NEW ORLEANS — The group came to help rebuild a city still struggling to find its way more than six years after Hurricane Katrina and to learn some disaster recovery lessons they can take back to their own storm-ravaged Missouri community.
A 14-hour bus ride and 715 miles from home, the bleary-eyed bank executives, hospital administrators and church workers from Joplin, Mo., spent much of Thursday wielding paint brushes, sledgehammers and crowbars.
They made the trip to New Orleans to hear what has worked — and what hasn't — in the Louisiana city's long, slow return since Katrina.
"It's our job to learn these tools and pass it forward," said Jerrod Hogan, a Joplin landscape surveyor who helped create Rebuild Joplin, the nonprofit group sponsoring the trip. "There's healing in those tools."
But first, he and the others were hard at work to help renovate and gut a pair of homes in the Gentilly and Mid-City neighborhoods under the guidance of the St. Bernard Project, a nonprofit based in the neighboring parish that has rebuilt hundreds of homes throughout New Orleans.
The New Orleans group has literally and figuratively adopted its southwest Missouri brethren, bringing Rebuild Joplin under its corporate mantle. It's a partnership meant to overcome geographic distance, cultural differences and community size — all in the name of creating a template that organizers hope will help other cities recover from natural disasters in the future.
"This is totally unique," said Zach Rosenburg, a former Washington, D.C., lawyer who helped start the St. Bernard Project after relocating to New Orleans following his Katrina volunteer stint in the summer of 2006. "We have a community that has been devastated themselves investing in us."
The admiration and sense of shared obligation is reciprocal. Not just between Joplin and New Orleans but as part of a broader network of places trying to recover from tragedy.
On the long bus ride south earlier this week, the two dozen Joplin residents watched an inspirational video featuring the New York Says Thank You Foundation, a group started in 2003 by a Manhattan venture capitalist whose business partner died on the top floor of the World Trade Center in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and who wanted to return the nation's kindness while promoting volunteerism. The foundation brought a large American flag recovered near the scene at the World Trade Center to Missouri on the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
The Joplin tornado on May 22, 2011, killed 161 people and destroyed thousands of homes, businesses, churches and schools in the southwest Missouri city of 50,000, making it one of the nation's deadliest twisters in history. Nine months later, signs of the recovery are visible, as the city has issued more than 600 building permits for new homes. But another 453 families remain in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers and other temporary housing scattered across the city.
The Joplin group that's in New Orleans this week will tour the St. Bernard Project's mental health clinic Friday and meet with local advocates before returning to Missouri on Saturday.
On Thursday, it was all about work.
For Terry Wachter, tearing apart a moldy Mid-City kitchen after hearing a heartfelt story from the home's owner brought a sense of relief. It also renewed her commitment to restoring Joplin, a city she's called home for 30 years after moving there from Pennsylvania.
Wachter is vice president of mission and ministry at St. John's Regional Medical Center, the Joplin hospital that took a direct hit from the EF5 tornado as it left a nearly 14-mile trail of damage that virtually split the city in half. Her own home wasn't damaged, but Wachter lost her workplace, church and several rental properties.
"It's cathartic to tear stuff down — but with a purpose," she said.