NEW ORLEANS — “Green side up!” “Desperate Landscapes” host Jason Cameron called out jokingly to the volunteers laying sod in the front yard of Sandra Dusset’s Gentilly home.
At eight different locations across New Orleans on Wednesday, the crew of the DIY Network reality television show, a local landscaping team, and volunteers from Rebuilding Together and Chevron worked a marathon day to dramatically improve the yards of six homes, one community center and one child care center.
For each episode, “Desperate Landscapes” usually picks just one location, with the goal of transforming the “worst” yard on the block into the “first.”
But knowing the continued needs for recovery in New Orleans, Cameron said, the show decided, “Let’s go big!” The goal was to make the biggest impact in the shortest period of time, he said, adding that it helped that the yards in New Orleans are relatively small.
The single-day effort required months of planning and some prep work in the days leading up, said Jon Skvarka, executive director of Rebuilding Together New Orleans.
The homes selected were mostly houses Skvarka’s organization has helped to rebuild over the past seven years.
Cameron said they spent time ahead talking to homeowners about what they needed and they didn’t want to go overboard. Keeping the yards easy to maintain was an important aspect, he said.
“My mother had the green thumb,” Dusset said. “I don’t — I told them to give me plants I can’t kill.”
On Tuesday, the crews worked in the rain. Despite the cold temperatures at 7 a.m. Wednesday — chilly even for the Northerners — Cameron said he’d take cold over rain any day. By noon on Sumpter Street, it was a perfect sunshine-filled fall day, though still cool enough for a jacket.
Dusset moved back into her childhood home in August with the help of Rebuilding Together, which provided approximately $60,000 in resources to rebuild her home, which was inundated with 6 feet of flood water following Hurricane Katrina.
“They were a lifesaver,” Dusset said.
Skvarka said the nonprofit has rebuilt 350 homes in the New Orleans area since Katrina.
Recovery in Dusset’s neighborhood remains spotty, with rebuilt houses interspersed with overgrown vacant lots and boarded-up homes.
After living in California for several years, Dusset said it was her mother who was determined to move back to New Orleans and back to the same home her father and uncle had built. She said they were still waiting on Road Home money and that their insurance providers had persuaded the family to drop their flood insurance just a month before Katrina.
With the overwhelming challenges of returning and rebuilding, landscaping is often the last priority, Cameron acknowledged. But a front yard with healthy grass, blooming azalea bushes, lush palms and garden boxes full of flowers gives the home and the entire street “pop,” he said.
“It makes a big difference in attractiveness and perception when people come into the neighborhood,” he said. “It looks lived-in and alive — people want to come back and it entices them to.”
Surrounded by friends and family who joined the crew for a makeover that lasted just over an hour, Dusset was beaming.
After seven years away, her mother made it back to her home in August but passed away in October, Dusset said.
Cameron, who lives in New Jersey, said he felt a stronger connection after his own community was hit with a 4 1/2-foot storm surge during Hurricane Sandy.
“I can relate now more than I could before,” he said. “I got a glimpse of what people here went through.”
Dusset said she enjoys watching Cameron’s show and witnessing gray and brown settings transform into colorful and beautifully landscaped havens. She said she could hardly believe what had just taken place in her yard “in the blink of an eye,” which was only the fourth project on the list for the busy day, which took crews from the Lower 9th Ward and Holy Cross to Mid-City and Algiers
Asked by Cameron in front of the rolling cameras and boom microphone what her favorite part of her new yard was, Dusset said it was the freshly painted garden boxes bursting with delicate blue flowers, because they reminded her of her mother.
The episode is scheduled to run in April.