By
NBC News
updated 11/15/2007 9:13:50 PM ET 2007-11-16T02:13:50

While government investigators are finding that FEMA wasted millions of the dollars it spent on temporary housing for people displaced by Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast, one non-profit organization has come up with what appears to be a more effective housing solution. Staffed by volunteers and supplied by local companies, it has built more than 140 permanent homes, for a fraction of what might be expected.

Camp Coast Outpost, in Kiln, Miss., has the look of an Army MASH unit, with its rough-hewn bunkhouses, dining tents and makeshift showers. The non-profit organization began in November 2005 by building a base camp for Katrina volunteers. But in the last year the group has constructed 144 houses in Mississippi and Louisiana, using four or five standard house plans designed by Michael Sweeney, CCO’s executive director and co-founder. The total finished cost for a three-bedroom, two-bath home comes in at under $30,000.

“We’re doing what people said was impossible,” says Sandy Molenhouse, the group’s other co-founder and chief fundraiser. Clients are referred to CCO by local churches or other non-profits. They are generally elderly, poor or disabled Katrina survivors who are not able to rebuild. CCO’s services are free to these clients.  Local licensed plumbers, electricians, carpenters and others contract with the group at 25 percent to 35 percent less than their commercial rates. All other labor is provided by volunteers. Houses meet all new building codes adopted after Katrina.  

Funding for the first 150 homes has been provided by a grant from the government of Saudi Arabia, which has supported many Katrina recovery projects by nongovernmental organizations.  A year ago, Saudi representatives stopped in Kiln to see CCO,  since they had provided supplies and critical construction equipment to the group just after the storm hit.  Molenhouse and Sweeney took them to  a small two-bedroom house the group had built for a single mother with one child, completed for about $15,000. They also toured three larger houses under construction, each projected to cost under $30,000.

A few weeks later, a Saudi representative called Sweeney to ask how many homes they could build if they had more money. Sweeney told them the group could build nearly 150 houses by the end of the summer, a number Molenhouse feared was wildly optimistic. But the Saudis were convinced and provided $3.7 million to CCO’s “Coastal Domicile Replacement Program.”  True to his word, by the end of this summer, Sweeney and the CCO crews had built nearly 150 new homes.

Camp Coastal has just begun a program to rebuild houses for displaced residents, with some limited funds. Mississippi property owners who receive reconstruction grants of $50,000 or less from the state can put their grants toward a CCO-built home.

The group’s ability to draw, train and retain volunteers has been the key to CCO’s successful home-building program. Volunteers return again and again bringing money, tools and friends to work. Camp Coastal Outpost already has more than 2,000 reservations for volunteers to come to build homes in 2008.

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