By Mary Rickard
New Orleans Advocate
A cluster of homes near the Industrial Canal, including that of Errol and Esther Joseph, is an oasis among scattered plots of willowy grass. A crew of volunteers wearing purple lowernine.org T-shirts stream in and out the couple’s house, laying down floor tiles, sanding and painting walls, informally supervised by Errol Joseph.
“I really like working on that house because it will make him so happy to live there,” said Kevin Panman, a recent graduate of The Hague University of Applied Sciences on a three-month tourist visa. Since 2008, visitors from 30 countries have signed up with lowernine.org, a local nonprofit utilizing volunteer labor to revitalize the historic neighborhood.
The Josephs named their home rebuilding effort “Project Grace & Mercy.” Ten years after 17-foot flood waters inundated their neighborhood after Hurricane Katrina, the couple will finally be back home by Aug. 29.
“It is coming together by God’s grace,” said the 64-year-old licensed contractor.
Errol Joseph “went in circles” for five years, trying to negotiate with Allstate Insurance, The Road Home Program, and Federal Emergency Management Agency before meeting Laura Paul, executive director of lowernine.org. He had been unable to get a loan for reconstruction because authorities had already made plans to abandon the Lower Ninth Ward, and his mortgage company demanded to be paid in full right away.
“The land had essentially no value,” he said. In the meantime, the Josephs were forced to rent at more than twice the amount of their mortgage.
But in 2013, lowernine.org volunteers began working on the Josephs’ new home.
With an operating budget of less than $150,000 year, the nonprofit has fully rebuilt 75 houses and renovated 200 more. Paul estimates lowernine.org has contributed an estimated $8 million in volunteer labor without which most families could never have afforded to rebuild.
The nonprofit welcomes and houses workers of all skill levels from across the country and around the world for a few days or a few months. Many volunteers were not yet teenagers when Hurricane Katrina struck the coast.
“At first, it was just me getting my home together. Now, it’s a ministry for me,” Errol Joseph said. “I get with these kids, they make me happy.”
Panman, 25, was shocked to see so many homes abandoned. When a storm caused massive flooding in the Netherlands in 1953, the Dutch government quickly stepped up to repair the damage.“It opens your eyes that this could happen,” he said.
Jeongmoon Lee, a college student from South Korea was also surprised by the lack of progress. His country moves quickly after a tsunami devastates its coast.
“It’s been 10 years now and I don’t really understand how the restoration is this little,” Lee said.
Despite hardships, the Josephs were determined to return to the neighborhood where his family lived for generations.
“I used to come and sit on the porch and just reminisce about my dad, my neighbors,” he said. Miss Effie would always be cooking and baking goodies to share. Miss Geniva had all the local gossip, and “Miss Almina made the best Heavenly Hash in the world.” The place holds special meaning for him.
To fund more lowernine.org home rebuilding projects, Alex Goldberg, a James Madison University junior and lowernine.org summer volunteer, launched a #50States Campaign online campaign to raise $1,000 per state.
“You don’t really know until you’ve lived here and seen it for yourself. It strikes an emotional nerve,” Goldberg said. The experience helped him decide to pursue a nonprofit career.
“This solidified what I want to do with my life,” he said.