Surrounded by a swarm of cameras, Sheryl Crow fit a strip of blue insulation in place between two joists. First one strip, then another, then another.
“I’m so amazed,” the Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter yelled through cupped hands to three volunteers as they pounded nails into the beginning stages of a roof taking shape just above her head.
Then she called it a day. But, thankfully, she had plenty of backup who were ready to keep at it.
Through next week, the New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity has set out to build 10 homes in 10 days along America Street in New Orleans East.
The stretch is still in varying stages of recovery — mostly occupied homes dotted by a few apparently still abandoned — nearly a decade after Hurricane Katrina devastated the neighborhood and the city.
To mark the 10-year anniversary, Habitat’s Build-a-Thon — which got underway Tuesday — has lured hundreds of volunteers to the city to help. Largely in their early 20s, they are a diverse mix of first-time volunteers and veterans of past builds. More than 500 participants in all are expected to take part, with a new wave slated to arrive next week.
Among those working Thursday was Amanda Adams, 25, of Oregon, who was carrying a power drill.
“It’s a little hot and humid, but it’s amazing,” said Adams, who hadn’t visited the Crescent City in more than a dozen years.
“For a lot of people, this is the first time they’ve ever swung a hammer,” she added, “but you learn quickly.”
Crow was there promoting her Blue Jeans Go Green initiative, which converts recycled denim into its original fiber material so that it can be treated and then turned into insulation. As she pressed the finished product into the wall, it looked like typical household insulation, except that it had a blue tint.
It takes about 1,000 pairs of jeans to insulate one of the Habitat homes, she said.
The finished insulation was being donated at a savings to the group of about $2,500 per home.
As Katrina’s 10th anniversary approaches, the local Habitat chapter is taking stock, having built more than 425 new homes — including about 50 in this neighborhood — since 2005.
Jim Pate, executive director of the New Orleans Area Habitat, said that chapters convene each year for an AmeriCorps Build-a-Thon, but he said this year’s effort is more ambitious than usual.
Pate said the nonprofit builder looks for areas where a handful of new homes can make the difference in stabilizing or revitalizing a neighborhood, or at least part of it.
Logistics also play a factor, in order to make sure a large group of volunteers can easily travel from one house to the next without wasting too much time.
For her part, Crow spent a few minutes reflecting on her long ties with the city as she sat on a couch in the thick of the building activity. Nearby, other houses already had sides up and roofs in place.
What attracted her to the insulation initiative, she said, was an interest in taking something worn-out — in this case, old blue jeans — recycling it and giving it a second life as something useful.
She said she developed an affinity for the city, its culture and its people after recording her second album at the former Kingsway Studio in the French Quarter in the late 1990s.
“As an artist, you’re always looking for inspiration, and this is a very inspiring place,” she said.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.