September 26, 2005 12:25 PM

A nationwide volunteer effort was launched Monday morning to build frames for new homes to replace those destroyed by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, with hammers being swung by volunteer workers in Jackson, Miss., Los Angeles, and midtown Manhattan s Rockefeller Center.

The simultaneous construction is part of “Make a Difference Today,” an unprecedented effort to help the Gulf Coast rebuild one nail at a time, and serves as the kick-off project for a long-term rebuilding effort, dubbed “Operation Home Delivery,” the non-profit Habitat for Humanity said in a statement.

As workers hammered away in the Manhattan plaza, Josh Groban serenaded them with an old Charlie Chaplin song, “Smile.” Addressing the hurricane victims, Groban sang, “You’ll find that life is still worth while/If you just smile.”

Other performers are also expected to entertain volunteers at the sites throughout the week.

The program is a joint effort between Habitat, NBC s Today show and Warner Music Group. The latter two have studios and offices in Rockefeller Center, which for the week is being renamed “Humanity Plaza.”

The first phase of the program – “houses in a box” – allows volunteers to build the frames of homes, then disassemble the panelized walls, which will be placed in containers to be shipped to the Gulf Coast. There, when infrastructure allows, the walls will be unpacked to form the skeleton of a home for some of the displaced, low-income families.

Chris Clarke, Habitat’s senior vice president of communications, said in a news release that Lowe’s, a national partner of Habitat and underwriter of its Women Build program, is donating all the lumber, and Penske has also agreed to transport the containers from New York to the coast free of charge.

Habitat has said that it will build as many homes as it can fund. Since 1976, the group has built more than 200,000 houses in nearly 100 countries.

Besides the Humanity Plaza site in New York, which is already up and running and set to continue 24 hours around the clock until 7 p.m. Friday, the other construction sites welcoming volunteers can be found in the parking lot of Jackson s Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum, 1150 Lakeland Dr. (check for hours), and in L.A. on a lot at 3000 W. Alameda Avenue, near the intersection of Olive, and across the street from KNBC.

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