So Much Yet to Do in New Orleans and Other Natural Disaster Sites

Recently I took a trip to New Orleans, a city I love dearly and have visited many times in recent years. This trip was a little different than the others; I was with a group of friends who had never been to the city before, and they wanted to take in a bus tour of the city. The reason I wanted to tag along was the bus would be driving through the Upper and Lower Ninth Ward. These were some of the hardest-hit areas of Hurricane Katrina, a natural disaster that occurred almost eight years ago.

As the final winds of Katrina blew in 2005, I was the president of the local American Institute of Architects chapter with some connections in Washington, D.C., at the national AIA office. Just hours after the storm, I was asked by my connections to work on behalf of the AIA in conjunction with FEMA on relief efforts. I couldn’t say yes fast enough, but as I made my arrangements to be away from work and started to plan my trip to New Orleans, something happened: bureaucracy. FEMA couldn’t decide what they needed—or when—and, after several weeks of delays, I was told the effort I was a part of was scrapped or absorbed into other efforts and my services were no longer needed. I always felt guilty that I didn’t get to do my part as a design professional to help with relief or reconstruction in New Orleans.

The tour bus had finished its rounds in the iconic French Quarter and Garden District and crested an overpass heading into the Ninth Ward. I thought surely eight years of time had healed a lot of wounds there. However, what I saw literally made me sick to my stomach. There are only two words I can think of that can describe what the Ninth Ward looks like today: utter devastation.

Everywhere you look there still are abandoned and collapsing homes—the vast majority of which are still emblazoned with spray-painted body-search markers on their front doors, an image that will haunt me for a long time to come. Entire blocks of streets were surrounded by vacant land as if a developer had just put in the infrastructure and was waiting for the home buyers to show up. Many of the remaining homes certainly have not been touched by anyone since the day of the storm; it was not uncommon to see trees growing out of roofs and structures that were half collapsed still waiting for their final date with a demolition crew.

By all accounts, less than 30 percent of the residents of the Ninth Ward have even attempted to return to their homes. Being displaced by the storm and having almost no resources to rebuild, many of them decided the grass was greener elsewhere. It’s sad that many of these people whose homes were paid for and handed down through generations were unable to return.

I sat back on the bus and tried to wrap my head around what I had witnessed. It was mental overload. The first thought that came to my head was, “Good lord, they didn’t need me eight years ago? They need me now.”

However, not everything is despair and there are beacons of hope. The most remarkable is the work of the Make it Right Foundation, a non-profit famously led by Brad Pitt, and Habitat for Humanity’s Musicians’ Village project, which is supported by Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis. The Make it Right Foundation has committed to rebuilding 150 homes in the ward to some of the most stringent energy-efficiency and green-building standards developed to date. The organization has brought in countless design professionals and created unique, sustainable housing while working hard to keep the cost of the homes to $150,000, an effort criticized by naysayers as too expensive and pompous for the traditionally poor African Americans that make up a large portion of the residents in the area.

Where have all of these naysayers been for the last eight years and why haven’t they been putting their efforts into solutions rather than criticizing the groups that are trying to make headway? The sad reality is disaster relief doesn’t stop when the TV commercials and the American Red Cross stop asking for donations. Katrina; the tornado that destroyed Joplin, Mo.; Superstorm Sandy; and many other natural disaster events, are forgotten by our sensationalized mainstream media and their short attention spans. Old disasters have a way of falling out of our collective conscious. Rebuilding a community after a natural disaster takes time and a concentrated effort. But most of all it takes action, not just criticism of details.

I encourage you to look at the ongoing relief and rebuilding efforts of past natural disaster events and make a commitment to volunteer your own skills and services. I know I will.

About the Author

Nathan M. Gillette
Nathan M. Gillette, AIA, LEED AP O+M, CEM, is director of Natura Architectural Consulting, Grand Rapids, Mich., and a retrofit editorial advisor. He works with clients to successfully implement and manage energy efficiency and sustainability projects.

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