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New Orleans' record on rebuilding firehouses: 0-22

  • Story Highlights
  • City of New Orleans has yet to rebuild any of the 22 firehouses struck by Katrina
  • Denis Leary's foundation has helped rebuild five fire stations
  • Leary says he gave up on politicians working "to help these guys"
  • Volunteer: "It was astounding to me that they haven't been helped"
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By Sean Callebs
CNN
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NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- New Orleans has yet to rebuild a single fire station more than two years after Katrina destroyed or damaged 22 of the city's 33 firehouses. Appalled by the city's lack of action, an actor is leading the way in reconstruction of the fire stations.

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Without city help, firefighters have resorted to repairing their stations along with volunteer carpenters.

"I gave up on ever hoping that politicians in this country -- local, state or federal -- would step in to help these guys," actor Denis Leary told CNN.

Leary, who stars as a firefighter on a TV show called "Rescue Me," is using his charitable foundation to bring together volunteers from a New York carpenter's union and the New Orleans Fire Department to rebuild the stations. So far, they've rebuilt five, with two more slated to be finished in a couple months.

Leary says it's a sad commentary on society when actors and musicians become the key players in helping a city rebound. Brad Pitt, Harry Connick Jr. and U2's The Edge are among the stars helping out across New Orleans. See the desperate state of the firehouses »

"We have The Edge, you know, an Irish musician coming over here to help solve the problems in New Orleans," he said.

"But we can't get FEMA or our own president to respond. It's not shameful, it is just funny."

He added, "I have so given up on ever getting a politician's head to turn and face facts in that situation." Video Watch Leary's rescue mission »

After Katrina hit, FEMA estimated it would take 10 years and millions of dollars to rebuild the fire stations. In the interim, firefighters have been working and living in trailers attached to the decimated firehouses.

"It's a bit heart-wrenching," said firefighter Chuck Brokmeier.

Jerry Cremins, a member of the New York District Council of Carpenters, came down last year to pick his son up from Loyola University. He couldn't believe the devastation. "It doesn't translate that well on TV," Cremins said.

Deciding he had the skills to help, Cremins reached out to Leary's firefighters foundation. Volunteers from the union are now working shoulder to shoulder with New Orleans firefighters. Cremins said he has made nine trips to New Orleans, all on his own dime and own time.

There's no question bringing fire stations back fosters a sense of pride, but he said some of the work has just been a nightmare.

"It was astounding to me that they haven't been helped out -- that local governments and municipalities haven't held up their obligations," Cremins said. "That is basically when citizens have to step in and get the job done."

Leary said some of the stories firefighters tell are almost unbelievable. He says a firefighter once told him about a station that had about three feet of water.

"He said one of the guys from FEMA came in here and told us that they would pay for the hinge on this door below the water line, but the two hinges above the water line they weren't going to pay for," Leary said.

Edward Blakely, the czar of New Orleans recovery effort, appreciates the work from Leary's foundation and volunteers. He said the city has been focusing on rebuilding its police headquarters to combat the growing crime problem.

The police headquarters just recently reopened, now allowing the city to focus on the fire stations, Blakely said.

"We say to the citizens: 'Look, we are going to have a better city. You don't want us to put it back just the way it was. You want us to improve it,' " Blakely said. "That's what we're going to do. That takes a little more time, but it's worth it."

New Orleans is in a tough situation, according to Blakely. Under city law, he said, there has to be enough money in city coffers to pay for a project before construction starts. And because no construction firm is going to do the work before getting paid, Blakely added, funding projects has become a shell game of sorts since Katrina.

It's frustrating to firefighters, and certainly taking its toll on morale. The fire gear they all wear is light sensitive, and is supposed to be stored in a dark locker to make sure the uniforms remain as fire resistant as possible. In a trailer, that just doesn't happen, said district chief Tim McConnell.

He said there's no question the lack of rebuilding is a safety hazard.

"The time it takes you to lock up a trailer, to get from there and get on the ... [fire truck], all that delays response time just a little bit," McConnell said.

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Firefighters are also quick to note that none of them abandoned their posts during Katrina. McConnell said his firefighters may not be happy, but you won't hear them complain.

"I truly believe when people see the infrastructure being rebuilt, they will want to come back to the city," McConnell said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Eric Marrapodi contributed to this report.

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