‘I’ve got no time for talkin’, I’ve got to keep on walkin’, sang Fats Domino in 1960. ‘New Orleans is my home. That’s the reason why I’m goin’. Yes, I’m walkin’ to New Orleans…’. More than half a century on, despite some disastrous setbacks, the Big Easy continues to make hundreds of thousands proud to call it home. I get a glimpse into what makes it so resilient.
In August 2005 Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans: a disaster that killed more than 1,500, left numerous others unaccounted for, and inflicted devastation across large swathes of the city. To add insult to injury, Hurricane Rita rolled through the following month, delaying recovery efforts and re-flooding several neighbourhoods. Add to that the fact that the city sits in a vulnerable delta (much of it below sea level); the fact that it’s lost sizeable areas of critically important wetlands to oil, gas and petrochemical development; the fact that it houses many poor and vulnerable communities… and you might be forgiven for questioning its appeal.
And yet, with risk comes opportunity. New Orleans is a city port of regional and national economic significance, and now a flagship of the Rockefeller Foundation’s ‘100 Resilient Cities’ initiative. It boasts thriving multicultural traditions, and, of course, the unsinkable spirit of jazz.
My week in the Big Easy revealed to me a city of two tales, but here I’ll focus on the positive one. Inspired by this photo collection via TED and the ‘Photo Stories of Resilience’ feature in this magazine, what follows is my album of Big Easy resilience. Resilience, as my previous post explains, is a multi-dimensional concept. But here are a few of the dimensions I witnessed, chiefly during my tour of the Lower Ninth Ward (which included, fittingly, a slow drive past Fats Domino’s now-abandoned home).
1) An exhibition in the Louisiana State Museum displays tales of caution and despair, compassion and hope; reinforcing public awareness and collective memory.
a) a reminder of the twin threats of riverine flooding and storm surges
b) a tribute to ‘ordinary heroes’
c) a reminder of past follies: ‘the effects of diminishing wetlands… excessive faith in hurricane-protection levees’
d) powerful public statements
e) the spirit of resilience sewn into Mardi Gras costumes made from the ubiquitous blue tarpaulin used in the post-Katrina rescue and recovery
f) a children’s art competition
2) Community leaders galvanise local action to repair and rejuvenate damaged neighbourhoods, where federal support has failed to do so.
a) Darryl Malek-Wiley of the Sierra Club (besides numerous other NGO affiliations), and my tour guide, in his church-turned-office in the Lower Ninth Ward
b) Robert Lynn Green Sr. shows off his commemorative Katrina t-shirt and memorabilia
c) Robert sits on the back steps of his old home, preserved as a reminder of the havoc wreaked by Katrina
3) Efforts are made to ‘build back better’, a central facet of resilience (note that building codes were only imposed in Louisiana after Katrina).
a) wall insulation awaiting installation at a rebuilding site (note that a substantial number of Katrina’s victims died of dehydration and heatstroke in poorly insulated attics)
b) Global Green houses built for energy efficiency and flood resilience, following a design competition involving the local community
c) the fruits of Brad Pitt’s ‘Make it Right’ campaign, a green rebuilding programme
4) Restoration of Bayou Bienvenue to its former wetland state gets underway, with the aim of providing not only an extra line of hurricane protection, but also recreation and wildlife benefits.
5) A roadside ‘EvacuSpot’ signals one of seventeen evacuation pick-up points.
4) An early 1900s ‘steamboat house’ with a glazed brick ground floor designed to flood – still standing strong over 100 years on.