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The Dallas Morning News


The Big Easy rebuilds, bottom up

May 11, 2008

By Nicole Gelinas

Two and a half years after Hurricane Katrina left 80 percent of New Orleans underwater for weeks, the city, in some ways, has rebounded remarkably.

As of January, it boasted 302,000 residents, according to local data-crunching firm GCR & Associates. In early 2006, the city's official planners had figured that just 247,000 people would be home by September 2008. New Orleanians have achieved much of this success by building and rebuilding on their own or with small-scale help, rather than under top-down government decree. They're showing that thousands of individual planners are better than one master.Of course, a strong government role was necessary to set the stage for New Orleans' progress, and no one doubts that all levels of government fell far short of their responsibilities after the storm. Eventually, the feds did clear millions of tons of debris, among other things. But government, while critical for acute recovery, hasn't driven longer-term reconstruction.

That's not to say it hasn't tried. Weeks after Katrina, city officials unveiled a panel called Bring New Orleans Back, charged with drawing up ambitious recommendations for everything from public transportation to schools. But it quickly became reviled for asking the city to prohibit rebuilding in low-lying neighborhoods—which are vulnerable to flooding—that didn't first "prove their viability."

Nothing was wrong with encouraging New Orleanians to favor higher ground. But trying to do so by government order, rather than through gentler incentives as well as targeted infrastructure and public-services investments, was a losing proposition. A few months later, Mayor Ray Nagin—looking toward re-election and stifled by his own administration's lack of follow-through—abandoned big efforts. "Rebuild at your own risk," he told citizens.

One of those citizens was Father Nguyen The Vien, a Roman Catholic priest in a Vietnamese-American enclave of flooded New Orleans East. Father Vien and his parishioners showed that after a disaster, neighborhood and church connections can mean the difference between reconstruction and abandonment.

Stranded in Houston after Katrina, Father Vien racked up nearly $1,000 in cellphone bills staying in touch with his 6,300 parishioners, holding meetings in a Houston community center. Starting in early October, after New Orleans' government reopened their neighborhood, Father Vien and his flock repaired their church's damage and began using it as a base as they tackled their own houses. Many lived near one another in trailers on a property across from the church.

Five weeks after the hurricane, Father Vien celebrated his first post-flood Mass, showing people worried about being the only family on the block how many residents were returning.

Father Vien also used numbers to lobby for public services, such as electricity. "I went to see Entergy on October 19, and told [the representative], 'We need electricity,' " Father Vien says. "He said he needed to justify the load, because he couldn't take power from populated areas. He said, 'Give me a list of households so I can go before the board and make the argument.'"

Father Vien brought a list of 500—enough to get the power back on. By early 2008, he says, 95 percent of his parishioners were home and the trailers were gone.

Lakeview is an upper-middle-class neighborhood that, like New Orleans East, rose in the 20th century and is more vulnerable to flooding than older neighborhoods on higher ground. Martin Landrieu, an attorney, lifelong New Orleanian and officer of the Lakeview Civic Improvement Association, echoes Father Vien's outlook: "What's first is schools and churches."

Mr. Landrieu calls the opening of Catholic schools beginning in January 2006 "critical" because "the driving force for most families was getting kids into some semblance of order."

Evacuated neighbors also drew reassurance from Lakeview's First Baptist Church, which put up a map in early 2006 so that residents could stick a pin over their blocks to declare that they were committed to coming home.

When the city's first plan spurred residents to "prove our viability," Mr. Landrieu notes, neighbors rose to the challenge, launching 72 committees on everything from grass-cutting to covering swimming pools so that citizens wouldn't feel that they were returning to abandonment.

When Mr. Landrieu moved back into his home about a year after Katrina, he had five or 10 neighbors in a three- to four-block area. Six months later, the population had quadrupled.

Today, 44 percent of Lakeview's population is back—a significant accomplishment because many residents were returning not to recoup the value of houses but to build from scratch.

Broadmoor, a hard-hit neighborhood with household incomes that range from poverty-level to the high six figures, is enjoying an even higher success rate. More than 70 percent of households have returned—in part because of the Broadmoor Improvement Association, which contacted displaced residents to convince them that they would have plenty of company and support. Broadmoor, with more black residents than white, shows that neighborhoods with strong institutions don't have to be ethnically cohesive—like the Vietnamese-American pockets of New Orleans East—or wealthy—like Lakeview—to recover.

Institutions like New Orleans' Preservation Resource Center are playing a big role, too. A few weeks after Katrina, PRC began holding workshops on how to eradicate mold, providing free cleaning supplies and lists of contractors. The group also began bus tours to convince evacuees that damage was fixable and started a "selective salvage" operation, working with FEMA to save historic doors, windows and moldings from houses too far gone to fix.

"I don't believe this city is disposable," says PRC's Kristin Palmer.

PRC's pre-Katrina rehabilitation of low-income and elderly homeowners' historic houses assumed new urgency. So far, the effort has brought 72 families home. "We cluster homes, do three, four, five houses on the same street," says Ms. Palmer, to create confidence that historic neighborhoods are coming back. PRC also fixes up and resells vacant historic properties, which tend to be less vulnerable to storms, since they're sturdier than many mid-20th-century homes.

PRC hasn't entirely stuck to its pre-Katrina playbook, however, partly because of a stubborn economic fact. New Orleans' houses were cheap before the storm only because their construction was paid for long ago. Returning New Orleanians, including renters, need houses, but substantially rehabbing flooded properties or building them from scratch at $130 per square foot can be unaffordable for citizens of modest means.

