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One woman's mission to help Isaac's victims

Connie Uddo was devastated when her home was devoured by Katrina, but she faced the damage head-on by establishing a volunteer organization to help people rebuild. Now that same nonprofit is helping Isaac's victims. NBC's Kate Snow reports.

By Kate Snow, NBC News correspondent

NEW ORLEANS -- As the weather started to clear and the power came back on, Connie Uddo finally assessed the damage to her home, relieved to find nothing more than a few lost roof shingles.  

“You know, we dodged another bullet,” she said. “I would say if I had to put it in one word it would be 'relief.'”

So on Friday, 57-year-old Uddo turned her attention to helping others, anxious to assist the victims of Hurricane Isaac in the process of cleaning up and rebuilding. Uddo is the Executive Director of the St. Paul’s Homecoming Center, an organization born of necessity after Katrina struck. Since then she has coordinated more than 50,000 volunteers.

Inside the Homecoming Center it was dark but undamaged. Out back, a large oak tree had fallen in a neighbor’s yard and just missed the house.

Yes, there will be some cleanup ahead.  But Uddo isn’t worried this time.

“You'd be surprised once we get electricity how fast it will come together and like I said, I have the tree cutters on speed dial.”

Building an army of volunteers

Seven years ago, Uddo wouldn’t have had the first clue how to rebuild a house.  At the time, she was a stay-at-home mother and tennis pro.  But Hurricane Katrina changed all of that.  Her home was swallowed up by those floodwaters.

“Our neighborhood, it was condemned, uninhabitable and unsafe. You had to have a pass to get in,” she said.

It is something she never wants to live through again — she doesn’t think she could handle it. And so as Isaac was bearing down on Tuesday night, she felt a familiar mixture of dread and anxiety.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu spoke with NBC's Kate Snow at the city's emergency center about improvements in communication since Hurricane Katrina.

“The wind had me a little freaked out at points … because our house was shaking a lot and the windows were rattling,” she said.

Uddo and her kids had evacuated before Katrina hit. In October of 2005, when she returned to her 90-year-old wood and plaster home, she found a mold-infested mess. The first floor, which they had renovated as rental units, had been under 8 feet of water, which took a month to drain out. 

“It was horrific. It was shocking. It was something that I never thought I would ever see in my lifetime ... everything was gray," she said. "It literally looked like a nuclear disaster. There were no birds, insects, squirrels. The silence was just deafening.”

Uddo thought about leaving for good. She cried — a lot.

Kate Snow / NBC News

Connie Uddo stands near the nonprofit center she started after Katrina.

“It wasn’t just the physical loss,” she said. “It was the emotional loss of your community, your social network, your children’s friends.”

But Uddo decided to move back and rebuild. In January 2006, her family was the first of 10 families in her neighborhood to have electricity.

Lakeview, she said, was a “green dot” on a city planning map — a place that some planners thought would become nothing but green space with no residential homes. 

She wouldn't hear of it. "We’re a 100-year-old neighborhood. You don’t tell a 100-year-old neighborhood that."

So she rebuilt, and she convinced others to do the same. Uddo would walk around the neighborhood asking plumbers, roofers, builders and other tradespeople for their phone numbers. Since phone books no longer worked, she compiled a list. She counseled her neighbors at her dining room table. She recruited teen-aged volunteers to come to the neighborhood and clean up the front yards so that returning residents wouldn't be as shocked as she had been when she first drove in.

‘We have a jumpstart on this recovery’

Uddo hopes people in and around New Orleans who experienced worse damage will call on her Center for help and volunteers.  And if people outside the area want to contribute, they’re happy to take emails and calls.

To contact Uddo's organization, St. Paul's Homecoming Center, please visit their website, or call: 504-644-4125

“I feel like we have a jumpstart on this recovery because we have so much in place and I'm just thankful our center was able to be here this long because now we're not just a Hurricane Katrina recovery center, now we're an Isaac recovery center,” Uddo said.

One of the biggest lessons of Katrina, Uddo said, is that neighbors have to look out for each other. Before Katrina, they never would have coordinated before a storm.

“At the end of the day, all we have is each other,” she said.