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Rising from Ruin is an on-going MSNBC.com special report chronicling two coastal Mississippi towns, Bay St. Louis and Waveland, as they rebuild after Hurricane Katrina.

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Habitat for Humanity executive Larry Gluth looks over a map of Hancock County with Wendy McDonald of Bay St. Louis. (John Brecher / MSNBC.com)

KILN, Miss. -- An ambitious plan to replace some of the thousands of homes lost to Hurricane Katrina is quickly taking shape on computer screens, drawing boards and back roads here in Hancock County.

Habitat for Humanity, the 30-year-old Christian-based nonprofit popularized by former President Jimmy Carter, plans to build “thousands and thousands” of homes via its self-help program during the next several years in hurricane-devastated communities across the South.

That’s the word from Larry Gluth, a Habitat executive from the group’s home office in Americus, Ga. “We’re looking at upwards of 1,000 homes between Beaumont, Texas, and Mobile over the next 18 months,” says Gluth, a vice president with Habitat’s "Operation Home Delivery," a unit created specifically to respond to needs in the hurricane zones.

The hunt for land is in the hands of Wendy McDonald, a diminutive, silver-haired, indefatigable Bay St. Louis native who seems to have her finger in every pie of Hancock County’s hurricane recovery efforts. After the storm struck, McDonald, 53, put a career in Houston on hold to return to her hometown and help form Hancock County Citizens in Action, a grassroots volunteer group whose chief mission is to cut the red tape between government agencies and speed relief to all parts of the community.

But the housing mission seems especially dear to her heart -- Katrina exacted a shocking toll on the homes of her parents and other relatives -- and her connections with local government officials are giving Habitat a leg up in its search for a key ingredient in its recipe for the “decent, affordable shelter” it touts in its literature: land.

On a recent day, in a darkened room at the temporary county government complex of portable buildings here, chief Hancock County building official Mickey Lagasse scrolled through screen after screen of tax roll information to help McDonald and Gluth identify potential lots and tracts for Habitat projects.

Looking for reasonably priced lots

“We’re kind of land poor in Bay St. Louis and Waveland,” McDonald explained. Many now-bare lots in those towns will be too expensive for Habitat’s program if they come on the market, or they’ll be in flood zones where the organization does not intend to build. Instead, the group is eying rural areas where they hope to secure lots for $2,000 to $5,000 apiece.

“Everywhere I go I say, ‘Anybody got any land they want to sell to Habitat,’” McDonald says with a laugh. “Everybody just kind of looks at you.”

After meeting with Lagasse, she and Gluth went out to inspect some property in person. Finding a “For Sale” sign amid a stretch of undeveloped lots in unincorporated Bayside Park, they spread topographic maps on the hood of a car to determine flood-zone data.

“It would be worth looking into,” McDonald said, running her finger along contour lines on the map.

In addition to elevation, the group’s main criteria for selecting lots include residential zoning, paved roads, and availability of water and sewer. Plugging those factors into his computer, the county’s Lagasse can help McDonald and Gluth streamline Habitat’s search. Of particular potential may be existing but undeveloped subdivisions where “a lot of land speculators came in and bought lots in the ’70s and ’80s,” Lagasse says.

Opportunity for 'serious revitalization'

The county is happy to help Habitat because, even beyond filling the great housing void left by Katrina, it sees an opportunity for the program to provide “serious revitalization” in many areas, Lagasse explains.

Gluth says Habitat’s post-hurricane efforts across the South should become much more visible soon. After two months of organizing, planning and shopping for land, the hammering and sawing, actually overseen by local affiliates, is about to begin in earnest. “Right now, we have roughly 100 lots that are secured” in Mississippi's storm-struck Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties, he says.

In addition to seeking more land, the group is looking for development partners from the private and government sectors and making arrangements to house the multitudes of out-of-area construction volunteers that will be needed to help build the homes.

When she’s not running down lots, McDonald is marketing Habitat’s plans to potential participants everywhere from chance meetings on the street to Citizens in Action forums.

“It’s not a give-away program,” she said in a presentation at one recent town hall meeting here in Kiln. “It’s a mortgage.” Applicants must have a down payment and an income that enables them to pay a mortgage on an interest-free loan. The must be willing to invest about 350 hours of “sweat equity,” either working on their own home or another Habitat project. And they must agree to live in the home for a specified period of time before selling it.

The average Habitat home in the United States costs about $60,000. Gluth said he expects the typical mortgage for a home built in Habitat’s post-hurricane blitz to be about $50,000. Most of the homes will be about 1,100 square feet with three bedrooms and one bathroom.

At the Kiln meeting, McDonald stressed that the home will be solid and attractive. “These are houses you wouldn’t mind having next door to you,” she said. “These are houses you would be happy to live in.”

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93 COMMENTS

How do you volunteer for the program? Does anyone have any information?

I think it's great, and I hope a lot of people will take part and help build a new future for themselves.

I'm somewhat dubious though, considering some of the reports from the area. I've read on MSNBC that there is 20 percent unemployment, but help wanted signs everywhere.

How many people will just want someone (taxpayers) to buy them a new house and just move in? I understand the hardships that these victims have endured, as I am housing 2 Katrina victims in my home. These are hard working people that took the first job they could get and are rebuilding their future.

