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 from the Netherlands.
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 floodwaters inundated their neighborhood after Hurricane Katrina, the couple finally will be back home by Aug. 29.
Despite hardships, the Josephs were determined to return to the neighborhood where his family lived for generations.
“It is coming together by God’s grace,” the 64-year-old licensed contractor said.
The home is on the site of the original family house, which was built in 1943 by his grandfather, Felix Joseph, an architect trained at the Tuskegee Institute. His extended family, including his uncles and his dad, Clarence Joseph, a union carpenter, owned most of the block, he said.
He and Esther moved into the house when his father died in 1985.
At the time of Katrina, most of his neighbors were elderly. He was youngest at 54.
Why return? “First off — this is home. Somebody would always call you with something for you to do or something for you,” Errol Joseph said.
Miss Effie always would be cooking and baking goodies to share, he recalled, and 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.
“I used to come and sit on the porch and just reminisce about my dad, my neighbors,” he said.
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 already had made plans to abandon the Lower 9th 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 a 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 also was 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.
A “#50States Campaign” to fund more lowernine.org home rebuilding projects has been launched by Alex Goldberg, a James Madison University junior and lowernine.org summer volunteer. The goal is to raise $1,000 per state by Aug. 29.
Through the 10th anniversary of the storm, Aug. 29, supporters all over the country are asked to donate on behalf of their state to help more people get back home in the Lower 9th Ward. Leading states the first week of August were Louisiana, Florida, California, New Hampshire and Georgia.
“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.