Thursday, September 6, 2012

Making It Right in New Orleans

In light of the recent news of the "Make It Right" homes in New Orleans weathering the storm of Hurricane Isaac, I thought I'd post a vintage article from the year 2009 about the build that started all the fuss. In the shadow of Hurricane Katrina, Mike Holmes and crew traveled down to New Orleans to assist Brad Pitt in "making it right" for the people who lived in the badly devastated Lower 9th Ward.
 
 
 

Mike Holmes helps Make it Right in New Orleans

Published on Tuesday April 07, 2009

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By Rob Salem Television Critic

 
Mike Holmes hands Gloria Guy the keys to her new home.
Mike Holmes managed to snag an A-list guest star – more like an A-plus, really – for his two-part TV special, Holmes in New Orleans, airing tonight and tomorrow at 9 p.m. on Global, to be followed Thursday by the first of a six-part spinoff series, to run consecutive Thursday nights at 8 on HGTV.
Marquee movie superstar Brad Pitt shows up early – tonight, in fact – in the new documentary chronicling the unprecedented rebuilding efforts of the Make it Right Foundation.
As Holmes himself did in the Pitt-initiated project's formative stages.
It really all started ... well, with Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 disaster that flooded almost 80 per cent of the historic city of New Orleans, taking more than 1,700 lives. Unlike many similar celebrity campaigns, Pitt's resolutely pro-active Make it Right Foundation got right down to the business of rebuilding homes for Katrina's many displaced survivors. All he needed was an experienced expert to oversee the effort. And as it happened, our own Holmes held the trademark for the "Make it Right" title, and has of course long shared Pitt's commitment to charitable humanitarian action.
"This is Brad's passion," Holmes says. "He's actually spent a lot of time working on this, talking to people, very secretly, because to him ... well, you know, it isn't about him. It's about the people. That just shows how much he cares."
But caring is one thing and acting is another. Pitt's heart was obviously in the right place, even if his technical expertise fell short.
"He had his vision of doing it when I talked to him," says Holmes, "but he (knew) he didn't know enough about it. He is definitely right on his vision, but to him, I guess, to (be able to) complete the gift of it, that just rocked his socks off."
The job turned out to be even tougher than it looked. The immediate task at hand was to build a prototype home for flood victim Gloria Guy and the gaggle of grandchildren she is struggling to raise. Five more homes were to follow, the first of a planned 150, rebuilding a sustainable, hurricane-safe residential community in the devastated city's Lower 9th Ward.
Construction of the prototype dwelling would take approximately 20 weeks. Holmes and his crew had only 10 to make the deadline of handing over the keys on Aug. 29, the third anniversary of the flood. When he arrived in New Orleans, the project was already two weeks behind. And it was not exactly an appropriate venue for Holmes's trademark hardline style.
"I wasn't there to beat anyone up, that's for sure," he says . "But it wasn't easy either. We had to deal with the inspectors, we had to deal with the unknown ... so many people down there didn't know what they were doing."
Not to mention the miles of red tape to contend with. "I call it `green tape,'" Holmes says. "There's so much corruption. I don't want to point fingers, but it was disgusting."
The official aspect of it, perhaps, but Holmes quickly came to see the other side. "I went to community meetings; we talked to everyone. Being there for 10 weeks we had an opportunity to get to know a lot of people, and one thing that I did learn (amidst) all that corruption is that there are a lot of good people down there, truly good, caring people. And it's a shame that the right people didn't really seem to care about them."
Others did, and gratefully acknowledged and applauded Holmes's efforts, among them Dave Walker, a columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, a long-time fan who came down several times to visit the site.
"I discovered Holmes on Homes during a bout with insomnia and immediately loved it," Walker says. "I think the appeal was his sense of honour about getting it right and his disgust at the contractors whose work he was remediating. The connection to our situation in New Orleans is obvious.
"The only bright spot about Katrina was the outpouring of help from people all over. You still can't get through the airport without running into packs of high school kids in matching T-shirts who've come down to do the dirtiest recovery work – gutting mouldy houses, hanging sheet rock – for people who can't. Church groups from places that would otherwise have no connection to libertine New Orleans.
"It's genuinely moving to the people who live here, and Mike Holmes is now part of that wave of kindness."
The effectiveness of the effort became apparent the day after work was completed, right on time, on Katrina's third anniversary.
"We had to leave the next morning, because Hurricane Gustav was on its way," Holmes recalls. "It was unbelievable! When we were at the airport, the military were there. It was surreal. I wanted to stay. I was going to stay in the house."
He didn't, but then he needn't have bothered. Gloria Guy's new home easily weathered the storm. "Not even a scratch," Holmes says.
And now the momentum is in full swing. "I like to call it the pebble in the pond," he says. "I think being down there with the Make it Right Foundation has started the ripple effect ... you never see it until it's done. And now that six houses are done – I did the first one and oversaw the other five – it's made a statement. I mean, there are bus tours going by.
"So I think now we're going to see a big change, especially in the New Orleans area, and hopefully it ripples right through the States."
Rob Salem, the Star's TV columnist, is barely able to construct a sentence.
rsalem@thestar.ca

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