I was brought up to believe that you will not appreciate something that is given to you as much as something you've worked go obtain. Granted, Katrina took from these people what they had already earned, but working to get it back will make it that much more valuable.

I praise programs like Habitat for Humanity and hope that everyone that can will take advantage of this opportunity to rebuild into something they will cherish.

Can Habitat build on existing properties of homes that were lost during Katrina?

After watching this evening's news I was digusted to learn that hundreds of FEMA housing units (trailers)were sitting idle because certain 'well-bred' people in the area did not want these 'people'or 'trailers' in their neighborhood--Most of America was willing to take in stray dogs and cats from this ravaged area,but we want these people to have housing,'just not here'--Remember the words on the Statue of Liberty?? I always thought I would be proud to be from the South--What the hell is wrong with this Country anyway??

It is great that Habitat is doing this, but we would expect no less of this great program. Considering the number of people who are in need of housing quickly though, there needs to be consideration of building large low level residential housing complexes to accommodate more families until enough houses can be built. With proper design and care the safety and relocation of families would be beneficial for all.

Habitat should look at incorporating construction of steel beams with metal roofing/sides to make them more bullett proof from hurricanes. I'm sure that Hab. could get the materials at a group discount to make the house affordable over a stick built house. They are so careful not to be in flood prone area but not the "hurricane-free" area.

I have one thing too say about this "Program".
INMOP it is a "sham", being disabled myself in Wilmington, NC, Single parent w/daughters, they said I wasn't quailified?????? Even though I'm provided enough income and self labor too complete a project, 2 or several...
Be careful about this "program", It's TOO GOOD TOO BE TRUE. And Racialy BIASED, check the stats...
DWB Wilmington NC.

I am a freshman at Monmouth College in Monmouth, Illinois. For my spring break, I will be helping out with the rebuilding process with about 25 of my fellow students and 3 faculty. I am completely enthralled to be a part of the relief effort and to offer a hand and a heart to those people briskly and unfortunately pushed aside by our government. These homeless hurricane victims need the kind and selfless assistance of their fellow Americans. Help me and the many many other volunteers to show that the government's carelessness is not held in the hearts and minds of the American citizens.

https://www.habitat.org/cd/relief/individual.aspx

A link to their official website.

no no no ...Bart Habitat is not taxpayers dollars it is an independent orgianizian...i have worked with Habitat before ...and would ...again....these folks have to pay for thier homes...but most labor is donated...and no interest....see

This sounds great, but it will be almost impossible to find "cheap" land that meets HFH's standards. Land prices across the south have gone sky high, especially near the coast.

Will Habitat build a home on our lot that we own in Bayside park? We lost our home in New Orleans.

Truly angels among us...we have witnessed this over and over...the love and kindness of strangers from all over this wonderful country....Jane, Pascagoula, MS

Habitat homes are a win-win situation for everyone...the owners help build, not just homes but new lives and seeing a project through from siting the ground frame to finishing the kitchen is the most awesome experience. It is a group effort and I hope that Habitat builds 10,000 homes!

Habitat for Humanity is a great organization to rebuild homes because Habitat works together with the families in need. The house is not a gift, it is not a handout. It is a partnership.

this is a greatidea.i think every body who cares about helping people should come on board with habitat for humanity.there a great organisation.would be glad to volunteer to help myself.why couldnt george w.think of that.

It is a great organization.

Habitat is always tere to help people who want to help themselves. I assume this project will be like the others with future owners donating sweet equity and will have a very low house payment. This way the people can take pride in ownership.

Sounds good! But, how & why are the loans interest "Free"?? It has to cost someone! There is no "Free" lunch. / Old fashion business man.

RITA was the one that Damaged Calcasieu /Cameron Parish and affected my Family- we had Damage to our house and moved out of state because we could no longer live in my Rented house- my daughter moved to Laffayette La and has been told by FEMA that she will be moving into a FEMA trailer... Only she can't move into one because there are none set up there yet so 3 months later she's still waiting while her husband is in the ARMY in Iraq.

"...Thats the thing about WASPS, they love animals, but hate people..."

It is odd how we can send iraq 85 billion dollars & tsunami victims so much but when it comes to our neighbors we depend on non profits to help.

I read that the reason many neighborhoods are reluctant to have the temp trailers is because it is extremely difficult to get people moved out of them and back into housing. The people housed in them in the Southwest after flooding several years ago are still there, and it's become a very bad area.
Having volunteered on Habitat projects in my area, I think it would be great to have people help build their own homes. You might be surprised that people will jump at the chance to feel empowered about their future.

Perhaps a number of major corporations, philanthropic organizations and wealthly individuals would be willing to donate notable amounts of cash and/or materials required in housing construction. If Habitat For Humanity has or can rapidly develop the management structure to handle even more projects, the housing problem could be solved a little faster.

Forest Grove, we have been long term monthly doners to Habitat. That is how the funding for projects like this comes about. You don't have to be wealthy, just faithful, to support Habitat's work. Now that Katrina has decimated my home town, I am happy to know that some of the funds we have donated may go to people I know and love. I'm not sure who qualifies, but I know everyone needs help. I hope, also, that the people with big donations come through, as well. You are right... nothing is free. The cost of Katrina's wrath on people's lives is immense.

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