Rebuilding Homes and Lives After Katrina

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It was nearly eight months ago when Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf states, leaving more than 1,500 dead and some 770,000 homeless.

In the flurry of media coverage that followed, the nation reacted with horror and sadness – which quickly shifted to action, as individuals and groups set about helping in whatever ways they could.

From children’s lemonade stands and school raffles to corporate fundraisers and celebrity telethons, myriad small acts of heroism claimed the spotlight.

While controversy raged over the government’s response, charitable groups from all walks of life quickly joined together in their efforts to raise money for relief efforts. Food drives were held; trailers donated; search and rescue teams launched. Thousands of volunteers dropped everything to visit the affected areas, bringing food, water, clothing and supplies.

In the kitchen and bath industry, companies donated hundreds of thousands of dollars of product, “adopted” families or businesses impacted by the storm, and volunteered their time, money and services to help with rebuilding efforts.

For a while, in fact, it was all but impossible to turn on the television without seeing evidence of the destruction wreaked by Katrina – and people’s efforts to help those affected by the tragedy.

But time passes, and new crises take the limelight. The lemonade stands disappear, and the food drives taper off. People forget.

In New Orleans, though, forgetting is not an option. Eight months have passed, but the city has barely made a dent in its rebuilding efforts. A severe shortage of labor, lack of housing, erratic mail and sanitation services and never-ending traffic continue to plague those areas devastated by the storm.

Today, there are no camera crews around to capture the still-deserted shells of houses, the children’s toys littering the streets, or the scrawled writing on homes identifying houses where people died, or where pets had been left behind.

Rebuilding is a long, slow process, Gulf states residents have learned, and one largely devoid of glamour. But while little has changed in the streets, much has changed in the attitudes of those who chose to stay in their home towns. The renaissance in rebuilding may be slow to come about, but if the recent Mardi Gras celebration is any indication, the renaissance of hope is in full bloom.

And while the media heroes of Katrina have long given way to other news stories, the quiet recovery has spawned a new type of heroism. Without cameras or news crews to follow their efforts, these individuals have committed to sticking around for the long haul, refusing to give up hope on their towns, even when hope seems hard to come by. Five of these heroes – kitchen and bath industry professionals, all – are profiled in this month’s issue of KBDN (see related story, After the Storm).

Some, like Mattix Cabinets veteran Steve Frught, rescued people from flooded homes. Others are living out of trailers, far too busy rebuilding the homes of others to worry about their own. Many are working 16-hour days to try to make a dent in the nearly endless list of those who desperately need their help.

Each is working toward rebuilding in his or her own way, yet one thing they all share is a tremendous loyalty to their home towns, and to the people who made their businesses successful.

As Cameron Kitchen & Bath Designs president Jerry Johnson explains, “For 50 years, people have been buying our kitchens. Now they need us to help them get their house in order.” And Johnson, among others, is ready, willing and eager to answer that call.

Like most designers, Johnson and his colleagues got into this business because they wanted to design beautiful spaces. They invested years of study and practice to hone their creativity, so they could envision, plan and bring to life masterpieces of beauty and functionality.

Today, they are focused on the fundamentals: fixing what’s broken, replacing what was lost. Like so many people who survived Katrina, their lives, goals and focus have changed.

And yet, in returning to the basics, they remind us what our industry is all about. We build, and rebuild – not just pretty rooms, but spaces of the heart. Spaces that provide a safe haven, physically and emotionally. Often these spaces feature luxurious amenities, intricately designed visual elements and complex mixes of colors and materials.

But, in the end, what we do isn’t – and never has been – about “the stuff.” And if Katrina has one lesson for our industry, it’s this: While we may make our livelihood remodeling kitchens and baths, in actuality, each space represents a life.

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