So PRC endorsed something that may sound unusual for preservationists: new "kit-built" houses. Local firm Wayne Troyer Architects joined forces with architect Andrés Duany to design five models of a "Katrina Cottage" that would fit into the long, narrow lots of comparatively high-ground Holy Cross. The cottages follow traditional New Orleans home designs, so as not to harm the neighborhood's historic character. The homes meet strict hurricane codes and are made of materials resistant to mold, rot, and termites.

Thanks to PRC's volunteer labor and the low cost of mass-produced kits, the organization hopes to build new houses for under $70 per square foot. The kits are available at Lowe's for $36,000 to $40,000, so that returning residents who aren't working with PRC can buy them, too.

Urban planners aren't wrong when they see in disaster an opportunity to try something new. In New Orleans, architects and their clients are seizing this opportunity on a small scale with their own money and property.

Architect Byron Mouton is finding that his middle-class and affluent clients are doing the different in pursuit of the practical. In Gentilly, a neighborhood of mostly 20th-century homes that took 7 feet of water, one client wanted a bottom floor raised at least a story off the ground but couldn't afford the $30,000 to $40,000. The architect's solution: a "disposable" first floor that the client will use for nonessential purposes. The second floor contains the kitchen, art studio and living space, as well as an ample porch.

Mr. Mouton is also a Tulane University architecture professor who runs a program called UrbanBuild, in which students design and build modern, hurricane-resistant but affordable houses in New Orleans' most run-down neighborhoods—areas that weren't severely flooded but that were already so blighted that they look as though they were. This approach may encourage New Orleanians to invest in higher-ground neighborhoods lost to crime and decay. Fear of crime and blight is precisely why so many residents fled to newer, lower-lying developments long before Katrina.

It's jarring to see the sleek, ultramodern house the students completed in Central City, a neighborhood so beleaguered by crime that residents display "thou shalt not kill" admonitions behind their barred windows. Raised about 5 feet off the ground, the house combines elements of an elevated, New Orleans-style cottage with those of a Manhattan-style loft and is enclosed by a spacious, hardy deck.

Police Officer Timothy Holmes, who bought UrbanBuild's first home, in a neighborhood called Treme, for about $150,000, has no illusions: The year before Katrina, his mother was killed at the nearby restaurant she managed in a quadruple robbery-murder. But, he says, "positive people need to stay."

Residents who look askance at these alien modern homes in historic neighborhoods should be grateful that no master planner is deploying them on a huge scale. Those that work will be repeated, and those that don't won't. New Orleanians are free to choose.

Habitat for Humanity has launched and executed one of New Orleans' most ambitious post-Katrina building projects, conjuring up a whole neighborhood on five square blocks of the Upper Ninth Ward. With 50,000 volunteers—including waves of students every spring break—Habitat is completing 72 houses on its "core site" and is working on 70 more nearby.

Though Habitat has kept costs under $80 a square foot, even including what paid labor it uses, it has taken a no-nonsense approach to structural integrity. Deeply driven pillars support their elevated foundations, and structural elements are reinforced with concrete and steel.

The Habitat homes fit neatly into their surroundings, although their newness and freshness is startling against their weather-beaten neighbors. Like those neighbors, the Habitat houses are New Orleans shotguns (long, narrow houses with each room the full width of the house). Habitat isn't just respecting its surroundings; it's improving them, connecting roads and other infrastructure and building a playground and musicians' center.

Actor Brad Pitt, with far less experience, rivals Habitat when it comes to ambition: He's donated money and embarked on a fundraising campaign to build 150 houses for property owners whose homes were destroyed in a hard-hit, Lower Ninth Ward tract.

Mr. Pitt's Make It Right held a competition for architects, accepting designs for elevated, mold-resistant, flood-resilient, energy-efficient houses that met strict wind-speed codes, contained attic escape hatches and fit on tiny lots—all for $150,000. Contestants found 13 different ways to meet those specs, including one lovely design by local firm Billes Architects, with detailed window frames and moldings, a shaded raised porch to blunt the effect of the 5-foot elevation, and a gently sloped roof. A few competing concepts are good, while others are outlandish—but each homeowner will be able to choose the design that he likes. What works will surely be replicated elsewhere.

Perversely, New Orleans' modern history of weak, ineffectual government has helped it recover. Nobody in power had the political will, knowledge or resources to enforce a master plan. Property owners could ignore utopian or slow-moving schemes and get to work on their own.

This approach differs markedly from the reaction to the nation's other recent large-scale disaster, the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In New York, the state government, which had a long history of centrally planning huge projects, quickly monopolized control over rebuilding. Ground Zero, unfortunately, seemed the perfect opportunity for such an approach. The World Trade Center had been built as a government scheme 30 years before. Today, Ground Zero is still an early-stage construction site.

In New Orleans, though the city and feds can still screw up the sites that they control, including now-vacant housing projects, they can't define reconstruction. Homeowners can experiment with what works and what doesn't. It will be fascinating, in a decade or so, to see if one or another approach has fared better than the others: Mr. Mouton's enticing new homeowners to bad neighborhoods on higher ground and hoping that others follow; Habitat's adding entire blocks to a working-class neighborhood; or Pitt's encouraging low-income homeowners back to one of the hardest-hit swaths of the Lower Ninth Ward.

Certain tasks are the government's responsibility, though. The city should work with Katrina-ravaged neighborhoods to snuff out blight. Managed well, abandonment in half-rebuilt neighborhoods doesn't have to be a plague. Programs through which neighbors could buy condemned, abandoned property at cut-rate prices from the state and city governments and use them as big yards could mean the difference between blighted and bucolic.

But the government's single most important task is public safety, in a city that was dangerous before Katrina and is more so now. New Orleanians are slowly, painstakingly bringing their city back. But if their government can't do what it should do in keeping citizens safe, they won't stay.

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