Jeff and Rose Watts are urban pioneers of the post-Katrina era. Less than seven months after the killer storm wiped their Waveland Avenue neighborhood off the face of the Earth, they became the first residents to rebuild and move back into a new home amid the devastation.
Gazing off the front porch of their cozy three-bedroom cottage, just a few hundred yards from the green Gulf of Mexico, Jeff Watts can see acres of broken brown pine trees, empty concrete slabs and barren lots littered with debris.
Yet he is thrilled to be back home.
“I don’t care what it looks like out there,” he said. “We’re just happy to be back.”
“It feels like we’re moving forward,” Rose Watts added.
After the hurricane took virtually everything they owned, the Wattses, who both are in their early 40s, figured it would be a year or two at least before they would be able to rebuild, especially because their insurance company denied their claim after determining the damage was caused by the storm's 30-plus-foot storm surge.
Then one evening in November, shortly after the couple moved into the FEMA trailer they parked on their property, a volunteer relief worker stopped by and asked them if they needed any help.
As previously reported on MSNBC.com, the volunteer was a member of an Old German Baptist Brethren church in Ohio who quickly organized a crew to build the couple a new house.
“I really didn’t know what kind of help we were going to get,” Rose said. “It just floored us.”
The volunteers turned out to be expert craftsmen who built the house from the ground up in just over two months, following a plan the couple had ordered to make an exact copy of their destroyed home, which was only 2 years old.
“It just flew up,” she said.
Workers incorporated salvaged lumber from the old house -- found scattered around the neighborhood -- and finished the kitchen with custom hickory-wood cabinets made by German Baptists in Ohio. The Wattses only had to pay $45,000 for materials, which they managed to raise by borrowing from Jeff’s government retirement plan.
In the months after the storm, it was unclear exactly what Waveland City officials would do with the devastated area south of the railroad tracks, where almost every home was destroyed along with the city’s historic commercial district and City Hall. A city official said 2,400 homes were destroyed in Waveland, which had an official population of only 6,674 before the storm.
The determination of the Wattses helped force the city to act.
“When we first applied, they told me they didn’t want anyone living here for a year,” Rose said. “We said, 'Where do you expect us to go? This is our home.' Slowly things started changing.”
After persisting for six weeks, the Wattses got their building permit in late December, the first one issued south of the tracks.
Since then more than 500 permits have been issued for reconstruction and repairs on city homes. More than 450 were issued in January and February alone, “which I think is astonishing,” said Mayor Tommy Longo. The pace seems to have slowed a bit since the city began charging for permits again on March 1.
The south-of-railroad area is still desolated, but there are more and more signs of life, including trailers, Quonset huts and a farmers market on Saturdays. While the Wattses are first to move in, they will soon have neighbors in three Waveland Avenue homes being finished by the volunteers from the same Ohio Disaster Response group.
“This is really starting something, getting the ball rolling,” Jeff said.
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