Volunteers work to remove sand from streets in the Rockaways, in the Queens borough of New York.
NEW ORLEANS — The chaos wrought by Superstorm Sandy, the homes tossed from foundations and landmarks buried beneath seawater, delivered a gut-wrenching dose of deja vu for survivors of Hurricane Katrina like Joe and Gloria Robert.
Their own home flooded beneath 7 feet of salty water when the levees broke after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005, and they know all too well what their countrymen to the north will face: years of debris removal, cleanup, rebuilding, haggling with insurance companies, paying mortgages on homes left unlivable. And they knew they had to help.
“When you watch things like this, you relive all the memories, all the heartache,” said Joe Robert, his voice cracking with emotion. He said the images of Sandy victims rummaging through what could be salvaged of their toppled and flood-ravaged homes were painful reminders of his own loss. “I don't have any pictures of my daughter when she was little.”
Seven years after Katrina destroyed neighborhoods, killed more than 1,800 people and caused some $108 billion in damage, many of the people caught in its crosshairs are reaching into their wallets and cupboards to try to bring relief to the Atlantic Coast.
Church groups, nonprofits, City Hall and individuals in New Orleans and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast have begun sending care packages, donating money and staging volunteers for the clean-up and recovery efforts.
Robert is working with the Episcopal organization that helped him rebuild his home, St. Paul's Homecoming Center, which was established after Katrina to help residents as they returned to the city to rebuild. The center has expanded its mission to include victims of not just Hurricane Isaac, which struck Louisiana in August, but also East Coast victims of Sandy.
The group has launched an “Adopt-a-Family” program where donations can be made to families in either region to help them as the holiday season approaches. The organization is also coordinating volunteer efforts along the East Coast. They are collecting donations and helping to ferry volunteers from the Gulf Coast to devastated neighborhoods in New York and New Jersey.
“I hurt for them because they don't know what they're in for with recovery,” said Connie Uddo, executive director of the Homecoming Center whose New Orleans home flooded in 2005. “The event is one thing, but the recovery is another. It's long, and it's hard.”
In New Orleans, the recovery is far from over more than seven years later. Many homes still bear the water lines and spray-painted marks left by rescuers searching for survivors. Some residents have run out of money, given up after years of battling contractor fraud and insurance companies.
Even if the recovery goes smoother on the Atlantic Coast than it did in New Orleans, it will take years.
“First you have to get over the emotional loss,” Robert said. “If I could give any advice, it's not to be anxious. Looking back, the mistakes we made were because we rushed some things because we were anxious and emotional and trying to get back in our home quicker.”
Robert said he rushed to hire a contractor because he was in a hurry to rebuild, but he ultimately lost time and money when the contractor didn't see the project through to completion.
Taking a lead in organizing relief efforts for victims of Sandy are New Orleans musicians, many of whom have ties to the entertainment industry in New York. It's a place that many travel to for gigs, and they feel an affinity for the city that never sleeps.
A “NOLA Pay It Forward” benefit concert of New Orleans musicians is being organized by Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Proceeds from the Nov. 20 event will go to nonprofits supporting Sandy relief efforts.
Ivan Neville and others donated proceeds from a recent New York concert to benefit Sandy victims while big band singer Johnny Angel — a Staten Island native who has lived in New Orleans since the 1990s — is taking a U-Haul truck of donated bleach, mops, rakes, buckets and cleaning supplies from New Orleans to New York.
“Before we can rebuild, we have to clean up,” said Jeannie Tralongo, who lives in the hard-hit New York borough of Staten Island and is working with Angel to help coordinate the delivery. ‘We're overwhelmed.”
Tralongo said she's one of the lucky ones. Her Staten Island home was spared of the tidal surge and flooding that decimated the homes of nearby friends and neighbors.
“I'm trying to do what I can, but there's still no power. People are cold and in the dark,” she said.
Tralongo said shelters have been set up and she's working with hurricane response teams in the neighborhood to organize volunteers for the grueling clean-up of streets and property littered with sand and debris.
Neville, the son of Aaron Neville — one of the four Neville Brothers — said he remembers musicians from across the country coming together for the “Big Apple to the Big Easy” benefit concert after Katrina headlined by Jimmy Buffett, Elton John and others. His own family home in eastern New Orleans flooded in 2005.
Neville's band Dumpstaphunk played one of its signature songs, “Put it in Da Dumpsta,” for a crowd — some of whom had been without electricity since Sandy struck just before Halloween — gathered at the Highline Ballroom in New York earlier this month.
“That song, it's all about taking the bad things that have happened, taking all that negativity, and just throwing it in the Dumpster,” he said. “It's about letting go, even if just for a little while.”
That show and four others will benefit City Harvest, a New York-based group serving hot meals in Sandy-afflicted neighborhoods.
Uddo said she empathizes with residents of the Jersey Shore, Staten Island and dozens of other hard-hit communities. Roughly 80 percent of New Orleans flooded in Katrina, and some communities along southeast Louisiana and the Mississippi Coast were washed away. New Orleans was abandoned for weeks, homes made uninhabitable by either power outages or the structural damage done.
“I know they're overwhelmed, and I know they're exhausted and have no sense of normalcy,” Uddo said. “There's a feeling of being scattered and shattered, and all you want is to feel normal again.”
After Katrina, thousands of volunteers flocked from points north to help people along the Gulf Coast. And it's those memories that are driving people in Louisiana “to pay it forward, to return the favor,” Uddo said.
Uddo said she remembered a church group visiting her neighborhood as she was gutting her home after Katrina, and the group gave her a $100 gift card.
“I just broke down and cried,” she said. “You have no idea how the smallest things people do for you mean so much when you're under that kind of stress.”
NOLA Pay It Forward Fund, Greater New Orleans Foundation: http://www.gnof.org/donors/give-now/
NOLA Pay It Forward Concert, Ticketmaster: 1-800-745-3000 or http://www.ticketmaster.com