Our Hurricane Katrina Stories

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Volunteers came by the busload. Corporations gave the means to help. They helped us show how volunteer service changes lives. Read our stories and share your own on Facebook or Twitter using #Katrina10, or at listen@pointsoflight.org. And to learn more about how Hurricane Katrina shaped us, please visit www.pointsoflight.org/katrina.

Hurricane Katrina changed the course of millions of lives, from those of the Gulf Coast residents who faced the storm’s fury to those of the volunteers who streamed in from across the globe to help rebuild communities flattened and flooded.

Because of the hurricane, and the outpouring of support from volunteers, disaster response and recovery are key components of what Points of Light does today. The volunteers’ determination and commitment pushed us to be nimble and stretch in ways we hadn’t before.

Join us, as we recall our stories:

  • A planned celebration of Fortune 500 companies committed to corporate volunteerism leads to a mission in the Gulf Coast. Go > 
  • Our first scout to the area finds devastation, and we find our way with the help of courageous volunteers. Go > 
  • A New Orleans homeowner loses it all and discovers hope. Go > 
  • Grueling days and cramped living quarters bring volunteers together. Go > 
  • Big names visit the Gulf Coast, using their status to demonstrate the power of volunteer service. Go > 
  • The volunteer experience leads to reflections of what matters. Go > 

The Story Begins in New York

Michelle Nunn and Bob NardelliMichelle Nunn, former HandsOn Network president, confers with Bob Nardelli, former Home Depot CEO and past Corporate Service Council chair, during a playground build in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina.

Hurricane Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005, two days before HandsOn Network President Michelle Nunn was set to ring the New York Stock Exchange opening bell with the CEO of The Home Depot, Bob Nardelli, the first chair of the newly formed Corporate Service Council.

The occasion: a little fanfare to announce the council – an elite group of companies committed to demonstrating the power of corporate volunteerism with HandsOn Network (which became part of Points of Light in 2007).

The bell-ringing was also supposed to kick off the Corporate Month of Service, 2,000 projects across the U.S. and Canada engaging employees of the council’s members as volunteers.

But as the hurricane news unfolded on television – the astonishing images of whole communities underwater – it became evident that this was not a time for celebration. HandsOn Network canceled the ceremony. The Corporate Month of Service events, set to beautify, revitalize and repair community spaces, proceeded as planned.

“This was clearly a time that called upon the generosity of Americans to respond to their neighbors, and the spirit of the response was so clearly a compassionate outpouring,” Nunn says. “People wanted to do something, and we knew that we could and must create a bridge for that empathy and spirit of service.”

But how? HandsOn Network had never responded to a disaster.

Assessing the Situation

House damaged in Hurricane KatrinaHurricane Katrina ripped through this house in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Erika Putinsky was helping a friend paint his house, when she got a call from Lisa Flick Wilson, a friend she knew through AmeriCorps. Wilson, in charge of operations and strategy for HandsOn Network’s affiliates, asked Putinsky to help the organization figure out a response to Hurricane Katrina.

“In my mind, I said, `No, I’ve got another job, and that sounds crazy,’” recalls Putinksy, who had no experience in disaster response. She declined the invitation.

“I instantly felt horrible,” she says. “I bent over and dropped my phone in a five-gallon bucket of paint. I said to myself, `If this phone still works, I’m going.’ Immediately, I called Lisa. I said, `I’m going to do this. I’ll see you tomorrow.’ The phone never worked again.”

Soon, Putinsky was in her pickup truck, making trips to Louisiana and Mississippi to see what was needed. What she saw was devastation.

In New Orleans, where levee breaches allowed the waters of Lake Pontchartrain to flood the city – there were cars in trees, water marks well overhead, everything coated in dirt, streets deserted.

“For me, one of the hardest things was seeing family photos in the middle of the road. Important things to a family, just lying around as trash, discarded,” she says. “The smell was terrible. You could smell that dead smell, you could smell the decay. It kind of burned in the back of your throat, like a chemical.”

George Bush and Erika PutinskyPresident George W. Bush speaks to Erika Putinsky, head of HandsOn Gulf Coast, during a presidential visit of the HandsOn Network affiliate after Hurricane Katrina.

While Mississippi experienced flooding along its coastline, the state also had to contend with several tornadoes that spun off the hurricane and obliterated whole neighborhoods. But Putinsky found something else in Mississippi that would shape HandsOn Network’s course along the Gulf Coast.

