Extreme Home Makeover and Hurricane Katrina

By: Erin Herbst and Melissa Rao

We’ve talked this semester about the origins of traditions and the origins of hurricanes, so we felt it would be appropriate to begin this blog post remembering that the idea for it was conceived one night at The Idle Hour. Obviously, we didn’t write the blog post at the bar, but we did talk about it over a “dirty water” (which is funny because THAT also has connotations pertaining to this class).

In this post, we wanted to both cycle back to our discussions of hurricanes as well as anticipate our discussion/analysis of “care is the antidote to violence.”

If you don’t know, although it’s probably hard not to know, Extreme Home Makeover was a show hosted by the loud, passionate, and a tad eccentric Ty Pennington. The premise was to go to the home of a family who had suffered some kind of trauma (i.e. death of a parent, someone fighting an illness, natural disaster), send them to Disney for a week and build them a new, gorgeous house. Each episode ended with the famous, “Move that bus!” Then, the house would be revealed and our ten year old selves would be jealous of this amazing new house this family got to live in (of course, these families had suffered a lot, but all we could think about was how the bedrooms had like slides and TVs– talk about memory and forgetting, am I right?)

At first glance, this show seems to be full of care and compassion. This group of people (aided by community volunteers) tried to help people out by giving them a new home. Many of the episodes actually dealt with a variety of natural disasters. Here are some examples:

Episodes Dedicated to Disaster Relief

  • “After the Storm: Florida” (Fort Lauderdale, Florida) (March 30, 2006) Ed Sanders & Tracy Hutson surprised a local pillar of the Fort Lauderdale community named Essie Reed, aka “Big Mama”. Although Big Mama was personally in need of financial assistance, she continually found a way to aid the youth of her community. When Hurricane Wilma hit Florida, Big Mama instinctively jumped to action by soliciting food donations and feeding the residents of her low-income community. Ed & Tracy built Big Mama a community center for her non-profit organization, Team of Life. Then the team visited the Little League field (home of the 2003 World Champions), and provided a local couple a surprise wedding after their prior two attempts were ruined by Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma.
  • “After the Storm: Mississippi” (Biloxi, Mississippi) (March 23, 2006) The team rebuilt the Biloxi Clinic of the Coastal Family Health Center, a local free medical clinic demolished by Hurricane Katrina, and sent the clinic’s staff on a spa retreat. Preston created a memorial for the local residents who died in the storm, while Ed and Tracy delivered washers to 29 families living in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers.
  • “After the Storm: New Orleans” (New Orleans, Louisiana) ( April 6, 2006) The team rebuilt the 118-year-old First Emmanuel Baptist Church. Local musicians received all new instruments courtesy of Gibson. They also restored damaged photos and built a playground in nearby St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana.
  • “After the Storm: Texas” (Sabine Pass, Texas) (April 14, 2006) The team rebuilt Firehouse No. 4, which was damaged during Hurricane Rita while the heroic firefighters worked a grueling 36-hour shift during the storm and presented the town with a brand new, state-of-the-art fire truck worth $400,000. The team also rebuilt the local theatre while the kids were sent on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to New York City to learn about the acting business and see the lights on Broadway, and provided local residents living in FEMA trailers with a shopping spree to the local Sears so they can purchase basic necessities such as clothes, space heaters, blankets, etc. The town was treated to a free concert by surprise musical guests Goo Goo Dolls.

We looked at certain terms and words that appeared throughout the descriptions of these shows, such as “FEMA trailers” and references to specific hurricanes because it definitely grabbed our attention as a performance of memory in conjunction with the Spike Lee film, When the Levees Broke, that we spent extensive time on in class this semester. It is important to remember that in the film we saw how hard it was for hurricane victims to even get a FEMA trailer and all of the legality and all the hoops that were required for a person to jump through to even obtain one.  

At first glance, though this show seems to be full of care and compassion. This group of people (aided by community volunteers) tried to help people out by giving them a new home. When connecting to Hurricane Katrina, Pennington hoped that by having the show out in Louisiana, people would be more likely to donate items or go down and volunteer.

Pennington definitely spoke about the duality of the effects of disaster in an interview, when he said, “As home builders we’re proud of that,” Pennington said. “As human beings, we’re pretty horrified by the devastation.” He also spoke out about the devastation caused by Katrina here:  “We kind of had to wait until FEMA and the government said it was clear to go down there,”’ says “Makeover” chief host and carpenter Ty Pennington. “There were a lot of toxic issues going on down there.”

Once you dig a little deeper though, you realize that oftentimes Extreme Home Makeover had lots of unintended consequences. For example, many of these people could not always afford the higher taxes impressed upon them once they moved into these newer, bigger homes. This article gives a really comprehensive overview of the pitfalls that befell these families after their episode of Extreme Home Makeover airs.

Thinking about this really made us consider the relationship between care and violence, and whether sometimes an antidote is merely just a placebo.  

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