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 New Orleans Journal

Habitat for Humanity Trip - Thursday, January 11

New Orleans Trip - Jan 14-Thank You - Jan 13 - Jan 12 - Jan 11 - Jan 10
Jan 9 - Jan 8 - Jan 7 - Before the Trip - Photo Slide Show

Day four on the job site.

The Duluth News Tribune ran a story about our group and the Habitat project. Duluth News Tribune

Below is the full text of the story.


A hush fell over the group as we entered the city and observed the first of the flooded and wind damaged homes. We read the markings scrawled on the sides of buildings by the National Guard who had traveled New Orleans in boats weeks after Hurricane Katrina looking for survivors. On almost every house, the spray-painted marks are still visible, marks that indicate the Guard unit, the date, how many inside were alive and how many dead.  The yellow flood line is still clear on many buildings and even on the occupied structures, attempts to wash it off or paint over it haven’t totally erased it.

Sixteen months later, signs of the worst disaster in U.S. history still cover the 145 square miles of the flood area. Everyone in the group was affected by the images. “Seeing... houses torn down, cars flipped over, and bathtubs in the middle of the lawn made us appreciate all that we have,” said UMD student Alyssa DeHate. The refrigerators, flooded cars and smashed boats from the first months after the hurricane are gone, but the devastation remaining is massive.

11 11 11 11
145 sq. miles of destruction Shana Secory unloads a truck Jessica
Roder and
Jon Meiner on floor joists
Sean Booher, Shana Secory and Jaci Bernard


There are 34 college students and four staff from the University of Minnesota Duluth in New Orleans this week building houses for Habitat for Humanity. The project, called Collegiate Challenge, uses teams of students from different schools across the country during breaks from college classes. This week, Jan. 8-12, over 1000 college students joined the New Orleans site, making up the largest group since the project began. The UMD group is staying at a relief workers camp, called Camp Hope in Violet, Louisiana and the camp is breaking their attendance records as well, with 600 residents this week.

At the Habitat for Humanity job site, 31 homes have already been built in Musicians’ Village. They want to build 50 more Musicians’ Village homes and 250 more homes in the area this year.

During the week, the UMD group was split up on several job sites. Some of us have been landscaping, some building foundations for new buildings, others have done framing, roofing, siding, interior work, and painting. Not everybody got to do a glamorous task. “Today, I learned that every little thing we do helps,” said UMD student Heather Ronning.  “I started out... sorting through a truck full of tools, every nail and screw imaginable, and the many odds and ends that help put a house together.  It took a while to organize everything and put it away - but in the end it helped everyone else get everything they needed.”


The UMD volunteers have worked on a dozen different structures, all in a different stage of the building process. A group of UMD students worked at a site several miles from Musician's Village. Their drive brought them through some of the worst of the destruction. It was evident from the National Guard markings on the sides of the houses that dozens of people had been stranded in the area for many days after the hurricane, and some had died there.

UMD students have been able to relax in the French Quarter, which was untouched by the hurricane and flood. The historic buildings, museums, shops and restaurants exude the spirit of New Orleans. “The city itself was brilliant, yet the magnitude of the destruction in its surrounding areas is devastating to the heart.,” said UMD student Jon Meiners. The contrast between the French Quarter and the destruction a few blocks away is vivid. Photo: Paul McGie, Chris Perner, Kristen Semlak and Athena Westin.

Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis shot a TV public service announcement (PSA) on the site on Tuesday. Five musicians who live in Musicians' Village were also part of the filming project. The PSA is being made to encourage people to apply for a Habitat home. The Habitat project wants to complete 250 homes this year, about 50 more in Musicians Village, and because some New Orleans residents don't think they will qualify, they are reluctant to start the daunting paperwork.

After the filming, Connick and Marsalis toured some of the construction sites and talked to the volunteer construction workers. Connick and Marsalis, both native New Orleanians, came up with the idea of the Musicians' Village in December, 2005. Connick and Marsalis teamed up with Habitat for Humanity International and New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity to create the village for New Orleans musicians and others who lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina.  This new neighborhood is being built around a music center where musicians can teach and perform.
Many of the UMD students get the chance to work along side the homeowners. UMD student Shannon Martin and staff member Lori Stroik met jazz singer and Musicians’ Village homeowner Ellen Smith.

When Smith and her teen-age daughter, Kiara, evacuated from New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina hit, Smith was traveling light. She had her friend’s two dogs, three outfits for herself and three for her daughter, and her friend’s wedding photos. That's all she had room for in her car. She had packed her own photos in a sealed plastic tub, which didn't survive the flood. Sixteen months later, she's collected new belongings for her move to her new purple house in Musician's Village.

Smith's evacuation journey took her and Kiara to a hotel in Dallas, Texas, to Captain Cal's Lakeside Lodge in Pottsboro, Texas, and back to a FEMA apartment in Dallas. For a year she traveled back and forth to New Orleans, singing in clubs up to 12 times a month. "I was still making money, even though the trips cost me $200 at a time," she said.

Smith wanted to get back to New Orleans. She was surfing the internet, looking for grants and programs that might help, when she saw the application for Musicians' Village. She was accepted and began the process to become a Habitat owner, but she couldn't find temporary housing in the New Orleans area. Finally, a friend offered her a house-sitting opportunity and Smith moved back. "God protects babies and fools," Smith said. "I'm not sure which category I'm in, but I feel protected." Smith's house and eight others are just about ready for the next wave of homeowners to move in. Now they are just waiting for the utilities to be hooked up. "In the meantime, my daughter and I are staying with friends," Smith said. "I'm sleeping on a couch."

Rent is high in New Orleans because there is such a shortage of housing. Of the 500,000 residents before the hurricane, less than 200,000 are back, even on a part-time basis. Over 65,000 homes were destroyed in the Ninth Ward alone and a one bedroom apartment in New Orleans is $900 a month. "My new home gives me a lot for the money. For about $500 a month, my daughter, my mother and I can live in a gorgeous, three-bedroom house," said Smith.

Smith is performing regularly now and she even has two songs on the CD that Marsalis and Connick will release this spring during New Orleans Jazz Fest.

Part of the plan for Musicians' Village is to build a community center, the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, named after the jazz great. The center, complete with a performance space, is dedicated to the education and development of homeowners and others who will live nearby. Black, White, Creole and Indian mix in the neighborhood, as they do in the city. Some of the residents are leaders in the Mardi Gras Indian community. When people talk about musicians, they also mean the creative people who carry on the tradition of public parade and costume performance that makes New Orleans so unique.  "It's just so important that we keep music in the city," Smith said. "We need to bring the city back."

Wait-staff, store owners, clerks, cashiers, everyone we talk to says, “Thank you. Thank you for coming down to help. Thanks for spending money and supporting the economy.“ And we can see that every day it gets better.

UMD has joined over 20,000 Habitat volunteers at the Musicians' Village. Millions in donations have come in from companies and civic groups. Musicians' Village is preserving music, a part of New Orleans that might have been damaged or even lost forever without this effort. And music, food, and culture are what gives New Orleans its unique flavor. Paul Williams, a pre-med student at UMD said, “Not only are we working on a houses for families, but we are helping to rebuild a whole community.”

by Cheryl Reitan


UMD home page editor, Cheryl Reitan,
NEW RELEASES, UMD media contact, Susan Latto,, 218-726-8830


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