The Kimberley Stewart family -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

The Kimberley Stewart family

Kimberley Stewart and daughter Kennedy, 10, have had to move several times since being displaced by Katrina.

Finding the miracles in the tragedy

Kimberley Stewart made a fateful decision nearly three years ago, as Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on New Orleans East. She and her daughter, Kennedy, tried to ride out the storm in her mother’s second-floor apartment. Four days later, they had to be rescued by boat, then were transferred to an Army truck and finally put on a bus to Lafayette.

“We didn’t really know where we were going,” Stewart recalled. “We were just going wherever they took us.”

Stewart, her daughter and her mother were dropped off at the Cajundome in Lafayette, with about 10,000 other displaced people. Local residents were eager to help, but housing was scarce in Lafayette. Church organizations sprang into action, moving people to wherever they had family.

But Stewart didn’t have any relatives who could take them in.

Refuge in Georgia

On impulse, she accepted an offer to go to Dawsonville, Georgia, where members of the Father’s House church stood ready to do whatever they could to help families in need.

“We have been so blessed,” Stewart said. “From the guy who rescued us in the boat, God just rolled out a red carpet and moved us right along, where we needed to be. At every step of the way, he has said, ‘Go there next.’”

The congregation in Dawsonville helped Stewart find a job, helped her get an apartment and even bought her a used car.

“Before the hurricane, I had a brand-new car, that I had saved up for forever,” Stewart said. “I stood on my mom’s balcony and watched it go under the water. But, you know, that’s OK.

“It’s still emotional,” she added. “But I don’t want it to sound tragic, because we were very blessed. I mean that.”

Riding out the storm

Why didn’t she evacuate before Katrina?

“Yes, I had a brand-new car, but who could afford to get a hotel room somewhere?” she said. “That’s why we decided to stay. At the last minute, when I saw the scary, grim look on all the city officials’ faces, I decided we would try to leave. But by then, we couldn’t get gas. Stations were auctioning it off.”

Stewart, who had lived in New Orleans all her life, had some difficulty adjusting to live in North Georgia.

“One thing I could never get used to in Georgia was the driving,” she said. “I lived in Dawsonville and worked in Alpharetta, and it took me an hour to get to and from. Some of my co-workers drove for two hours each way. Some of my friends who evacuated to Texas say the same thing. You live most of your life in your car.”

Still, Stewart and her daughter lived in Dawsonville for nearly two years, returning to Louisiana only after they qualified for a Habitat house.

“I just see so much more than a house, you know? I’ll be able to build equity. I’ll be able to send Kennedy to college. Since the mortgage is so cheap, maybe I can go back to school. I won’t have to work a job and a half or two jobs. I just see so much more than a house.”

Kennedy, now 10, had always been on the honor roll before Katrina, but her grades slipped during the family’s long displacement. Now living in a rental house in New Orleans while they wait for construction to begin on their Habitat house, Kennedy is doing much better. Her best friend from Dawsonville visited during Mardi Gras this year.

An employee of a medical supply company before the storm, Stewart starts a new job soon working security at the New Orleans airport. Until then, she’s concentrating on her sweat equity hours toward the construction of her house.

“I was so excited to go to a construction site for the first time,” she said. “Last week we were building a wall, and I was hammering away. I kept saying, ‘I feel like a real carpenter!’”

Kennedy is excited about settling somewhere for good.

“She keeps saying, ‘OK, Mom, when we move into that house, that’s ours, right? We won’t have to move again?’ And I tell her, ‘Yes, that’s our home.’ ”

A few family photos are all that remain from their old house, and yet Stewart insists that her story has many more blessings than misfortunes.

“I can’t even say it was a tragedy,” Stewart said. “It was so nice to see God show up everywhere, every step of the way.”

Affiliate Information:
St. Tammany West, Louisiana: 30 homes for displaced families

Before Hurricane Katrina, Habitat for Humanity St. Tammany West was on a five-year strategic growth plan to add five homes a year to its production and reach 30 homes a year by 2008.

“So much for planning,” said Maureen Clary, executive director of the affiliate. “We built 42 homes last year and plan to build 50 this year and 50 next.”

Clary, a board member at the time of the storm, decided to leave a 25-year career in commercial real estate development and property management to go full time with Habitat.

“It was the best decision I ever made—or that God made for me,” Clary said.

St. Tammany Parish, located in the metro New Orleans area just north of Lake Pontchartrain, has absorbed much of the workforce population from Orleans and St. Bernard parishes, pushing the limits of infrastructure in the cities of Covington, Mandeville and surrounding communities.

“Many families who thought they would return to New Orleans have found jobs, good schools, access to health care, and have decided to stay,” Clary said. “We are still seeing trends of two, three and four families sharing homes.”

A recent study shows a need for 10,000 workforce housing units by 2009 in St. Tammany. The affiliate consistently has a waiting list of 200 to 300 families who need homes.

For this year’s Carter Work Project, the St. Tammany West affiliate will lead more than 300 volunteers from the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan and Australia to build 10 houses in West Abita Nursery in Covington in the five-day blitz build. In addition, 20 more houses will either be started or dedicated as part of the Carter Project.