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This CNN Hero helped Louisiana recover after Katrina. Now she has teams on the ground assisting homeowners after Ida


Gabriel Kinder, CNN

While the scope of the damage from Hurricane Ida is just coming into focus, Liz McCartney and her team at SBP are already mobilizing to help residents take the first steps in rebuilding.

SBP started as the St. Bernard Project in the months after Hurricane Katrina, when McCartney and her now husband Zack Rosenburg traveled to the parish to volunteer with the recovery efforts.

Since its founding, the organization has rebuilt homes for more than 2,800 families with the help of 150,000 volunteers in 14 communities across the United States and the Bahamas. McCartney was the 2008 CNN Hero of the Year.

All this experience is guiding SBP’s response to Hurricane Ida. For McCartney and her team, combating mold is a top priority.

“Sometimes mold is visible; sometimes mold is not visible. But you can guarantee that if water has been inside a house and stayed there for any amount of time, that mold is going to grow,” she said.

SBP is sending out teams to assist homeowners with mucking, gutting and tarping to help protect from mold. McCartney says the cost of ignoring mold could be devastating down the road.

“If they don’t get rid of the mold before they start rebuilding… [it] will regrow, and the house will become unsafe,” she said. “Unfortunately, they’ll have to start all over again.”

The organization also helps residents navigate the application process to get financial support from FEMA. McCartney says applicants often need to become “better advocates for themselves.” She stresses that persistence is critical, reminding storm-weary homeowners that even if the agency says “no” twice, stick with it. The third time might be a “yes.”

She also recommends simply spelling out that damage was caused by this storm.

“If you were applying to FEMA, you would say, ‘A tree fell through my roof as a result of Hurricane Ida and caused this damage.’ As opposed to just saying, ‘My roof is damaged.’ Because then if they can connect the storm to the damage on your house, you’re much more likely to get the assistance for the repairs that need to get done,” McCartney said.

Years of experience have proven to McCartney that preparation could be one of the most effective tools once a storm hits.

“We want to be an organization that’s not just reacting afterward but working with communities beforehand to increase their preparedness and help to mitigate risk,” she said.

For McCartney, that means doing things like encouraging people to get the right insurance, securing the roof to their property, even doing chores as simple as getting their documents in order.

Covid-19 has forced SBP to prepare in new ways. They focused on recruiting volunteers to ensure they had the manpower available for a storm like Ida. They managed supply chain disruptions to procure essential supplies ahead of the storm.

McCartney says their teams on the ground are also working to minimize the risk of exposing the people they serve to the coronavirus by social distancing, masking up and, ideally, being vaccinated.

SBP is also coordinating with local governments, helping map out the most efficient ways for leaders to implement large federal grants to help their communities recover as quickly and efficiently as possible. McCartney was able to paint a picture of what success on this front looks like.

“Life goes back to normal. The local economy recovers, kids can go back to school, parents can go back to work,” she said. “Health and mental health outcomes are a lot more positive, and just the general quality of life improves that much faster.”

With the Ida recovery effort just beginning, McCartney took a moment to express gratitude to those stepping up and helping others through this journey.

“[I] just want to say, ‘Thank you’ to everybody who is supporting people who’ve been impacted by Hurricane Ida,” she said. “The immediate response is really important. The long-term recovery is going to take more time. And so, we ask you to stick with it. Come on down and volunteer. Share your talents and help us make these communities even stronger in the future.”

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