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A gift of many homes

By Mark Potter, NBC News correspondent

Looking at his soon-to-be new neighborhood in the Gentilly area of New Orleans, with it's 20 brand-new homes, Edgar Williams couldn't help but dream about what he'd do once he moved in. He particularly had his eye on the screened-in back porch.

"My plan for the back one is a rocking chair, a cup of coffee and a newspaper in the early morning sun as it comes up," he said.

Edgar's dream is shared by nineteen other hard-working families who are also linked by a devastating experience. They all lost their homes three years ago to Hurricane Katrina and have been struggling ever since.

Now they are being given new homes, free of charge. It's a remarkably moving story that producer/photographers Amber Payne, Christina Vallice and I are proud to show you tonight on NBC Nightly News.

Watching the television coverage of that horrific storm back in August, 2005, Leonard Riggio, the chairman of the Barnes and Noble bookstore chain, and his wife Louise, were moved to tears and vowed to help the victims whose music, culture and cuisine they loved so much.

"We felt like we were part of it. We knew right then and there that we had to do something," Riggio said.

What he did was donate $20-million--the largest philanthropic gift from a single individual--to rebuild homes and lives in New Orleans, an effort known as Project Home Again.

With a team of dedicated planners, a local architect and a contractor who worked from dawn to dusk to finish way ahead of schedule, Riggio built 20 homes and created an entire neighborhood. Even more homes are on the drawing board in another part of town.

Recently, the families were all invited to come see their new places. Mothers and fathers escorted wide-eyed children into gleaming living rooms and kitchens. They stared in disbelief at spacious bedrooms where they would no longer have to share couches or FEMA trailers with other displaced relatives. Edgar Williams walked in the door and was awestruck.

There to greet them were Leonard Riggio, his wife and the entire building team. "I couldn't help crying going into that first house. It fills my heart with so much joy," Riggio said.

All he has asked of the families is for one of them to invite him inside their new house for a home-cooked New Orleans-style dinner when he returns for a block-party this spring.

The families have eagerly agreed. Watch tonight, and you'll see why.