Image: New houses
Bill Haber / AP
Workers put the finishing touches on what is believed to be two of the first new homes built in the Lower Ninth Ward since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on Thursday.
updated 2/22/2007 10:11:09 PM ET 2007-02-23T03:11:09

Two residents got the keys Thursday to what are believed to be the first homes built in the Lower Ninth Ward since Hurricane Katrina hit 18 months ago, and officials hope the houses — elevated against floodwaters and designed to withstand 160 mph winds — will help spark a revival in the devastated neighborhood.

"It's overwhelming," said one of the new homeowners, Gwendolyn Guice, who found the design of her house "kind of strange" but all right. "I went and got my Kleenex to wipe my eyes."

The homes resemble the wood-frame shotgun style prevalent in many New Orleans neighborhoods, in which rooms are built in a straight line from front to back. But instead of the traditional cypress wood exterior, they are covered with mold- and termite-resistant siding.

A community group called ACORN Housing lined up financing for the two houses, valued at about $125,000 each, and the homeowners will have to repay the organization, perhaps through the insurance proceeds on their destroyed houses.

Designed by students
The houses were designed by Louisiana State University architecture students and built with a combination of paid labor and volunteers.

Reminders of Katrina are still abundant in the Lower Ninth Ward, where Katrina's storm surge broke the levee at the Industrial Canal, flooding hundreds of homes. Street signs are missing. Many businesses and houses stand empty.

The view from the back porch of the new home built for Josephine Butler, who lost the house her husband and brother built decades ago, is one of mudholes, a debris pile, crumpled or vacant buildings and tangles of vines.

ACORN Housing has lined up $500,000 for interest-free loans and acquired about 100 blighted properties in the Lower Ninth, with plans to build houses there, too.

The project comes as a $14 billion blueprint for rebuilding New Orleans slowly makes its way through city government.

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