SOURCE: Christopher A. Joseph & Associates

August 25, 2006 14:44 ET

California Trio Trades Computers for Crowbars to Help New Orleans Residents

LOS ANGELES, CA -- (MARKET WIRE) -- August 25, 2006 -- Even though Hurricane Katrina headlines disappeared months ago, New Orleans rebuilding efforts continue, relying on the generosity of people from across the nation. Three planners from the Los Angeles-based environmental consulting firm Christopher A. Joseph & Associates recently volunteered a week in New Orleans to help families reclaim what nature destroyed.

Nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina pounded the Gulf Coast, Jessica Mackenzie, Noëlle Boucquey and Heidi McWhorter joined Habitat for Humanity to "gut" homes that were made uninhabitable by the flooding that followed the storm. The three women lived in a converted school that housed hundreds of volunteers.

"You have to come here yourself to understand the catastrophe that's happened to this community," McWhorter said. "It's difficult to see how many people's lives were shattered by the hurricane, but it's gratifying to help people who don't have the resources to help themselves right now."

The three women, who spend their normal weekdays dealing with land use issues throughout California, turned in their environmental manuals for crowbars and sledgehammers this August during a week of volunteering in St. Bernard Parish. To help families meet the city's August 29 "Gut and Board" deadline, the three women removed drywall and ripped apart cabinets, keeping an eye out for snakes that had moved into homes and mourning the remains of family pets left behind.

"Seeing the chaos and sadness was hard, but we all focused on the job at hand," Mackenzie said. "For the most part, there was no differentiating between the guys and the girls in the work we did. Everyone worked at 150 percent of their capabilities."

Each day at 5:30 a.m., the trio would don protective gear and enter homes that were abandoned by fleeing hurricane victims. Wall calendars still said it was August 29, 2005; dishwashers remained loaded; and important prescriptions, now outdated, lined medicine cabinets.

"Even if we don't meet the homeowners, we have a good sense of who they are by looking at their pictures and keepsakes," Boucquey said.

The trio stood side by side with members of church groups, college clubs and community service organizations and prepared houses for renovation or demolition. The other Habitat for Humanity participants were amazed that a business would give employees time off for a volunteer project.

"People just couldn't believe that our company would let us come down and volunteer. I don't think we met anyone else that was there as part of a business group," Mackenzie added.

The women said one of the biggest lessons of their time in New Orleans was the stark reality of how quickly nature can devastate lives. Living and working as community planners in California, they are now even more acutely aware of the impact earthquakes and other natural disasters could have. They advocate for continued diligence and emergency preparedness in order to spare Californians the devastation witnessed in New Orleans.

Their day jobs are a world away from the manual labor they did in New Orleans, but they are grateful the firm encouraged them to make a difference in a community that still needs the help of Good Samaritans.

"The main reason we were able to go is because of the company. Chris Joseph has been more than supportive with the missing work factor, the money factor," McWhorter said. "The cost for us has been in physical labor and exhaustion, but it's a small price to pay compared to what others in this community have sacrificed and gone through."

For more information or to interview the volunteers, please contact Amit Thakkar ( or Robert Gard ( at Cerrell Associates, 323-466-3445.

*Photos of the work in New Orleans are available upon request.

Christopher A. Joseph & Associates is California's leader in environmental planning and research. Founded in 1988 by environmental planner Christopher A. Joseph, CAJA has offices in Los Angeles, Agoura Hills, Santa Clarita, Petaluma and Oakland. For more information, please visit CAJA's web site at

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