New Orleans, Recovering

In her visit last fall to New Orleans with the Loeb Fellowship Fall Study Tour, Camilla Ween (LF ‘08) reflected on the devastation that followed Hurricane Katrina, in light of what she saw of the city’s recovery.

On August 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast of Louisiana. It had been anticipated for several days, and the city was partially evacuated. The levees that protect the city from flooding from the Mississippi river were a concern, but the flooding came north. The storm surge drove water up behind the city, raising the water level behind the northern levees. They failed catastrophically, releasing a 10-foot wall of water into the Lower Ninth Ward, which suffered the most damage and loss of life of any neighborhood. Houses were ripped off their foundations and carried away. The devastation was cataclysmic. Not all the city was flooded, but much was affected, because when the power went out the sewage pumping system failed and sewers overflowed, inundating many further areas of the city.

Thousands of homes were severely damaged or destroyed and thousands more stood in putrid water for months, requiring total refurbishment. Six hundred thousand families were homeless a month after the storm in the wider area affected. There were 1836 recorded deaths; 1000 were in the Lower Ninth Ward. The failure to maintain the levies has been blamed on lack of investment and political apathy. The total damage is estimated to be around $1 trillion. Ten years on, about a third of the population has not returned and many properties remain abandoned; nature is gradually reclaiming many of them.

Last October, the Loeb Fellowship travelled to New Orleans for its Annual Fall Study Tour to learn how the area has been recovering from Katrina. The trip had the highest attendance ever - about twice as many Loeb Fellows and affiliates as usual. The 3-day program was organized by a committee of Loeb Fellows that hail from New Orleans and included an extensive agenda of talks and visits to regeneration and community projects.

Though Katrina was the immediate cause of the flooding, the fundamental problem lies in 85 years of destruction of the Mississippi Delta wetlands. Since 1932 Louisiana has lost 25 percent of its wetlands–a million acres. This destruction has been caused mainly by the oil and gas industry carving shipping channels for access into the wetlands. Over the last century this industry has been granted licences to explore, on condition that they would repair any environmental damage, however this was never enforced. Once a channel exists, even a small storm surge will drive water inland and widen the channels and also introduce salt levels that poison many of the natural wetland plants. As a result, an area the size of a soccer field is being lost from the Delta every hour. (At this rate Manhatten would disappear within 18 months!) Furthermore, the Delta is also being starved of replenishing sediment, as dams on the tributaries to the Mississippi now stop the sediment washing down. Since the 1920s, over 50,000 wells have been sunk, which are causing the land to sink. The sea level is rising faster than anywhere else in the world. New Orleans is as vulnerable as ever. An intrepid local citizen, John M. Barry, has taken out the most ambitious environmental lawsuit ever, against 97 oil and gas companies.

However, despite this, the current population is determined to restore and rebuild their city and preserve its unique culture. Why New Orleans Matters, by Tom Piazza, written within months of Katrina, is a passionate essay on why New Orleans should be saved. After the flood, there was much chaos; FEMA emergency monies were misappropriated and compensation for loss was a classic case of discrimination: whites got some, blacks got less and Native Americans got nothing. In the end there was little money to rebuild the city and by necessity, most of the efforts have been bottom up.

In the immediate aftermath there was much soul searching by some of the key institutions in the city. Tulane University, historically an exclusive ivory tower, was in crisis. Its students had all been evacuated, so it had a real academic challenge, but most importantly, it realized that it was utterly detached from the local community and that its lack of integration with the city at large was untenable. It resolved to urgently and positively address this schism and to become part of the rebuilding solution. In December, 2005, it published a radical strategy, creating a new curriculum that introduced a public service requirement:

Tulane University and its faculty and students will play an important role in the rebuilding of the city of New Orleans … Tulane will encourage its students to develop a commitment to community outreach and public service through the creation of a Center for Public Service that will centralize and expand public service opportunities for Tulane students.

Community engagement and outreach were now a core activity for faculty and undergraduate students.

