job from a pastorate in Big Spring and experience in the construction industry, said Southern Baptists could continue NOAH another decade and still have work to do here.
The New Orleans population in March was estimated at 71.8 percent of its pre-Katrina level, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. Homeowners have the option of rebuilding, selling their property to the federal “Road Home” program, or relocating with government assistance to another Louisiana city.
“Some people have been on waiting lists [for rebuild assistance] for two years,” Snipes explained.
A pressing need is skilled-labor volunteers such as electricians and plumbers, as well as continued help from non-skilled church members willing to grab a hammer or a paintbrush, Snipes said.
“We are in great need of electricians and plumbers all the time,” Snipes said. “There’s not a week that goes by that we can’t use plumbers and electricians. We can’t get a home inspected until we get it plumbed and wired.”
One elderly woman, a member of Christian Light Missionary Baptist Church, whose building the SBTC has helped refurbish, struggled in finding help for her home on the same block as the church, Snipes said.
On the day the TEXAN visited, she was powering her appliances using extension cords running from her neighbor’s house. Blue tarps draped the ceiling to reduce rain leakage.
Most houses have electricity, but many are waiting for repair from Operation NOAH volunteers. They include several hundred in the NOAH database in the area of central New Orleans where the SBTC is working alongside other relief groups and independent contractors. First Baptist Church of New Orleans, for example, has their “Crossroads” ministry. The United Methodists have a “Lean On Me” rebuild ministry.
The Salvation Army is now coordinating its assistance through NOAH, Snipes said.
On his morning commute into New Orleans from his home in nearby La Place, Snipes took a phone call from a woman named Lillie who wanted to know when her duplex would be ready.
“Yes, as soon as I can get some more plumbers, we’ll get you taken care of,” Snipes told her.
Of those homes in the NOAH database, Snipes closed the books on about 45 in 2007 and more than 50 already this year.
“Some of those houses have been demolished; some were sold to the Road Home program and others we were able to renovate or the homeowners got their grant money and hired contractors themselves,” he explained.
In 2008, only three or four SBTC church teams have worked in New Orleans under Snipes’ supervision, though some have worked in other parts of the city on their own initiative.
As Snipes drove down an inner-city street, he pointed to a peach-colored home rebuilt by Texas volunteers.
The first week of May, a team from Candlewyck Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C., was working at two homes in the SBTC’s zone. The group included a pharmacist, a college student, an insurance agent, a minister and two tradesmen.
“We are quite an eclectic group,” said David Reese, a Candlewyck member. The group traveled from North Carolina, Reese said, because without a steady stream of Baptist volunteers the work “wouldn’t get done. It’s that simple.”
“It also helps people in our church see that we are involved with North American missions as well,” Reese added.
Over spring break, 300-400 volunteers worked across the city through NOAH. Snipes said.
Several people associated with NOAH said the spiritual climate, formerly dominated by Roman Catholicism and pagan spirituality and sometimes a mix of both, is one of openness and appreciation.
“We have made Baptists a presence here,” Snipes remarked. “We are known by people and they respect our ministry, whereas that wasn’t the case before. Previously, we were pretty much snubbed and ignored. Now, people want to talk to us; they are receptive.”
Typically, as one church group leaves, another comes in to finish the work on a given home with no continuity of labor, save for Snipes himself, who from necessity has wired a house or two while there.
Often, the task of rebuilding old homes from the inside out is akin to “building an airplane while you’re flying it,” one volunteer said, explaining that unforeseen problems often arise.
Ron Kouf, who came to New Orleans from Arizona to manage the warehouse for Operation NOAH, said the work will continue for a long while.
“We’re not here only to rebuild homes; we’re here to rebuild lives,” he said. “Katrina has made spiritual conversations possible,” with 387 professions of faith recorded though the ministry of Southern Baptists. “And that is incredible. That is really neat. I’ve seen some awesome things happen here.”
Kouf told of one homeowner who invited the men who were rebuilding her house to stay for dinner while apologizing for her well-worn pots and pans.
“The guys went out and got her a new set of steel pots. She burst into tears. And there was this big ‘ol boy who had to walk over to the corner of the room because he was crying as hard as she was.”
Kouf said once church groups arrive and see how “devastated the area still is, they’re shocked. There is a whole different look on their faces after the first day. They realize, ‘Wow, this place is a mess.'”
Kouf said many groups are repeat visitors, but more church groups are needed over the summer and next fall.
“We need skilled help badly,” Kouf remarked.
Snipes added: “If we just rebuild homes without seeing people’s lives changed, then the city will continue to be themurder capital of the U.S. That is why we need to be able to do evangelism and plant churches in the window of opportunity that we have.”
To contact Snipes about volunteer opportunities, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 985-817-0050. The NOAH office phone number is 504-362-4604.