Published on Sustainable Cities

Building Back the Big Easy: Lessons from New Orleans’ Recovery from Hurricane Katrina

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Housing being built in New Orleans neighborhood.

For the East Asia & Pacific Transport, Urban & Disaster Risk Management team of the World Bank, a recent study trip to New Orleans was an eye-opener about how even the richest society in the world can face challenges that are strikingly similar to those of our client countries. In a city that is famous for the excesses of the French Quarter, the opulence of the Garden District and (since that fateful August in 2005) the desolation of the Lower 9th Ward, we saw how the impacts of a disaster are made all the worse when prosperity is not shared.

Two years after Katrina, I made my first trip to New Orleans to study the reconstruction process. The Lower 9th still had mountains of debris from flattened houses on most blocks. Where houses still stood throughout the city, FEMA’s iconic Urban Search & Rescue ‘x-codes’ remained as eerie signposts on the road to recovery.

Eight years down that long road, I returned, and there were a multitude of lessons for our work in the region of the world that is most affected by disasters. We learned about the New Orleans Office of Homeland Security’s post-Katrina evacuation plan, how a city’s preparedness needs to be planned with almost military precision (and reevaluated after every disaster), and that peoples’ trust in their government is essential to the success of emergency response.

The Faubourg Lafitte redevelopment showed how what was once a derelict public housing project is now a neighborhood, built through collaboration among private sector, non-profit and public entities. Despite the enormous challenges in working together, the implementers are on track to providing affordable one-for-one replacements (with detached, single-family homes) for the demolished units, with first priority offered to Lafitte housing development’s former residents.

A visit to Habitat for Humanity’s Musicians’ Village (homes built to encourage the city’s musicians to return) in the Upper 9th Ward highlighted that housing is not just about putting a roof over people's heads. It is also about restoring the social and cultural fabric of communities. However, it also raised questions about how to rebuild in areas that are known to be hazardous. The Musicians’ Village set a good example of how flood-resilient new building designs have been adopted in some reconstruction programs. However, these higher standards have yet to be adopted citywide.

Rebuilt Homes, New OrleansJust across the Industrial Canal in the Lower 9th, there was no more of the debris that I saw in 2007. Instead there were rebuilt homes, complete with solar panels and modern interpretations of New Orleans architecture. These houses stare up at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ brand new floodwalls, as if daring the waters to come through.

Should they have ever been there? These are difficult questions, with difficult answers. Since the historically poorest areas of the city are also the most exposed to hazards, choosing not to rebuild them has profound social justice impacts.

The Corps of Engineers’ Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System consists of a 133-mile perimeter system around Greater New Orleans, as well as 70 miles of interior levees and floodwalls. In an attempt to balance structural and non-structural measures, the Corps also has plans for marsh restoration work, in addition to the largest storm surge barrier of its kind and the largest drainage pump system in the world. Despite these technical feats, however, there will always be communities outside the walls.

When we think of strong, safe, resilient cities, we think of places that accept a certain level of risk – but that invest in disaster prevention, mitigation and preparedness. We think of actions that are prioritized in the face of resource constraints, and tradeoffs that have to be made. We think of cities that place disaster risk management at the core of poverty alleviation and sustainable development. In New Orleans, we think about the people who are rooted to the city, and who shared their own stories of resilience with us.

Harmony Street Wharf, New OrleansThe Port of New Orleans’ Chief Operating Officer put it best when he said “It’s been a few years since I’ve talked about Hurricane Katrina. A new disaster management plan is in place, but we’ve also invested over $400 million in new wharves, terminals, and transportation infrastructure since then.”

The City may not have fully recovered from this historic disaster yet, but it is looking forward. I hope that if I ever have the chance to return, Katrina will be a lesson and a turning point, but no longer the people of New Orleans’ defining story.

Photo credits: Artessa Saldivar-Sali.



Artessa Saldivar-Sali

Senior Infrastructure Specialist, World Bank

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