Extreme Makeover: Home Edition helps out people on a weekly basis, but in a four-part special titled After The Storm, the team goes to places hit hard by last year's devastating hurricanes, Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. Last week, the show went to Biloxi, Missisippi, and built a free medical clinic. On Thursday, March 30, the team heads to Broward County, Florida, to rebuild a soup kitchen and help out a young couple who tried to get married twice last year but were put off both times by a hurricane.
In a conference call, Home Edition host Ty Pennington talked about how moved he felt when helping out these Gulf Coast folks who are still in dire need of help, even almost a year later, as the next hurricane season approaches.
"Those people desperately need help. Down there it is not over, it is still happening. It's just sad. These people used to have houses and now they are living in a 12-foot-by-8-foot FEMA trailer."
Pennington said the Home Edition team immediately wanted to go down to the gulf and help out as soon as possible, but they had to wait.
"We knew we had to go down there, but we had to wait until FEMA and the government gave us the all clear. There were a lot of toxicity issues."
When he arrived in the area, he was not prepared for the devastation he saw.
"A lot of us didn't realize how hard Biloxi got hit, how bad the entire coast got hammered. When you see it firsthand, it literally looks like Hiroshima. There are still whole neighborhoods where there are no houses, just foundations where there used to be a house, then there is maybe one house that floated down the street and slammed into another house."
Pennington said the show had to make a decision about how best to help the storm victims.
"How do you decide where to start? You can't just build one house for someone when no one else in the neighborood has a house. We wanted to help out as many people as possible, and the church is the center of the communtiy to a lot of people, so we concentrated on churches and community centers. And playgrounds. Hearing the sound of kids playing again, the sounds of life, was great when before there were just the sounds of silence."
He stressed that not only was it important rebuilding the nuts and bolts of the towns, but also trying to salvage the special character of a great American region.
"New Orleans is one of the greatest cities in America. In our country, we've gone through lots of disasters, and we have always come back, but in certain places like New Orleans, some things might be lost. Like handing down blues music from generation to generation. How much might be lost if some of these families don't come back to the city. So in New Orleans, we wanted to bring people back."
The show took a novel approach to reseeding the New Orleans area with jazz and blues music, for which it is famous.
"We teamed up with Music Rising and established an instrument replacement program in New Orleans. Many of these musicians lost their instruments, their bread and butter. So we invited them out to trade instruments, and we gave them some instruments, and it turned into a big free-form jam. It was a big party, everyone playing togewther, kickin it and jamming and smiling."
Although Pennington is the son of a jazz musician and can play music himself, he declined to participate in the jam.
"These are some of the greatest musicians in the world. I didn't want to bring it down a notch. But rest assured, the spirit of New Orleans is not fading."
In addition to the hurricane specials, the Home Edition team is doing double duty, continuing its regular Sunday-night shows. On April 2, the team will help out a family in Queens who lost everything to a house fire. But Pennington says they'll be back to the Gulf Coast.
"We'll be doing more, and you can do more too. We should all do what we can to help the Gulf Coast. Our show proves that pretty incredible things can happen if people come together, and that's what I saw. I am seeing musicians helping other musicians rebuild their houses. Now the shock is over, the sadness is over, the anger is still there, but the people are just trying to make a difference themselves, helping out their neighbors."
Extreme Makeover: Home Edition: After the Storm continues Thursday, March 30, at 8 p.m. on ABC.