By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Every time he crosses the Claiborne Avenue bridge heading east across the New Orleans Industrial Canal, actor Brad Pitt gets a lump in his throat.
From that vantage point, he can look down on a section of the city's Lower Ninth Ward that is ground zero for "Make It Right," a home rebuilding initiative Pitt launched to help people whose homes were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which killed 1,500 people and devastated the historic Southern city.
"Each time I come back to New Orleans and drive over that bridge, I get this swell of joy," Pitt told Reuters, his eyes going watery. "It's means a lot to me to watch that neighborhood take shape."
Pitt and his movie star partner, Angelina Jolie, own a house in the city's French Quarter, and they visit the city regularly with their six children.
The actor shares his feelings about the city and its recovery with a few thousand people on Saturday evening, as he and comedian Ellen DeGeneres, a New Orleans native, host the Make It Right Foundation's biggest fundraiser at a New Orleans hotel.
Billed as "A Night to Make It Right," the star-studded, sold-out gala is expected to draw 1,200 guests who paid between $1,000 and $2,500 to attend a dinner prepared by New Orleans celebrity chefs John Besh and Emeril Lagasse, and a concert featuring musical stars Rihanna, Sheryl Crow, Seal and Dr. John.
The lineup includes Hollywood luminaries and honorary hosts Sean Penn, Spike Lee, Josh Brolin and Kevin Spacey.
In addition, some 2,000 people have anted up $150 for an "after party" hosted by actor-comedian Aziz Ansari, with musical performances by Kanye West, Snoop Dogg and the Soul Rebels.
Asked if it was difficult to get the big names to journey to New Orleans for the event, Pitt joked, "Even though these people don't like me that much, it really was simple."
Noting that the celebrities traveled from as far away as Paris for the event, Pitt said the turnout was a mark of their regard for New Orleans.
"They carved this time out of their schedule strictly for this event, and came on their own dime," he said. "We have so much incredible talent that wanted to come and support the city - it's going to be like a mini-Grammys show."
Pitt estimated the events and sponsorships would raise $4 million for Make it Right, which aims to build 150 homes in the Lower Ninth Ward and has pulled in about $30 million since its founding four years ago.
NEW AND IMPROVED
Since 2007, 75 homes have sprouted in a 16-block area that was at the epicenter of the Hurricane Katrina tragedy. Built to the specifications of architects selected through an international design competition held by Make It Right, all of the homes stand 5 to 8 feet off the ground, on pilings designed to keep the homes dry in the event of another flood.
Multi-angled steel roofs, windows of ultra-strong glass and tough siding materials are designed to withstand hurricane-force winds. Solar panels, rainwater collection systems and maximum air-circulation designs created homes with low utility bills.
The new houses are a sharp contrast to the modest, mostly one-story homes that characterized the neighborhood before Katrina. Many of them stand just yards (meters) away from the spot where an Industrial Canal floodwall ruptured after the storm, putting the neighborhood under several feet of water.
Gloria Mae Guy still talks about how she and her neighbor climbed to a rooftop as the rising water forced them from their homes. "We held on all night until a boat came and they helped us get out," she said.
Guy, 72, is back in the spot where she and her husband raised their five children, but now she lives in a modern, energy-efficient, two-story home, designed and built by Make It Right contractors. "I'm happy to be home, and I wouldn't be here if it weren't for Brad Pitt," she said.
Tom Darden, executive director of the Make It Right Foundation, said Pitt made the goal of rebuilding according to standards of sustainable construction clear from the beginning, but equally important was finding ways to reduce construction costs.
"Brad said, 'We're going to build the best house we possibly can build and figure out how to make it affordable,'" Darden said.
It was a tall order, but through several years of studying sustainable building techniques and amassing contractors familiar with the methods, the foundation is gradually bringing its costs down, Darden said.
Darden emphasized that while Make It Right was formed to help low-income residents remain in the neighborhood where generations of their families have lived, the initiative was not about handouts.
Applicants for the Make It Right homes must pass an approvals process that requires showing proof of income and the ability to make payments on a mortgage, along with insurance and maintenance costs.
Another goal is to apply the techniques learned in New Orleans to other areas in need, Darden said, noting that Make It Right had recently begun projects in Newark, New Jersey, and Kansas City, Missouri.
"Brad is our visionary," he said. "I think for him it's largely a social justice issue and he wants to help as many people as he can."
(Editing by Greg McCune and Peter Cooney)