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on May 23, 2012 on 5/23/12 from ,

NOLA: post-katrina rebuilding

We jumped right in on Monday. The following are loose descriptions (likely more details than anyone but my parents would be interested in reading J) of our first few days of site visits. Bear with me (and the next few posts!). In an effort to “give back” to the community we’re extracting so much from, we are working with the think-and-do tank called Transport for NOLA, who are aiming to create a world-class public transportation system in the city based on equity and accessibility. We are contributing to their evaluation of the current system by using the public transportation (buses and street cars) exclusively during our stay and documenting and compiling quantitative and qualitative data on the system. Try to imagine a group of 35 piling on buses and winding our way through the city…The transportation system Post-Katrina is unreliable, sporadic, inaccessible, and largely unused. After hearing about the project Monday morning, we attended a lecture by Dr. Mark Dal Corso, a professor at Tulane and an expert in public health. Then we headed to 9th ward for our first site visit related to disaster and recovery post-Katrina. But first, a question I’ve been struggling with that has finally been explained: Why did people stay and ride out the storm? Many folks were elderly and poor, and resources were scarce. It is expensive to put a family in a hotel for a few nights. If these factors didn’t deter people, the fact that the storm hit at the end of the month meant many people didn’t get their paychecks yet. The media downplayed the potential danger of the storm. And look at the history of New Orleans; locals grew up with stories of their parents and grandparents weathering hurricane Betsy and Camille. Putting myself in these families’ shoes, of which 1600 people drowned…I probably would have tried to stick out the storm as well.

After the hurricane, Habitat for Humanity with about 40,000 volunteers built the “Musicians Village” consisting of 100 homes, a playground, and the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music. The average home is a 1,000 square foot three-bedroom/one bath. As I understand, the family purchases the home for $75,000 with no “mortgage,” just a $500/mo payment for 20-30 years. These payments go straight back into the fund for building resources. The neighborhood is very uniform but each family has personalized their house with bright colors and decoration. Post-Katrina/Pre-Habitat photo attached, as well as Musician’s Village.

The Ellis Center for Music is dedicated to the education of New Orleans’ next generation of musicians and is full of state of the art equipment and instruments and a performing center. It serves to “gather the culture-bearers” of New Orleans, empower the families, and enable musicians to achieve home-ownership, which I find admirable for such a giant national organization to achieve on the local level. There are cellists, vocalists, a voodoo priestess, pianists and brass musicians, Marti Grad Indians, and actors, all forming a very interactive community of “front porch people.” The director of Habitat who gave the introductory shpeal went into great detail on Habitat’s glaring error in the reconstruction process. Habitat used Chinese drywall in every home and after families moved in they discovered that the drywall was in fact corrosive and toxic. Habitat was forced to remove families from the homes as they redid all the drywall, which cost an absurd amount of money and time. The director explained all this then led us inside the music center to hear Al “Carnival Time” Johnson—a rhythm and blues performer and Marti Gras icon—perform on the Steinway piano, a real treat for us.

Next stop was Common Ground in the lower 9th ward (where many low-income, elderly, and African American people have roots): a community-initiated volunteer organization offering assistance and support in rebuilding the community post-Katrina. The grassroots organization emphasizes people working together to rebuild their lives in sustainable ways, with legal services, a health clinic, local garden club and Wetlands Restoration program. Louisiana loses 1 city block an hour of coastal wetlands (their vital protective buffer). Coastal restoration is huge down here. The first thing we all noticed upon entering the 9th ward was the style of homes—these modern futuristic designs looked incredibly out of place and impractical. As it turns out, Brad Pitt’s “Make it Right” foundation hired 17 world-class architects post-Katrina to build economically-friendly, sustainable homes. These homes are not built to withstand Louisiana weather and stick out like sore thumbs in the greater community. The residents in these homes aren’t able to match their lifestyles with the structures, nor afford upkeep. It was poorly thought-out and became a theme of the day: large, wealthy outside organizations imposing their ideas on communities without local input. The success of Common Ground lies in their low overhead costs, low number of administrators, modest salaries, and local representation of the community’s needs and desires. The director was slightly anarchist and super anti-government, and he berated Habitat for their toxic Chinese drywall and not taking any liability after distributing the drywall to nonprofits—which bankrupted them. I also never realized the danger of gutting a home— the toxic mold, the structural danger, and the complete lack of medical care in the city for the responders post-Katrina.

Visiting Musician’s Village then Common Ground stirred up lots of thoughts and questions about the effectiveness and place of large national organizations imposing their own solutions on a local problem without community input. Certain implications are yet to be seen. Will Musician’s Village disrupt the neighborhood’s social geography or musical landscape? What are the implications of a bottom up versus top down rebuilding approach? More figuratively, what IS home? Is a shelter a home? How do we decide who gets what resources? Who decides? When? If anything, the visits challenged all our perspectives.

We left the 9th ward in search of southern barbecue, and we unearthed The Joint: the local jam and allegedly the best barbecue in the city. A feast of barbecue ribs, pulled pork, brisket, and chicken ensued, and my re-entrance into the world of red meat was decidedly delicious.