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Carter, Connick do their home work in New Orleans

As former President Jimmy Carter nailed down the front porch of a home under construction Wednesday, singer Harry Connick Jr. gave an update on the progress being made in the Upper 9th Ward, an area slow to recover from Hurricane Katrina.

The two are supporters of Habitat for Humanity, and both expressed their excitement about the organization’s construction of houses in this section of the city, where block after block of flooded-out homes still sit vacant on lots with overgrown grass.

“To be part of this rebuild is thrilling,” said Connick, who took his 12-year-old daughter, Georgia, to the construction site. “I feel like it’s a moral responsibility to rebuild New Orleans, and I’m going to continue to do what I can to help.”

Seven homes were being built on the street Wednesday by hundreds of volunteers through Habitat as part of a building blitz Carter is leading this week along the Gulf Coast. In all, more than 250 houses will be built – many through the end of the year – in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas.

The sound of hammers pounding and motorized saws buzzing was music to the ears of the Rev. Johnny Arvie, pastor of a Baptist church across the street from where Connick and Carter were working.

“They’re helping the church and the community by helping to rebuild the neighborhood,” said Arvie, whose Law Street Baptist Church took more than 6 feet of water when Katrina struck in August 2005. He said the congregation has been slow to return.

“People can’t move back without a place to live,” he said.

The homes being built in New Orleans on Wednesday were just blocks from the core site of the Musicians Village, the cluster of homes Connick and fellow New Orleans musician Branford Marsalis built through Habitat after the storm. The village provides affordable housing for musicians and others who lost their homes in Katrina’s flooding.

Connick regularly drops by when he comes to New Orleans to visit family about every two to three months, he said. Though there is still much work to be done, Connick said the Musicians’ Village has come a long way.

About 50 of the 72 homes in the village’s core site are complete, and construction has begun on the village’s centerpiece – the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, which is named for the jazz pianist and patriarch of the Marsalis family. The center will include a performance hall and practice rooms and serve as a place for musicians of different ages and genres to mingle.

“It’s important for us to have musicians here, for musicians to want to live here,” said Connick, who on Thursday will visit what will soon be the home of trumpeter Shamarr Allen.

Connick, along with representatives of Ford Motor Co. and House Beautiful magazine, are decorating the house that Allen is slated to move into next month. Allen couldn’t be more excited to be one of the village’s newest residents, and Connick says Allen couldn’t be more deserving.

“He’s just a great guy,” Connick said. “Shamarr embodies what New Orleans musicians are all about. He’s a high-energy, sweet, just all-around great guy.”

Carter, who was in New Orleans on Wednesday with his wife, Rosalynn, said the couple postponed plans to take their Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project – an initiative through Habitat which is in its 25th year – overseas to instead focus on rebuilding the Gulf Coast.

“This has been a special commitment,” Carter said at a news conference before pulling on some work gloves. “We consider this to be a privilege and an honor, not a sacrifice.”

Still, for Reggie and Diana Sam – the couple who will live in the house Carter was working on Wednesday – it is an opportunity to get their lives back on track.

The couple, in their 20s, were engaged and living with their parents when Katrina hit and flooded both family homes. Reggie Sam, a security guard, and Diana, a cook, didn’t know whether they would be able to afford to move back to New Orleans.

Habitat helped make it happen, said Diana Sam, whose hands were stained blue from painting the siding on her house Wednesday.

“I wouldn’t have a house without Habitat,” she said. “We’d be struggling to pay rent somewhere.”

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