MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Rebuilding New Orleans takes a lot of hard work, elbow grease, and in some neighborhoods, really good software.
NPR's Larry Abramson has this profile of a man and a neighborhood he hopes to save with the help of a great database. It's part of our series about New Orleans residents who are making a difference.
LARRY ABRAMSON: Hal Roark bounds up the steps of a modest home at 4312 South Tonti Street in New Orleans' Broadmoor neighborhood.
Mr. HAL ROARK (Real Estate Agent/Investor): Good to see you. Glad you're back.
Unidentified Man #1: Glad to be here.
Mr. ROARK: Yeah. So this is the first house? All right. This is big.
ABRAMSON: The volunteers are back because Hal Roark found work for them painting this house. Roark knows that his group, the Broadmoor Development Corporation, can't fix up the 2,400 homes in this low-lying neighborhood on their own.
Mr. ROARK: It's because of college kids and, you know, universities and churches and, you know, national organizations. The other thing we're trying to tap into is all the convention business that comes to New Orleans and say, look, hook up with us for a day to come into Broadmoor and help us rehab a house.
ABRAMSON: You might think it would be easy for volunteers for find work down here, there's still so much to do two and a half years after Katrina. But Bill Sharpe, the leader of the Michigan volunteers, says it's surprisingly hard.
Mr. BILL SHARPE (Leader, Michigan Volunteers): We wanted to send people down, but we wanted to make sure that we were actually helping rather than just sending volunteers down for a field day. I had been used to trying to pitch the churches as to what we were trying to do. I realized that Hal was pitching me and it was…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHARPE: …it was someone noble. I could sit back and just say, yeah. Okay.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SHARPE: Yeah, we'd really like to be a part of this.
ABRAMSON: Broadmoor was so badly flooded, the city wanted to bulldoze the area and turn it into a park. That's when Hal Roark and his neighbors decided to save this community of working-class people.
Mr. ROARK: So I got involved with the neighborhood association and the rebuilding because it was just - you know, the fact that they wanted to mow down our neighborhood was the last straw. I mean - and people came out of the woodwork to say, this is completely unjust.
ABRAMSON: Roark drives to the neighborhood in his Honda Element. He's a big man, 43 years old, gray hair, garrulous and good humored. Outside, there are lots of wrecked homes, but Hal Roark sees progress.
Mr. ROARK: So we've got a house - not touched, bad roof, boarded up, the yard not taken cared of - at least it's cut but looking horrible, but I got a for-sale sign in the front yard. That house will be bought and picked up and renovated.
ABRAMSON: The secret to Broadmoor's success is the handmade approach to recovery. Roark matches the needs of each house and each resident with a group of volunteers, keeping in mind that every step affects the whole neighborhood.
Mr. ROARK: Our belief is the way you recover a neighborhood is actually instead is to improve the neighborhood and make it better than it was before, so that people actually want to live around it.
ABRAMSON: So Broadmoorians have brought back the local library, and they cajoled local officials into restoring the school. Someday, Broadmoor will have things the neighborhood never had before Katrina. In his quest, Hal Roark has a secret weapon. No, it's not some deep-pocketed donor. It's not the infinite power of the human spirit.
Mr. ROARK: Let's show you. Let's go upfront…
Mr. ROARK: …and I'll show to you where we usually do this.
ABRAMSON: Back in his office, Hal Roark shows me the silent partner that is the real key to this success story - a computer program called Salesforce.
Mr. ROARK: So what we have here is - here's the Parkers, here's who they are, here's the record of…
ABRAMSON: Salesforce was built for salespeople. But Roark and his army of college interns have repurposed it so he can catalogue the needs of Broadmoor's 2,400 homes and the 7,000 residents who lived here before Katrina.
Mr. ROARK: We can actually contact and track who their children are, whether they are in the charter school, if they need a charter school, if they need uniforms…
ABRAMSON: So this was really designed for people selling widgets to…
Mr. ROARK: Oh yeah, completely. This was never designed for post-disaster reconstruction.
ABRAMSON: With this database, Roark can explain to donors what they're getting for their money. Donors like that. And Roark says it also helps him satisfy the human needs of volunteers who want to do more than paint some stranger's house.
Mr. ROARK: We put donors directly in touch with the residents. They literally work on their homes, they literally meet the residents, and they literally sit and learn their story in their FEMA trailer.
ABRAMSON: A good database also serves very practical needs.
(Soundbite of door-knocking)
ABRAMSON: Roark knocks on the door of resident Duane Parker, the man we looked up in the database.
Mr. ROARK: Hey there, Mr. Parker. Hal Roark.
ABRAMSON: The Broadmoor Group wanted this family here because wife Nancy Parker is a New Orleans police officer. The hope is that having a cop in the area will reduce crime. Since the Parkers moved in last year, they discovered some roof problems. When that showed up in the database, Hal Roark responded right away.
Mr. ROARK: The roof looks good.
Mr. DUANE PARKER (Broadmoor Resident): Yeah. You like it?
Mr. ROARK: Yeah. Oh yeah, it's a nice roof.
Mr. PARKER: Yes, it is. I really appreciate it. Let's come on down.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
ABRAMSON: But in an old house like this one, there's always something to fix. Down in the basement, there are some leaky pipes.
Mr. ROARK: Well, we'll have more plumbers coming in. I mean, we have you in our database, and we know what you need. So, again, when we've got a plumber that comes through, we'll just send them right over.
ABRAMSON: Hal Roark has an expression for this process: Be the cavalry that you want to see coming over the hill.
Larry Abramson, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.