Aug 31, 2015
THEME: Point of View, Sustainability

Reflecting Forward in New Orleans

Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina buckled a city that I once called home. As the storm hurtled through the Gulf on its way inland, it found and exploited the city’s weakest points. We all felt anguish for this place of exquisite beauty and history and worried for those who lived there as it was broadcast in real-time. Globally we tuned in to understand what happened across the region, and what could be done both immediately and in the longer term.

Images like this dominated the news cycle in the days and months after Katrina. Image courtey of the NOAA Photo Library on Flickr.

Images like this dominated the news cycle in the days and months after Katrina. Image courtesy of the NOAA Photo Library on Flickr.

For those unfamiliar with the city and its surrounds, recovery may have seemed an impossible task, but for those of us who lived New Orleans, we knew better. We’d seen the challenges of living below water level first hand. We’d watched cars float down St. Charles Avenue in a heavy rain. We’d studied hundred-year old houses that were raised to allow water underneath and air all around. We’d walked sidewalks buckled with the movement of mud and time. We’d experienced life on the water in the Rigolets where cars parked at the front of a house and boats parked at the back. We used words like ‘Neutral Ground’ as naturally as we smiled at one another and asked about joyful things. We knew a culture that, while fraught with inequities in many ways, was filled with an innate goodness of spirit and willfulness to not only survive, but to thrive. We knew better.

In the years since the storm, the people of New Orleans tackled the challenge of a post-Katrina landscape with a fervor indicative of this spirit. Through leaders like Jeff Hebert (the city’s Chief Resilience Officer and a central figure in the development of the first 100 Resilient Cities Climate Adaptation Plan) and David Waggonner (who sought global best practices in living with water and in doing so created the Dutch Dialogues), the city began to right itself. Support poured in from those who were of the community or simply wanted to help. Teams organized to try to harness these valuable contributions to best serve the residents and the future of NOLA. This city already had muscle and calluses from centuries of trying to make a swamp into a livable community. It was ready to rebuild. But it also was ready to think differently, recognizing that simply repeating past tactics could not and would not serve future generations.

The impact on New Orleans and resulting recovery effort set in motion a series of activities that today are part of a global movement called resiliency. From the extraordinary program of the Rockefeller Foundation in catalyzing integrated strategies in 100 cities around the world, to the work with the World Bank Resilient Cities Program, the world now places planning for storms like Katrina in the foreground of environmental, social and economic issues. New Orleans and its people’s experiences made this possible.

Early images of rooftop rescues and house markings to identify search party findings have been replaced by images of rebuilt homes, reopened schools and new places to ‘make groceries.’ Former residents have begun to refurbish houses and open new businesses while newcomers continue to pour into the city. While New Orleans still struggles with social inequities and challenges to environmental justice, political leadership has shifted with Mayor Landrieu’s focus on a more comprehensive approach to urban recovery, an approach that begins by acknowledging some of these innate problems.

We can also look back further to 1992, when the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted, signaling a turn in how countries grapple with the causes and effects of a changing planet. By the time Katrina hit, work was already underway with disaster recovery efforts in many cities around the world. But for me, as a person who left part of her soul with this city, Katrina brought the issues forward in a very different way. The storm made this issue mine as well.

In the years since, I’ve increasingly focused on ways to contribute to this global challenge, whether training for disaster risk and recovery certifications, working with jurisdictions on the HUD National Disaster Recovery Competition or helping clients to build Climate Adaptation Plans, I’ve rebalanced my attention toward preparation for the new realities that virtually all climate scientists project. I’ve joined a global dialogue as the work required to design for this new future is enormous.

The upcoming COP21 in Paris, an event supported by the United Nations Environment Programme, and early climate adaptation funding requests from around the world demonstrate the need for continued attention to these realities. Recognizing these challenges, Perkins+Will formed a global resiliency task force to bring greater awareness to our clients and the communities in which we work to prepare for a very different future. Our team members have already begun transformations with many of our clients. Robin Guenther’s work with the Obama Administration’s Health and Human Services Resiliency Framework and Doug Pierce’s development of a resiliency action list, RELi, are representative of the complexity and scale of what must be done and how we’re doing it.

In the year following Katrina, leadership from across Perkins+Will went to the city to volunteer, offer what help we could and learn from local leaders how we might do more. I recall Lolis Elie, a New Orleans author and advocate, as he stood before our group and encouraged us to certainly do what we could to help NOLA on our visit, but, more importantly, go back to our homes and make a difference there. He asked us to find out what our communities really need and to help in any way that we can.

As we approach the 300th anniversary of New Orleans’ founding and pass the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we recognize the city’s fortitude in overcoming a multitude of odds, of keeping a place and a culture that is uniquely its own while creating positive change. In tackling the massive work required for the future, the city (as is its nature) has opened its doors to others to come and help, but also to learn. This entrancing city has garnered our attention and required us to reflect forward to our own communities in order to understand what can be done. And that’s what we’re doing.

This post authored by Janice Barnes. 

Leave a Comment