Another organization, Hands On Worldwide (not affiliated with HandsOn Network and now called All Hands Volunteers), had set up a temporary volunteer operation in a church in Biloxi, Mississippi.

The group was well-organized and tech savvy. It had set up bunks. It had a system down. Volunteers would be deployed across the city to clear debris, replace street signs that had been blown away and otherwise aid survivors.

HandsOn Network became a partner in the endeavor and during the winter took over the operation, renaming it HandsOn Gulf Coast (now Hands On Mississippi). Meanwhile, HandsOn Network sent Kellie Bentz – a woman in her early 20s who had recently completed her AmeriCorps service – to New Orleans to replicate the model established in Biloxi.

By March 2006 – with the help of AmeriCorps members, who built bunks for 100 volunteers at a local church – HandsOn New Orleans was in action, soon sending out volunteers to gut houses, help animal rescue workers, paint murals, tutor students and much more.

HandsOn New Orleans volunteersHandsOn New Orleans volunteers take a breather after helping to repair a storm-damaged home.

“I felt grounded in the moments when our community of volunteers from all over the world, and community members they were serving, would tell their stories about how the service had changed them in one day or in one week,” Bentz says.

Meanwhile, as evacuees and survivors fanned into different cities, nonprofits – including HandsOn Network affiliates Volunteer Houston and Hands On Atlanta – played a critical role in getting the newcomers settled.

“Our partners were deluged; they were absolutely overwhelmed,” recalls Malikah Berry, then a Hands On Atlanta program manager, now a senior vice president at Points of Light. “Every one of those organizations had lines of Gulf Coast residents out the door, and they had volunteers wanting to help.”

Hands On Atlanta – led by Points of Light’s current CEO, Tracy Hoover, at the time – recruited and trained local families to help Gulf Coast families get acclimated to the area, families helping families.

The most gratifying part of the work, Berry says, was the immediate evidence that it was making a difference. Families were getting fed. They were registering their kids in school. They were finding places to live.

With the trajectory of some nonprofit work, she says, “You have to trust that the moral arc of the universe is on the side of justice.” But with the Gulf Coast family resettlement program, “We know at the end of the day people were safer because we did what we did. We know we met a need.”

Volunteers in the Gulf Coast also saw firsthand that what they were doing mattered.

Losing it All, Finding Hope

liz_russell_and_peggy_severe_resized.jpgHurricane Katrina survivor Peggy Severe, left, has this picture of her and volunteer Liz Russell on her wall.

Peggy Severe – or “Ms. Peggy,” as the volunteers called her – lost everything in her New Orleans home.

She recalls the night of the storm, wading waist deep in water in her bedroom, in darkness. She left the city for Texas but returned within a few weeks. New Orleans had always been her home, and she didn’t want to start over somewhere else.

She eventually got a FEMA trailer on her property, unsure of how she was going to restore her one-story house. HandsOn New Orleans volunteers came to visit, after hearing about Severe from a local business owner who had gotten help from the volunteers.

“The house was one big, fat mess,” Severe recalls, in a New Orleans drawl. “Those volunteers, they got to work right away. They did everything. They put this house back together.”

Severe thought about how she could show her gratitude.

“I couldn’t give them nothing, but I could cook,” says Severe. “I would feed them, whatever they wanted to eat. Red beans and rice was number one on the hit list.”

She made the volunteers Thanksgiving dinner from her FEMA trailer.

“She spent most of the night and all of the morning making a complete Thanksgiving dinner for everyone at HandsOn that she could invite,” recalls volunteer Ann Drorbaugh. “We set up a dinner table with plywood and sawhorses under her carport.”

Severe deep-fried a Cajun-rubbed turkey, served it with oyster dressing, gumbo, greens and red beans, then finished it off with sweet potato pie tarts.

“I've had many really wonderful Thanksgiving dinners,” says Drorbaugh, who has visited Severe during subsequent volunteer trips to New Orleans. “But that one occupies a special place in my heart.”

Despite the circumstances, Severe has fond memories of getting to know the volunteers. She has a picture on her wall of the volunteer team leader who worked on her house for months, Liz Russell.

“I can list all the things we did at Ms. Peggy's house – from drywall to finish carpentry, from tile installation and hanging kitchen cabinets – but what I can't put into words is the impact she had on my life,” Russell says.

“My story is not that unique,” she adds. “I was one of hundreds, maybe thousands, of young volunteers who moved to New Orleans and learned what the real world is, who learned about economic disparities by witnessing them first hand. Who saw what the aftermath of a broken city did to the people who loved it so much they would suffer anything to get back home only to live in a tiny FEMA trailer.”

