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Remember New Orleans?

(From left) Tamara, Delaney, Jordan and Mark Sell will spend a year rebuilding in New Orleans. Follow their story at www.rebuildingnola.blogspot.com. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
(From left) Tamara, Delaney, Jordan and Mark Sell will spend a year rebuilding in New Orleans. Follow their story at www.rebuildingnola.blogspot.com.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

Mark and Tamara Sell do, and they’ll spend a year there helping rebuild.

Like most people, Mark and Tamara Sell had read the coverage and seen the pictures.

Stuffy white trailers parked in front of tilting houses, still waiting for repairs. Legions of black mold marching unabated up interior walls. Entire neighborhoods steeped in stillness.

Then they went and saw for themselves.

Even when transposed on reality, they said, the scene was beyond belief. Had it not been born of well-chronicled events, it certainly would not be believable on stage, where Sell, as Director of Production at Bainbridge Performing Arts, makes his living.

Yet nearly two years since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, desperation persists, he said, despite no shortage of well-meaning support from afar.

“What became very apparent to us is that the desire is there,” he said, after he and wife Tamara, a Bainbridge school teacher, spent a week in New Orleans rebuilding a storm-damaged home. “The ambition is there. But the law, the manpower, the training and experience needed to rebuild are still lacking.”

The Sells’ Katrina experience began with a February newspaper article by a Seattle columnist who, like a growing number of people around the country, had vacationed to the Gulf Coast to participate in relief efforts.

Inspired, the Sells planned their own trip there over spring break, under the auspices of Restoring Hope In New Orleans (RHINO), which is sponsored by the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

During the days they restored a local home. In their free time they marveled at the damage caused by the most destructive and costly natural disaster in U.S. history.

Making landfall on Aug. 29, 2005, the storm killed at least 1,836 people and caused an estimated $81.2 billion in damages, according to federal figures.

While some portions of the city have recovered, many others remain in disarray, with concrete steps leading to homes no longer standing and shopping centers boarded up and sprouting grass following months of desuetude.

When their week there was over, the Sells came back to Bainbridge, to their family and their comfortable home on Eagle Cliff Road. But with the real remnants of a surreal experience still spinning through their minds, they began to wonder if they could do more to help.

They talked with their daughters, Jordan and Delaney, about the conditions in New Orleans and showed them their own pictures of the damage.

“We’ve tried to raise them with the idea that they have a responsibility to help other people,” Tamara said. “We can’t write a big check, but we can help in other ways.”

After much deliberation, they decided how.

With one fateful mouse-click each – one for each of their employers, whose blessings they would need to realize their plan – they set themselves on a never-anticipated course: back to New Orleans, to spend the next year rebuilding.

“We were sitting at the computer going ‘okay I’m going to hit send,’” Tamara chuckled, of requesting a one-year leave from her job. “It was the point of no return. We still don’t know how everything is going to work, but sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith.”

That leap will take the Sells some 2,700 miles south, to a city that, based on what they saw, is still reeling.

Tamara accepted a one-year teaching position – and a substantial pay-cut – at a private school in New Orleans. Mark hopes to catch on with a non-profit, where he plans to use his managerial and construction skills to help with what continues to be a massive, often frustrating, rebuilding effort.

“It’s almost a Catch-22,” Mark said, of the tens of thousands in New Orleans who still haven’t returned to normalcy. “Without any jobs the homes won’t come back. Without homes, the jobs won’t come back. Many people don’t know where to start.”

For the Sells, as they coordinate the logistics of their endeavor, much remains unsettled. They must find renters for their house on Bainbridge, and a place to live once they get to New Orleans, where rentals are scarce. They also are helping their employers prepare for their coming absence.

The Sells’ biggest obstacle – finding suitable schools in New Orleans for their children to attend – appears to have been cleared, though tuition will be expensive.

All those concerns, they say, are minor compared to those of the people they aim to help in the coming months.

During their earlier trip, the Sells rebuilt the home of Charles and Winnie Wilmore, a couple who had moved into a modest brick home – three bedrooms, 1,400-square-feet – on a 500-year flood plain just three weeks before Katrina hit.

“They weren’t poor,” Tamara said. “They worked hard.”

Charles, 70, is a retired longshoreman. The couple have five grown kids.

As the storm approached they sought refuge at a gymnasium in Baton Rouge, La., where they ultimately spent the next three months.

When they were allowed to return home, they found their house amid five feet of standing water.

Without flood insurance – which wasn’t available in their neighborhood – their options were limited. Like many others, they’ve been hoping for help from the confines of a white trailer, issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

That help finally came via RHINO and the Sells, who were among a group of 25 volunteers who worked on the Wilmores’ house. By the end of the week, the home had new drywall, doors, windows, molding and running water.

“A lot of people assume everything is fixed,” Tamara said. “But that’s not even remotely close to the truth.”

The Sells admit the job facing the people of New Orleans is overwhelming. Still, there are things, they said, that can be done to help.

“The biggest need we both saw was in matching people in need with the resources that will help them,” Mark said. “Unfortunately you can’t always just give volunteer churchgoers a hammer and a staple gun and put them to work. A lot of what’s needed is skilled labor.”

And, Mark said, qualified people to coordinate efforts that, as of now, often become disorganized.

At the end of their trip, the Sells visited Biloxi, Miss. There, they said, conditions were “very different” from those in New Orleans.

“The building was fast and furious,” Tamara said. “If a McDonald’s got destroyed, it’s been or is being rebuilt. In New Orleans they’re still deserted.”

Soon the Sells will temporarily desert their familiar island haunts for a stagnant and unfamiliar city. As their July departure nears, so too do feelings of nervousness and excitement for a journey they never expected to make.

“For us this started with a newspaper article,” Tamara said. “Hopefully our story will inspire others to help.”

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