Norm Andrzejewski understands how people could forget about those affected by Hurricane Katrina.
“I understand how a person could do that,” Andrzejewski said. “There are so many catastrophes out there. Look at what [Hurricane] Irene has done up here. But the need is still there.”
Andrzejewski is the founder and driving force behind Operation Southern Comfort, an all-volunteer organization dedicated to building and repairing homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. It’s a project of St. Joseph the Worker Catholic Church in Liverpool, which affords it non-profit status and the ability to get tax-deductible contributions and administrative support.
Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005. It was the costliest hurricane in American history and among the five deadliest; the death toll stands at 1,836 with 705 missing and presumed dead. The economic impact on Louisiana and Mississippi may exceed $150 billion. The storm’s effects were compounded by later hurricanes – most notably Rita, Ike and Gustav – which further damaged areas that had yet to be repaired.
Even now, six years later, parts of the Ninth Ward – the poorest section of New Orleans – lay in ruins.
“You can’t miss number of slabs where homes used to be,” Andrzejewski said. “They’re flattened. They’re just gone. They were either blown away or demolished in the months and years after the storm.”
The city did go through and raze many of the shacks in the Ninth Ward, Andrzejewski said, because many of their occupants didn’t return after the hurricane.
“A lot of people were in a rental situation, and when they were evacuated, they said, ‘That’s the end of that,’” Andrzejewski said. “I’d say the Ninth Ward is about 50 percent back. I don’t know how many more will come back.”
In nearby St. Bernard Parish, La., where Operation Southern Comfort (OSC) has built three houses and is working on a fourth, Andrzejewski said the figure is closer to 80 percent.
“It looks pretty good there,” he said.
St. Bernard Parish is where it all began for OSC back in the winter after Katrina hit, when Andrzejewski took a group of about 15 people down to Plaquemines Parish and St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana. Andrzejewski, a Tulane graduate who’d spent time on the Gulf Coast in the 1960s, made the trip in response to a conversation with a friend, Donlene Butler, whose Belle Chasse, La., neighborhood had seen significant damage. After spending five days cleaning up, the group headed home determined to return.
Since then, OSC has made a total of 35 trips to the Gulf Coast. Most have headed back to Louisiana, though two have gone to Gulfport, Miss. All trips are funded by traveler contributions; each volunteer is asked to pay $280 for their own expenses, room and board. Local contributions pay for construction materials.
Since 2006, 1,850 people have taken part in OSC trips, working on more than 300 projects. Volunteers have worked on personal homes, churches; community facilities, such as the Battered Women’s Shelter in Chalmette; and public parks. OSC participants are also focusing on planting trees in the area in an effort to lessen the impact of any future storms; with no forest shield in southeast Louisiana, there is little to protect the area from hurricane winds and water. With the assistance and direction of local tree experts, OSC volunteers have cultured nearly 6,000 ecologically valuable bald cypress and live oak seedlings.
And OSC has started focusing closer to home, as well. Operation Northern Comfort kicked off local activities during Acts of Kindness Weekend (Sept. 10 and 11), working with Women Transcending Boundaries.
“We’re going to be starting a partnership with Christopher Communities, which owns eight houses on Catherine Street in the city,” Andrzejewski said. “We’ll be sprucing those up and planting a flower garden. We’ll also be working on sprucing up Chadwick House, which is a former convent on Valley Drive. We’re going to make it look very different than it does.”
That doesn’t mean OSC is turning away from the Gulf Coast. Several more trips have already been planned; the next one, OSC 36, will take place from Oct. 8 to 16. For later trip dates, see operationsoutherncomfort.org.
“We have family ties,” Andrzejewski said. “When you go down there so many times, as many times as we have, when people cook for you, you start to really get in with them. You really care about them.”
This was especially true of the people whose homes OSC built from the ground up.
“A year or so after Katrina, another [hurricane] was coming, Ike or Gustav,” Andrzejewski said. “We’d built two houses at this point, Maria’s and Marilyn’s. We called a meeting [of the OSC steering committee] and wondered what we should do. When it strikes, will our houses survive? And as we discussed this, word family came up – what do you do when your family is caught in this situation?”
Once they found out that both homeowners had evacuated and were okay, Andrzejewski said the answer was simple.
“If the house breaks, we fix it,” he said. “That’s a commitment we’ve made. That’s why we keep going down there.”
Anyone interested in helping Operation Southern Comfort in its efforts can call Norm Andrzejewski at 559-9413 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit operationsoutherncomfort.org.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.