Blog by P.J. Marshall, Co-Founder and Executive Director, Restore the Earth Foundation
To commemorate the ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the amazing volunteers who responded, A Billion + Change is running a blog series to highlight a few outstanding examples of skill-based volunteers who continue to contribute to the growth and resilience of the people and the city of New Orleans.
Like everyone on that summer day in August 2005, my husband Marv and I were glued to the TV watching the massive scale and power of Hurricane Katrina blasting into the Gulf Coast. We were attending the White House Conference on Conservation as we watched epic winds and sideway walls of water blow out windows, carry off houses and level forests as if the trees were match sticks.
We found ourselves helping on the ground soon after at the invitation of the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service. The damage was inconceivable, surreal and emotionally overwhelming.
Survivors had lost homes, businesses, friends and family members, and were trying to pick up the pieces of their lives day by day. They found themselves left to care for the plants remaining in their community. Even with so much lost, people chose to begin recovering by finding a way to start planting trees, in an effort to put nature back together!
Along with the human loss and devastation, Katrina had destroyed or damaged over 320 million trees across five million acres along the Gulf Coast. The storm threatened the forest ecosystems, and with them the heart of environmental, social and economic communities—and a major part of the region’s cultural heritage.
While the recovery of daily lives continued, Marv and I became a catalyst to mobilize, engage and pull together the expertise and resources of the public, including corporate communities around the country.
Corporations like Harrah’s and Entergy led the way by leveraging their expertise, resources and employee volunteers. They commandeered trucks to haul off storm debris while volunteers cleared the way, filled and replaced lost soil, dug holes, planted trees, wrapped each tree in protective guards, and repeated the process again.
At our first planting, we had 1,000 native trees. People were so excited to rally together and pick up a shovel and join in; we ended up with more volunteer planters than trees!
A diverse group of corporations partnered with us along the way: CITGO, Shell, Timberland, Clif Bar, Seventh Generation, Eileen Fisher, Harrah’s and Entergy are just a few. They provided boots, bandanas, shovels, trucks, helicopters, boats, heavy equipment, walkie-talkies and other gear along with cadres of employee volunteers.
“Working with Restore the Earth gives corporate volunteer teams a real, meaningful opportunity to take a high-profile issue, restoring a critical environmental site, and really give back,” says Patty Riddlebarger, Director of Corporate Social Responsibility at Entergy Corporation.
Today, with our corporate partner support, REF leverages the power of public-private partnerships to employ a self-sustaining business model and take a market-based approach to impact assessment and valuation. Our innovative approach to ecosystem restoration will help us and our corporate partners restore 1 million acres in the Mississippi River Basin and its coastal wetlands, known as North America’s Amazon. By partnering with REF, corporations are able to transform the way they interact with their environment and let stakeholders know that they are dedicated to making dramatic, identifiable, and lasting change.
P.J. Marshall: P.J. leverages her experience as a top strategic marketing consultant and her passion for the environment to develop and lead the cross-sector partnerships that are at the heart of the Restore the Earth Foundation strategy and business model.
P.J. and Marv Marshall eventually founded Restore the Earth Foundation (REF) and, to date, have engaged over 6,000 volunteers, reforested over 40,000 acres post-Katrina, and was the first to employ restoration on oil-soiled wetlands following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.