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Explore the Mississippi River

Day 12 — Rebuilt Homes Music to Residents’ Ears

Rebuilding for the Future in New Orleans

The Musicians’ Village provides a home for the artists who define the city’s culture.

Rebuilding New Orleans

Learn what is being done to rebuild New Orleans by watching an interview with Jim Pate, Executive Director of New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity.


Story Highlights
  • New Orleans' pre-Katrina population was approximately 485,000. The population is now about 300,000.
  • Habitat 'Partner Families' contribute 350 hours of sweat equity to build their homes and those of other families.
  • Habitat for Humanity builds homes in New Orleans to withstand 140-mile-an-hour winds.
  • The Mississippi River Delta has shrunk from more than 4 million to 2.5 million acres, and 25 to 30 square miles of wetlands disappear annually. The wetlands, which help buffer against storm-driven winds and waves, are not being replenished by sediment from the river, whose course and hydrology have been altered.

By Tom Eisenhart

Here, at the corner of North Roman and Bartholomew in New Orleans Upper Ninth Ward, it's mindboggling to think how the floodwaters that inundated this area during Hurricane Katrina likely reached a height over my head.

Just a few streets away, there are poignant reminders of the destruction unleashed by the storm surge of Katrina in August 2005, followed by Rita in September. A street light post is papered with advertising from drywall installers. And on many boarded-up homes, you can’t help but notice the spray-painted markings left by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials.

This section of the Upper Ninth Ward stands in stark contrast to the depressing sights on nearby blocks. Looking north on Bartholomew, I see tidy one-story homes painted in vibrant shades of yellow, blue, green and red. A young couple painstakingly stains their front porch while a retired musician nicknamed 'Smokey' pushes his wheel chair to the corner to see what his neighbors are up to.

A Musician's Haven

We're in the heart of the Musicians' Village, a project of New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity (NOAHH). Since beginning work on the Village in 2006, an army of volunteers and future homeowners have constructed 72 single family homes and five duplexes, the latter of which house more senior, less mobile residents. More than 80 percent of residents are musicians and their families.

The Musicians' Village is the brainchild of jazz legends Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis. With hurricanes Katrina and Rita causing so many musicians to flee New Orleans, they were concerned that the city's vibrant music culture was in jeopardy. The Musicians' Village would be a haven of sorts for current and retired performers. When completed, the Village's crowning touch will be the Ellis Marsalis Music Center, featuring indoor and outdoor performance spaces as well as practice rooms and classrooms.

Meeting us here today is Jim Pate, executive director of NOAHH. He left the Dallas affiliate of Habitat for Humanity to join NOAHH in 2000, at a time when it was building two to three homes a year. "Then Katrina hit, and the world changed," he says.

It's a far different organization that Jim now leads. Post-Katrina, NOAHH has worked with more than 100,000 volunteers to build more than 300 homes. Beyond the outpouring of individual support, the organization's partner list has grown to include Baptist Crossroads Project, the Dave Matthews Band and the New Orleans Hornets, as well as major corporations.

One of NOAHH's largest projects, the Village provides a rich environment for its residents. They range from those who play in the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra to rap, funk, jazz and blues artists.

With all that musical talent consolidated in one area, it's not surprising that impromptu jam sessions sometimes spring up. "It's really fun to watch as they play on their porches," Jim says.

Much More to Do

Encouraging as it is to see places like the Musicians' Village thrive, the devastation from Katrina and Rita still lingers in many areas across New Orleans. More than 165,000 housing units were destroyed during the storms. And rebuilding comes slow. NOAHH is the largest builder in Orleans Parish, but with 100 homes constructed a year, it is making a small dent in the housing shortfall.

Though the thought of what still needs to be done can be discouraging for Jim and his staff, they are buoyed by the thousands of volunteers who keep coming to Habitat's aid.

"Volunteers come in and stand beside us as we try to rebuild," says Jim. "Their very presence here is such an emotional and spiritual gift."

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