NEW ORLEANS — When Denise Thornton began to renovate her flood-ravaged home in the upscale suburb of Lakewood South in December, she had to learn how to navigate an intimidating maze of contractors and permits using her instincts.
Her 3,600-square-foot home had been inundated after Hurricane Katrina struck in August, leaving her with no utilities, ruined floors and the common affliction of many homeowners: moldy walls.
Getting her cable reconnected involved numerous calls that would go to representatives sitting in Kansas, Utah, California and Canada.
"They didn't have a clue what was going on here," Thornton recalled.
Now Thornton is offering guidance in an effort to encourage her neighbors to return. She has set up a nonprofit organization run out of her home so she can share experience, knowledge and contacts.
"You do what you've got to do to get neighbors back home. You can't wait on government," said Thornton, 49, who ran a business selling room fragrance diffusers before Katrina. "You've got to give them hope, and you've got to give them resources."
The Beacon of Hope Neighborhood Resource Center was launched with a donation by Ray Wooldridge, a former owner of the New Orleans Hornets basketball team. Homeowners can borrow equipment and get Thornton's recommendations for reliable roofers, electricians, plumbers, bricklayers, cabinet makers and other contractors.
"How did you treat the mold in here?" Flander Dennis asked Thornton one recent morning as she showed him the newly installed hardwood floors in her living room. She offered a company name and added, "I've got two other companies now that guarantee their work."
Admittedly, the problems of mold on walls and elusive cable service are more easily resolved than those faced by the thousands of New Orleanians with no homes, no insurance premiums on the horizon and no prospects of coming home.
But the task of rebuilding is daunting on any level, and limited government assistance has forced all residents to use their own initiative to return and rebuild.
A steady stream of homeowners shows up at Thornton's door each day.
"Some people want to get a name or a card. Sometimes they just want to talk, or maybe they're borrowing equipment," she said.
"Without champions like Denise saying it can be done, and [without] having the resources, we couldn't do it," said Lakewood North resident Susan Revels, who recalled the day she needed to find a stump grinder to crush some tree remnants. Thornton came up with a contact, and within 20 minutes there was a man with a stump grinder standing at Revels' door.
So far, 22 families of the 403 households that make up the Lakewood North and South areas have returned and are living in their houses or in trailers on their property. The neighborhood borders the levees of the city's 17th Street Canal, which was breached during Katrina.
The Lakewood neighborhood is an area of relatively newer homes in a combination of traditional and modern styles that start at around 3,000 square feet.
According to Thornton, 237 families have indicated that they plan to come back and reclaim their lives, and 173 of them are actively rebuilding their properties. But at least 96 are still uncertain about returning.
It is these doubters who Thornton hopes will be inspired today by a "parade of homes" that she has organized to show the neighborhood's properties in various stages of renovation.
She wanted to take advantage of the expected increase of homeowners in town today to vote in the mayoral runoff election between incumbent C. Ray Nagin and Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu.
"The premise is to encourage people to come home," she said. "To show them this is how we are renovating.... You can do it too."
"I'd like to come back. My wife is a little skeptical," Dennis told Thornton after he had filled out a form giving Beacon volunteers permission to clean up his front yard.
"That's always the case," Thornton reassured Dennis. "But you have to have her come back and take a look.... She can see that the neighborhood is very active."
Dennis' 4,200-square-foot home, with cathedral ceilings and a movie theater with padded red velvet walls, was valued at more than $800,000 before Katrina. More than 7 feet of floodwaters destroyed the property and forced the Dennises into temporary quarters in downtown New Orleans.
But despite the hesitation of some of the original homeowners to replant roots, local real estate agent Joyce Delery said at least 40 homes had sold in the area since January, and 36 were listed.
"It says the neighborhood is coming back very strong," said Delery, who thinks Thornton's resource center has given many residents an incentive. "When her garden went in, everyone had a smile on their face. It showed you can go home again."
"I wish we had 100 more like her," said New Orleans Councilman Jay Batt, who also lost his home in Lakewood South, an area he represents. (His seat is being challenged in a runoff today.)