What Did Katrina Do to New Orleans?

Blogger: Mark Meaders, Sustainable Design Project Manager | Dallas, TX, USA
March 20, 2013

I was inspired to write this blog post on a retweet by HDR of the New Republic article titled “If You Rebuild It, They Might Not Come.” It was a very good article talking about Brad Pitt’s work to rebuild houses in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. But first, here is a little personal background on Katrina and New Orleans and my experience in the city.

As I was reading this story this weekend, I remembered that in February 2006, I was in New Orleans with a group from my church. We were gutting houses that were flooded and damaged in the city. Gutting a house means taking EVERYTHING out of the inside of the house down to the studs. This means removing drywall, insulation, carpet, ceiling, ceiling fans, bathroom tile – everything.

The homes we worked on were single story homes, and the flood water went up to the level of the attic in many instances. Therefore, we had to remove the water damaged (and molded) materials inside. I think I have seen every color of mold there is (orange, green, black, brown, white, and possibly a couple other colors). After we finished gutting the house, we sprayed the studs and walls with an anti-microbial agent to kill any remaining mold. The intent would be the homeowner would then be able to rebuild again. Here, you can see the water levels on the front of the house.

While we didn’t gut any houses in the Ninth Ward, we did drive through there. I was completely amazed by what I saw. It looked like a bomb had gone off. Many homes were already bulldozed and hauled away. Others were still there – but not on their foundation. We couldn’t pass through some streets because houses were in the streets. Cars were still on the side of the road. And there was no one there except people like us cleaning out houses. It was surreal.

Back to the New Republic article, one of the features this article touches upon is the tenets of proper urban design: dense development with mixed-income units, commercial development with shopping options for the community and walkable neighborhoods. These components help make a neighborhood vibrant.

This is not being done in the Ninth Ward. They are developing it in a similar fashion before the storm—single family homes setup in a suburban setting. The problem with this approach is that businesses have not come back into the area. People have to drive 15 minutes to go to the grocery store. It has been expensive for the city to replace infrastructure throughout the area, even though much of the area is still not developed. While the work of organizations like Brad Pitt’s have done a lot of good for families in New Orleans, proper planning would have made those organizations’ efforts go even farther and help set up the area to truly grow and become a neighborhood again.

My closing thought is to explain my favorite picture—the group standing in front of one of the houses we just completed with the homeowner.

Philip, the 82-year-old homeowner (in the light blue shirt and khaki pants in the back row), worked alongside us the whole time. He had so much energy and he had been through so much. He and his wife lost almost everything, but he had a very positive outlook. He was inspirational. Right before or after this photo as we were gathered, he started to cry. He was at a loss of words, but it was clear our efforts meant a great deal to him. He thanked every one of us, and I immediately said thank you back to him. I got more out of working on his house than he did, and that’s why I thanked him.

Images courtesy of Mark Meaders