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Originally published Saturday, August 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Brad Pitt's foundation races clock in New Orleans

Actor's Make It Right Foundation scurries to complete homes in the Lower Ninth Ward before the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Newhouse News Service

NEW ORLEANS — Workers in yellow hard hats are swarming several blocks in the Lower 9th Ward as contractors with Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation hurry to build the foundation's first houses by the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Gertrude LeBlanc, 72, rocked gently on her front porch and watched construction workers smooth cement and nail spans of wallboard inside a handful of partially finished houses, most of which rise on one-story concrete pillars.

It was "much busier" this past week than it has been since construction began two months ago on the houses, said LeBlanc, a retired postal worker who has lived on this block of Tennessee Street for 41 years.

While complaints of bureaucratic sloth persist, Pitt's foundation instead provides a striking example of a private entity taking the simplest of plans — build houses where the flood knocked them all down — from idea to execution in a relatively short time.

Make It Right has raised enough money to build at least 84 houses, with an ultimate goal of financing at least 150 houses in the Lower 9th Ward, said Tom Darden, the foundation's executive director.

Crews are hard at work on six homes, two of them modular designs, with hopes of finishing at least one by Friday and having the others near completion by that date, Darden said. The six houses will go to the first six families who closed on the foundation's forgivable loans; 20 other families have submitted applications, he said.

Early last year, LeBlanc was one of the first people to return to this colossally damaged section of the Lower 9th, not far from the Industrial Canal levee breach that inundated the ward.

"When I came back, they put up a banner in the post office near here, saying, 'Miss Gert's back. Deliver her mail,' " she said.

LeBlanc has been keeping close track of who has returned to the neighborhood. Within the next month, she said, mail service also should resume at Make It Right's six houses, thanks to "the answer to our prayers — Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie."

On her block, two longtime neighbors are coming back, thanks to the foundation. As she drinks her morning coffee, LeBlanc soon will be able to wave to a woman three lots down whom she has known for decades as Ms. Guy.

LeBlanc and her family also are counting the days until the return of next-door neighbor Melba Barnes.

"She loves to cook," LeBlanc said. "There is nothing Melba can't cook."

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LeBlanc pointed toward Barnes' home on stilts. Barnes' house and the others have solar panels and environmentally "green" amenities, and they look different from what LeBlanc is used to, she said.

Still, she and her neighbors plan to be neighborly, just like the old days, she said.

"We told Melba, 'Just put that food on a rope and drop it down.' "

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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