Susie Perelman lucked out with the New Orleans weather Sunday. The humidity felt like 100 percent, but the temperature was a mere 85 degrees and the skies were overcast.
"Much better than last year," the Pittsburgher said on the phone from that city's Ninth Ward neighborhood, where 50 volunteers from the group she founded were unloading trucks in front of homes that were ruined by Hurricane Katrina and are just now ready for their owners to reoccupy eight years later.
When they do, the insides will be newly finished and furnished, right down to the kitchenware, china, glasses and cutlery. All the furnishings were donated by Ms. Perelman and her colleagues, who also contributed their labor and traveled there at their own expense.
Ms. Perelman owns Mosaic Inc., a national linen rental company located in the Strip District that ships to event planners all over the United States. She and her compatriots in the event-planning industry are pros at assembling, shipping and arranging all the furnishings for weddings, anniversaries and other parties.
During a trip to New Orleans three years ago, she saw how many families still were living in post-Katrina trailers and other temporary housing when the idea hit her: People who stage events for a living are uniquely positioned to help stage a comeback for disaster-walloped families.
She sent out an email asking other event planners to donate supplies from their warehouses. They responded immediately.
Thus was born a new nonprofit organization, Event Pros Take Action, or EPTA. To identify recipients, Ms. Perelman teamed up with St. Bernard Project in New Orleans, which provides disaster-recovery housing and services.
"That first summer we shipped 15,000 items to 250 families who just moved into their homes," said Ms. Perelman. "Everything was donated by people in our industry and the companies that supply them."
In addition to delivering gift boxes of kitchenware to hundreds of homes, EPTA has participated in two "extreme home make-overs" for each of the last three years. Each home gets a volunteer "design angel" who works with the family to decide what's needed and where it should go. Then a small army of volunteers descends on a July weekend to make it all happen.
"None of us are interior designers, but we know how to transform a space," Ms. Perelman said.
This year's "angels" are David Price of Rentals Unlimited in Stoughton, Mass., and Richard Carbotti of Perfect Surroundings in Newport, R.I., the latter returning for the third time. Some 30 other companies are participating as well, some providing paid time off for their workers to volunteer. In Pittsburgh, Nate Sherer of Sherer Video picked up the tab for his employee, Dane Kaczynski, to document the project.
EPTA volunteers sometimes work on spackling, painting and laying carpet, but their core mission comes into play when the rebuilding is done.
"It takes time for the infrastructure to be set up so that we can do our part," Ms. Perelman said. "Next year we hope to do work in the Hurricane Sandy area, New York and New Jersey. We talked about going there this year, but they weren't ready for us."
Sunday, the volunteers were working on a house at one of the levee breaks. It was rebuilt -- on stilts this time -- by St. Bernard Project, but still needed all the interior furnishings. In a few days, a family with five children will be moving back.
The other makeover will finish a smaller house for its previous occupants -- two adults and a grandchild.
These families, Ms. Perelman said, have had a tough road since Katrina. One slept in tents in Mississippi, moved in with relatives in Texas and then returned to New Orleans, where they were shoehorned into two trailers. The other endured the horrors of the Convention Center, then spent years away from their native city until finding subsidized housing there.
Both families are beyond ready to move back to their pre-hurricane homes.
"Thousands of volunteers come down here every year, but there are still so many people without homes," Ms. Perelman said. "Some places still look like a war zone."
To help underwrite its costs, EPTA held an April fundraiser at East Liberty's Bakery Square in conjunction with the Pittsburgh chapter of International Special Event Society, or ISES. The "Forces of Nature" party drew more than 450 guests, with food, entertainment and decor donated by 90 local event companies, restaurants and hotels.
The event also sponsored a visit to New Orleans for former resident Harold Heim, who lives in Pittsburgh and hadn't been back since Katrina.
More information about EPTA's work is available at www.eventprostakeaction.org.
Sally Kalson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1610. First Published July 22, 2013 4:00 AM