Karen Schloss Heimberg will never win a contest for the best manicured nails. Five of her nails turned black this summer and at least one will fall off for sure.

Strangely enough, it’s her nails that are winning over the hearts and minds of her friends and peers.

For their 50th birthdays this year, Heimberg, a Montecito resident, and friend Nancy Barasch flew to New Orleans to help out the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

“It was a way to give back instead of just traveling and going somewhere for me,” Heimberg says.

The two women joined a Minneapolis-based group called Nechama (means “comfort” in Hebrew), a Jewish group that has been helping clean up after natural disasters since 1993. During the hurricane recovery, Nechama teamed up with Operation Blessing, an international non-profit disaster relief organization.

The women, who were in New Orleans for a nine-day period in July, spent their time laboring on ruined houses in the combination of heat and mugginess. They began their days with other volunteers, removing belongings from affected homes.

“You are taking all of the personal belongings outside the house and that is really hard and very emotional,” says Heimberg, recalling the day another volunteer broke down and refused to go in the house again.

“I said ‘don’t talk to me about it, I’m just going to go in there and do it,’” Heimberg says. “I just couldn’t personalize it.”

After taking out all material possessions, the volunteers removed all nails and drywall.

“Some of the drywall falls off in big pieces and some of it is powdered dust that just falls and it’s all moldy,” Heimberg says.

All of the homes had bathtub rings ranging from four to six feet high on the walls as well as a rainbow of green, black and rust-colored mold growing.

Lunch was a serving of military rations, the same food that is served to troops in wartime.

After the house was spray-washed with Simple Green, mopped clean of water and sprayed again with bleach, the owner could finally receive a certificate stating that their house had been cleaned. The certificate is needed for the home owner to move forward with either renovating or selling.

Heimberg recalls that the gratitude from the people of New Orleans was almost overwhelming. “Nancy was very apt to tell everybody that we were there to work and at first that made me uncomfortable,” Heimberg says. “But I realized that they needed the opportunity to talk; they would come out with these horrific stories of trying to save dogs and people and themselves and there were lots of tears. It seemed to be very cathartic.”

One restaurant was so grateful to the women that managers bestowed them with free champagne, dessert and an introduction to half of the wait staff. “Their spirits were fabulous,” Barasch says. “That’s what gives you hope that the city can come back.”

Heimberg adds: “The one time I didn’t tell somebody that we were there to work, I realized later on that I had missed an opportunity for him to get some of his story out.”

Although their efforts helped out some residents, the volunteers realized quickly that there’s still a lot of work to be done in New Orleans. Just getting to the hotel was a challenge. Most street signs were down and one-way street signs often pointed the wrong way. “We drove for miles and miles of devastation,” Heimberg says. “I kept saying, ‘Can’t they clean up the trash?’ and then I realized they clean up the trash and another pile appears – it’s a never-ending battle.”

After driving past FEMA trailers, whole blocks of closed stores and streets, the women were just barely able to find the hotel.

“I was very disappointed at how terrible things still were, being that it was ten months later and it still looked like a Third World country,” says Barasch, adding that home owners who were spared from damage felt a sense of guilt when they looked at their neighbors’ wrecked property.

Looking for the houses they needed to work on was another trial in itself. Even the concierge at the hotel couldn’t give correct directions. “The hotels are not operating at their full capacity; they don’t have all the workers they need,” Heimberg says. “Everything was running at three-fourths capacity.”

Heimberg describes coming back home where everything is in working order is like being in another world. And in a way it is. “I think the Katrina victims feel forgotten because what do we see when we open our newspapers?” Heimberg asks. “Do we see an article about New Orleans every day? No, people forget and our lives go on and we are not troubled by it.”

Both women are adamant about encouraging visitors to travel to New Orleans.

“Whether you go there as a tourist or you go to help, it’s really not uncomfortable to be there; it shows them support,” Heimberg explains.

Heimberg is preparing to return to New Orleans this fall, when it’s cooler. She already has five people interested in going.

“People were asking what I did to my nails and when I told them they said, ‘Oh my God, I want to go!’” she says.

It seems those fingernails came in handy after all.