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Alumni Newsmakers

Rebuilding Hope

CNN’s Anderson Cooper presents Liz McCartney, MA ’06, the CNN Hero of the Year Award for her work helping hurricane survivors in the Gulf Coast region.

Courtesy of CNN

After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita tore through the Gulf Coast region, the small community of St. Bernard Parish, La., was left under floodwaters for weeks. More than 150 residents lost their lives, and every one of the parish’s 26,000 homes was damaged or destroyed, according to a report released by the St. Bernard Parish Council. Liz McCartney’s leadership and dedication has helped hundreds return to their community and start their lives over.

In what she described as “total shock,” McCartney, MA ’06, was awarded the 2008 CNN Hero of the Year for her work in New Orleans and her endless dedication to helping hurricane survivors rebuild their homes and lives. McCartney received the honor, along with more than $100,000 to support her work, at the Nov. 22 taping of “CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute” in Hollywood, Calif.

McCartney’s work in New Orleans began after Hurricane Katrina, when she left her job to help rebuild the area. Since arriving in New Orleans in February 2006, McCartney has dedicated herself to raising money, organizing volunteers, and constructing houses for struggling citizens.

After several months working in St. Bernard Parish, McCartney and her boyfriend, Zack Rosenburg, founded the St. Bernard Project, a grassroots nonprofit rebuilding organization that focuses on supporting senior citizens and families with children who were devastated by the storm. Its services include a rebuilding program, a senior housing program, and a community health and wellness center.

Throughout the process, McCartney says she is motivated by the people she comes into contact with. “They remind me of my parents and grandparents— hardworking Americans who essentially did everything right. They paid their taxes, owned their homes, and supported their communities,” she says. “For the first time in their lives, they need help.”

McCartney describes people like Mr. Andre, an 82-year-old World War II veteran who was forced to live in his pickup truck for three months after he could not get a trailer from FEMA; and Paul, a sheriff, his wife, Marie, and their three young children, whose contractor walked off the job with all of their money. “Without support from the St. Bernard Project these people and thousands of others just like them would not be able to rebuild their homes,” McCartney says.

To date, the St. Bernard Project has raised $4 million, recruited more than 9,500 volunteers, rebuilt 155 homes, and is currently working on building more. Each day about 100 to 200 volunteers are working on about 35 new homes, she says. “We make progress every day, but there is still a lot of work to be done,” McCartney says. The $100,000 awarded to her will enable the St. Bernard Project to build eight more homes. According to the organization’s Web site, it takes roughly 12 weeks to build a new home, and it costs about $12,000. Most of the labor is provided by volunteers.

Over the coming weeks, months, and years, McCartney has several goals for the St. Bernard Project. In the immediate future, the project, in partnership with LSU’s Psychiatry Department, will open a mental health clinic that will serve more than 1,000 people annually and address the staggering rates of mental illness in the community.

McCartney also hopes to create at least 10 units of affordable rental housing for seniors and disabled residents, expand the rebuilding program into another neighborhood in New Orleans, and help approximately 50 families rebuild their homes.

“And while we plan to grow and expand our services, we will continue to do what we have always done—rebuild homes for families in St. Bernard, the community adjacent to the Lower 9th Ward,” McCartney says. “Ultimately we hope to work ourselves out of a job.”

—Anne Wein