Southern Heroes

Liz McCartney & Zack Rosenburg: The Rebuilders

This couple sprang into action constructing houses after Katrina—and haven’t stopped since

Illustration: Barry Falls

Like many of us, Liz McCartney and Zack Rosenburg watched the gut-wrenching scenes from post–Hurricane Katrina New Orleans feeling horrified and helpless. But unlike many of us, the couple uprooted their own lives to help. After an initial two-week stint serving meals in rural St. Bernard Parish, the couple found themselves on a street corner in New Orleans with a decision to make. “It was back and forth: ‘We gotta do something’; ‘What, are you crazy, we don’t know how to do anything,’” McCartney recalls. “But seven minutes later we looked at each other and said, ‘We have to do this.’” 

So the pair quit their jobs in Washington, D.C., and returned to St. Bernard with all of their possessions stuffed into an old pickup truck. They hooked up with a local man, “Mr. Frank,” who taught them how to hang Sheetrock. Eventually, they rebuilt more than eight hundred houses across Louisiana by using a production process made famous by Toyota, and the labor of AmeriCorps volunteers— a system that allowed them to rebuild a home in fewer than sixty days, at 40 percent below contractors’ market rates. Their now $30 million nonprofit disaster recovery company, SBP, employs ninety people and has responded to natural disasters from Missouri to New Jersey to Puerto Rico.

As SBP has grown, McCartney and Rosenburg have shifted focus to education and advocacy, developing programs that are used to train local officials on how to prepare for disasters and mitigate risk, as well as how to navigate the Byzantine FEMA and HUD bureaucracies to receive the billions of dollars designated for recovery efforts. “We’re trying to drive resilience,” Rosenburg says, “before disasters hit.”


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