Building Bonds

HandsOn New Orleans volunteers after Hurricane KatrinaHandsOn New Orleans volunteers get ready to gut a house damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

For the volunteers, days were long and exhausting. Often they spent hours in white protective suits and masks in the heat, to keep them safe from mold. Or they hammered nails until their arms ached. Living quarters were cramped, with bunk beds right next to each other. If you wanted a shower, you got just a few minutes.

But this hard work – and knowing it was doing some good – bonded the volunteers. Every night they ate dinner together and told each other about what they had seen, heard and felt that day, both good and bad. They lifted up one another.

HandsOn New Orleans volunteer Caliopie Walsh even managed to find love amid the chaos. Two loves, really.

One became her husband. The other – an emotionally and physically grueling volunteer experience – became a treasured turning point.

After Hurricane Katrina hit, Walsh was appalled at how miserable life remained for the survivors, even many months later. She headed down from New York to New Orleans.

A human resources executive, it wasn’t something Walsh had done before – pack up and step into a disaster zone. But there she was, mucking out houses, repairing roofs, facing her fear of roaches. She spent a week there, but soon came back and spent three months.

“It was the most gratifying work I’ve ever done,” Walsh says. “I had never worked so hard in my life, but I had never been so fulfilled.”

With endorsements like that from volunteers returning home, HandsOn Gulf Coast and HandsOn New Orleans grew by word of mouth. There was never a shortage of volunteers, who came from all backgrounds from all over the country and other parts of the world. In Biloxi, which swelled to 350 volunteers at a time, they built a tent city behind the church, to house the overflow.

Big Support

Usher works with HandsOn New Orleans volunteersMultiplatinum recording artist Usher, center, joins HandsOn New Orleans volunteers for a June 2006 service project to restore the grounds of a school damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

In April 2006, members of the Corporate Service Council – critical supporters of the recovery effort in those early months – toured the area to see how their companies could help.

The idea was, “How could major corporations become more actively involved? Nothing accelerates that more than being on the ground, actually seeing the devastation,” says Nardelli. “It was a combination of the Corporate Service Council, along with the (U.S.) secretary of commerce and other corporate CEOs that were not necessarily members, who could in fact help.”

Corporations responded in a variety of ways, giving building and medical supplies, setting up communications centers, providing manual labor and much more.

“The corporate response demonstrated that the skills and human capital of the private sector can work hand in hand with the civic sector to accomplish scale and impact,” Nunn says. “Companies like UPS and The Home Depot used their logistics, supply chain and people power to do tremendously important work.”

A couple of weeks after the Corporate Service Council tour in April, President George W. Bush visited HandsOn Gulf Coast and met with many of the volunteers. He would later say about the experience:

“HandsOn Gulf Coast is a group of volunteers, total strangers to the people of this part of the world, in large part. They said, `What can I do to help?’ They came en masse. They did all kinds of things. They cleaned up wreckage, and they removed mold, and they repaired roofs, and they provided clothing, and they tutored students. Somebody said, `We have a need.’ They said, `I want to help.’”

Lending his star power to the cause, Grammy-winning artist Usher visited HandsOn New Orleans that June. His New Look Foundation had launched Project Restart to raise money for survivors of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, which hit the Gulf Coast the month after Katrina.

The following January, the cast and crew of the long-running CBS soap opera “Guiding Light” spent a week with HandsOn Gulf Coast, helping to restore three houses. The show aired a special about the projects, revealing to a national audience the power of volunteer work.

'What Matters in Life'

Caliopie and Adam WalshCaliopie Walsh, left, met her husband, Adam, right, while volunteering with HandsOn New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. They have a daughter, Sadie, pictured center.

Points of Light is grateful for the volunteers who changed our course and who were forever changed, themselves.

“People told me over and over again that being a part of the disaster response and rebuilding of community was the most meaningful of their life,” says Nunn, now a Points of Light board member. “The relief efforts were a testament to our hunger to be a part of something important and beyond self.”

Volunteers like Caliopie and Adam Walsh shared that hunger. They were so moved by their experience in New Orleans that they returned in May 2007 for their wedding. Instead of gifts, they asked guests – many of them HandsOn New Orleans volunteers – to donate money to HandsOn New Orleans, raising $10,000. A year later, they had a baby girl, Sadie.

“The time I spent down there really changed my life,” Walsh says. “I met the love of my life. I have the most wonderful child. I have friends that I will have for a lifetime. It put into focus what matters in life.”