New Orleans Five Years Later: Cal volunteers

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana Imagine every single building in the county you live in being damaged or destroyed. That's the case in Saint Bernard Parish in New Orleans.

Of the 70,000 residents before Katrina, fewer than half have returned. Most need a lot of help getting back. For a very lucky few, the help is coming from volunteers, who have put their own lives on hold.

It's not often you meet someone so upbeat who has endured such hardship.

I'm greeted by Johnay Toledo in front of the home he almost lost in the storm. Like so many others in New Orleans, he's been living in a trailer behind the house.

He and his dog "Buddy" have a special bond. To understand their story, we have to go back five years when the world was bombarded by images of Hurricane Katrina. The storm damaged or destroyed every building in St. Bernard Parish. It was the only county in U.S. history declared 100 percent uninhabitable. And Johnay was right in the middle of it.

The morning the levees broke, the water came rushing into the neighborhood. Before you knew it, it was up to the rooftops. Johnay only had minutes to get to his rooftop with his dog. While sitting up there, he noticed across the street there was a canoe stuck in a tree. He jumped off his roof and swam across the street and grabbed the canoe. With his dog in the boat, he began rescuing his neighbors.

"I was blessed to meet a lot of good people and to assist them up and out of their roofs and bring them to safety," said Johnay.

He even rescued four more dogs that were all abandoned and near death. They still live with him in his trailer.

Johnay is a hero. But like so many after Katrina, a homeless one.

"Every day I prayed to show me a sign," said Johnay. "Show me a way. Show me how to get some ends so I can reconstruct my house.

"I was almost at my wit's end and I received a phone call from the St. Bernard Foundation and they asked me, 'Are you still interested in us to help you reconstruct your house?' and I just fell on my knees and I looked up and I said 'Thank you.'"

That's when Johnay's special bond with two Southern California women began.

University of Southern California graduate Catherine Lyons is the marketing and development coordinator with the St. Bernard Project. It's a disaster relief nonprofit agency specially designed to help people rebuild their homes in the parish.

Catherine said one visit to New Orleans changed her.

"When I got down here it was shocking to see something like the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish," said Catherine.

So she moved there last year, and the experience has enriched her life.

"The only thing that I hear is how grateful they are because we are helping them put together their lives again," said Catherine. "Where there was no hope before, a lot of times we're their last hope."

Heidi Miles is a graduate of University of California-Irvine. She is the site supervisor. She basically teaches all the other volunteers how to build a house, something she learned after she volunteered.

She too made a visit to New Orleans from Southern California and was deeply moved.

"I saw so much that needs to be done here. I had no idea," said Heidi. "I mean, a lot of people in California just don't know. So I was like, 'well, how could I ignore this?' So I wanted to come back and make a difference."

There is one final piece to Toledo's story that makes what Heidi and Catherine are doing so special.

Johnay has a young daughter, Aerial, with cystic fibrosis. Until he has a real house, she can't live with him in her condition.

These volunteers aren't just rebuilding homes, they are rebuilding families.

"The true heroes are the people that's coming here to help rebuild our community," said Johnay. "They don't realize that they are truly heroes in themselves."

The St. Bernard Project has helped rebuild 300 hundred homes so far. But there's a lot more to do.

Coming up Tuesday at 11 p.m.: the delicious Cajun cuisine. The restaurants in New Orleans are leading the way in the city's recovery. But the oil spill may ruin it. Would you eat Gulf seafood?

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