Tulane also resolved to partner with the other academic institutions in the area, share resources and develop collaborations and joint academic ventures. It entered into a unique partnership with Dillard and Xavier universities, the two “Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” and Loyola University. It provided classroom and administrative space for Dillard and Xavier in spring 2006, while the heavily damaged campuses were being repaired. This was the beginning of a longer-term partnership that would offer:

a model of academic collaboration aimed at strengthening the institutions individually and collectively, accelerate Tulane’s ongoing diversity efforts and provide a model for others interested in closing the racial divide. The partnership will also eventually develop two new national institutes: the Institute for the Study of Race and Poverty and the Institute for the Transformation of Pre-K–12 Education.

Tulane School of Architecture has set up the Tulane City Center, whose mission is to educate, advocate and provide design services to the New Orleans neighbourhoods. Since 2012 TCC has had its home outside the university campus and works with local community groups to help them realize their ideas, offering planning services, architectural and graphic design, design-build services, funding strategies and community capacity building. The Center’s first director is none other than Maurice Cox (LF ’02) who has also been the associate dean for community engagement. Although TCC has a small staff, Tulane students provide much of the grit and design to get projects from idea to reality.

Since its founding, TCC has helped to shape and deliver a wide range of small but ambitious projects–over 40 have now been delivered, and most come directly from the community. The portfolio of what has been achieved is inspiring. Most projects reflect the aspirations of a local community that wanted to recover, rebuild and reconnect to the city and each other. Many of the initiatives are about placemaking, creating purposeful and attractive open space where people can come together, restoring culturally significant parks and creating play space.

A significant need in the immediate aftermath of the storm was access to fresh and healthy food, and a number of urban farms and community gardens have been created. Also urgent was the rebuilding of schools, and in 2006 CITYbuild Consortium, with the help of TCC, launched plans for 10 schools. Culture is central to New Orleans, so places like the Guardians Institute museum and multipurpose performance space and the Candlelight Lounge, the only bar in Treme to host live music, are important. Wellbeing is clearly an issue for a population so traumatized, and the Pyramid Wellness Center was established to support people with homelessness, substance abuse and mental health issues.

Inevitably there has been a focus on housing, with pilot projects and prototypes for self build and affordable housing. There is also an emphasis on commercial property, restoring historic buildings and street fronts and a transport project to improve transit connectivity and interchange. The TCC projects are mostly small and medium sized, but they each bring valuable assets as well as learning and confidence to the local communities, and they unite them around common goals.

A project that stands out for its enlightened approach is Grow Dat Youth Farm, conceived to bring about personal, social and environmental change within the local communities. Tulane City Center partnered with the New Orleans Food and Farm Network and City Park to create a youth training scheme centered on urban agriculture. The 7-acre site has a beautiful classroom facility built from steel containers, with a covered outdoor classroom for lessons, as well as extensive cultivation areas. Young people are invited to apply for the program, and if accepted, they are expected to treat the appointment as a job, show up on time and engage fully with the activities. The young trainees are taught urban agriculture, food economics and cookery. The program fosters leadership, team working and environmental stewardship among diverse youth, through the collaborative work of growing food. It is a truly inspiring project that gives young people an opportunity to work in a beautiful setting and get valuable skills training.

Tulane's pivotal role in New Orleans’ recovery is an exemplary illustration of how academic institutions can bring together the aspirations of local people, the energy of students and the professional know-how of faculty to make things happen. This is a model that could be exploited in any regeneration area. It stands in complete contrast to Brad Pitt’s very well intentioned Make It Right Foundation, which has explored sustainable housing, and using famous architects such as Frank Gehry and David Adjaye, built a few prototypes in the Lower Ninth Ward. Nice as the houses may be, they have done little to address the urgent needs of the poor and disadvantaged in New Orleans and most likely will not be occupied by them in the long term.

The Tulane initiative is acting as a broker and genuine partner to make regeneration projects reality and provide professional advice and encouragement to local communities that have never had to assemble the collective energy or skills to manage complex projects. It has done much to foster healing in communities suffering devastation as well as social exclusion.

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