Stunned silence doesn't play especially well on reality TV, but then reality TV hasn't encountered anything quite like New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Archille "Chile" O'Neal, a blues musician from storm-struck St. Bernard's Parish who lost all of his instruments, was moved beyond words when Extreme Makeover: Home Edition's Paul DiMeo the carpenter with the Buddy Holly eyewear surprised him with a pickup truck full of gleaming Gibson and Hohner guitars. As he clicked open case after case, O'Neal just shook his head in glorious disbelief.
"You realize these are for you, Chile?" a producer asked off camera. "All these are yours to keep."
DiMeo slung his arm around O'Neal's shoulder and smiled warmly, as the producer asked them to redo the moment. On Take 2, they got exactly the Extreme reaction ABC needed: hoots, hollers and an unholy scream of "Oh, my god!"
As its popularity continues to rage, Home Edition, nearing the end of Season 3, has expanded its original strategy from helping individuals and families to rescuing community groups and now, entire regions. After digging out storm victims in Florida and Mississippi, the team takes on its toughest challenge yet bringing music and light back to the Big Easy, in Extreme Makeover: Home Edition After the Storm, New Orleans (airing tonight at 8 pm/ET on ABC).
"If you lose the sounds coming out of New Orleans, you lose part of the American language," says Ty Pennington, the show's dream-maker-in-chief, who personally delivered new instruments in the city's hardest-hit areas. "I realize we're just a TV show, but we feel we have a real obligation to let these people know we haven't forgotten about them, that we'll do whatever we can to make things right."
Pennington hopped on a plane to the region shortly after last summer's disaster, and producers later made multiple visits to scout the best uses for Home Edition's abundant resources.
"We literally walked through the streets and into the rubble, asking, 'What can we do, great or small, that would have an impact on the largest number of people?' " says Janelle Fiorito, a coexecutive producer.
It turned out it was more than the standard plasma-screen-and-BBQ-grill treatment. DiMeo helped reunite families with pets that had been sent to foster homes and shelters nationwide. Landscaper Eduardo Xol banded together with volunteers to build a playground for St. Bernard Parish's 600 children. And builder Paige Hemmis helped track down irreplaceable family photos, which she then had restored for hundreds of families who had assumed they were gone forever. "One mother told us the photo we restored was the only thing they had left from their daughter's childhood," Fiorito said.
Flashy designer Michael Moloney really got into the spirit. He commandeered a team of 2,000 volunteers to make over the 118-year-old First Emanuel Baptist Church, which serves a congregation of more than 1,000 and provided shelter and day-care facilities to those riding out the storm. The renovation included a fully equipped nursery for newborns, an indoor gym with a miniature Cadillac Escalade for the kids, and a lavish kitchen with a contract for a 120-year supply of food. "We brought the gospel choir together and seeing their reaction just tore me apart," Moloney said, standing in front of Emanuel's shined-up bell. "The second they started singing 'Amazing Grace,' I just broke down crying."
Viewers at home will likely be right there with him. One of the featured musicians, Irvin Mayfield, a young jazz trumpeter and keyboardist, lost his father, also a jazz musician, in the floodwaters. Pennington and DiMeo met him in the French Quarter's Jackson Square to give him new instruments and invite him to a concert that will be part of the show. "Just knowing I can make music again keeps life going," Mayfield said, clearly moved. "You can't replace all we've lost but what these guys have done is to say, 'Let's help you get a fresh start.'"
Next week the show wraps its four-episode relief effort with a trip to Texas, which was hammered by Hurricane Rita. The crew converged on Sabine Pass (population 600), a town literally wiped off the map. Their primary task was to restore the ravaged community firehouse, complete with a gift of a state-of-the-art $300,000 fire truck. They also entertained the town with a surprise concert by the Goo Goo Dolls (they sang their hit song "Better Days").
"It's a small effort when so many people are still living in FEMA trailers and lack basic human necessities," said DiMeo, summing up the team's overall reaction to the massive devastation they encountered. "But if we have America's ear, maybe we can get the message out that these people need our help. In that way, maybe these shows can be a starting point."