Another look at Katrina


In his opening remarks at “Rebuilding Urban Places After Disaster,” a two-day conference organized by Penn’s Institute for Urban Research (IUR), Provost Ronald Daniels noted that the task of rebuilding the Gulf Coast calls on a wide array of different disciplines, from urban planning to health policy to political science.

For this February conference, designed as a follow-up to the symposium on risk and disaster in DC two months earlier, IUR’s Eugenie Birch and Susan Wachter acknowledged the myriad perspectives needed by bringing together leading experts in architecture, city planning, social sciences, education, public safety, folklore and health. To get the full picture, they even invited a Creole plasterer and a New Orleans pianist.

Keynote speaker and former New Orleans mayor Marc Morial kicked off the wide-ranging discussion by highlighting the huge swath affected by the disaster. Referring to the storm as an “equal opportunity destroyer,” Morial asserted that the real disaster was not the hurricane but the “woefully inadequate responses.”

Morial went on to talk about the “good” (the U.S. Coast Guard’s response), the “bad” (FEMA), and the “ugly”—the suggestion made by some that this is an opportunity to reduce the number of poor people in New Orleans. Morial cited the Chicago fire of 1871, San Francisco’s 1905 earthquake, and New York’s 9/11 tragedy as examples of cities that suffered appalling disasters but rebounded. In every one of those cases, he said, “it didn’t shrink the community, it expanded it.” And in the case of New York City, no one spared any resources or asked if the city should be rebuilt. The question before the nation, he said, is “Will we reach for our highest standards and best examples, will we reach to the standards of New York City?”

Anywhere but here

The symposium’s second day began where Morial left off: With an emotional discussion of how—or how not—to rebuild New Orleans.

Those emotions sprang largely from Penn Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Robert Giegengack’s assertion that New Orleans should not be rebuilt in its historic location, simply because it is impossible, given the mismanagement of the powerful Mississippi River system, to, protect the city from future disasters.

The river’s natural systems have been completely disrupted, Giegengack said, and the efforts to keep it within its banks have already caused the city of New Orleans to sink. “Society must of course meet the immediate human needs [in the wake of Katrina], but we must also agree to not rebuild New Orleans in its historic site,” Giegengack said. “We cannot protect the city from the next hurricane. We must not compound the disaster.”

The statement did not go over well. Several members of the audience said New Orleans was too valuable, culturally and historically, to simply abandon. One resident spoke out passionately about the necessity to rebuild his hometown where it’s always been—no matter the risk. “But how often are you prepared to rebuild?” Giegengack replied. “Every decade? And each time, more?”

New ideas

While other panelists did not share Giegengack’s strong stance that the city must be rebuilt elsewhere, they did agree that significant changes to the city’s protections, design and readiness were needed. Anuradha Mathur, a Penn associate professor of landscape architecture, suggested that Katrina held valuable lessons about humankind’s relationship with the waterfront. Given the special challenges of New Orleans’ geography, planners and designers must build in a way that respects the water—but still allows humans to live near it.

“The challenge, to me, is to not abandon the area or control [water], however inviting that may be,” Mathur said. “We have to come to terms with a different relationship with the landscape. We have to think about innovation seriously. We can’t live in New Orleans the same way that we live in Baton Rouge or New Jersey.”

Patrick Leahy, acting director of the U.S. Geological Survey, showed several slides of the massive destruction wrought by Katrina at Dauphin Island, Alabama, a popular resort town that suffered a 90 percent loss of beach properties—including many high-rise buildings—in the storm. The destruction led Leahy to wonder if government officials, planners and developers really understand the risk posed by such superstorms.

“The question this raises is, ‘Do we have the right policies in place?” he said. “Does society understand the risk it is facing?”

Think big

Afternoon sessions focused on the nuts and bolts of rebuilding. Professor of Sociology Elijah Anderson echoed Morial’s concern about proposals advanced not to rebuild poor neighborhoods. Anderson cited recent surveys that indicate as much as 80 percent of the black population may not return, and asked the audience to consider the fact that as the storm approached, “whites cleared out, while the people in the superdome were black.” Now, he said, it’s the black neighborhoods that may not be rebuilt. “You have to think about who was able to leave and who will be able to return.”

Brian Strom, professor of public health and preventative medicine at Penn Medicine, directed his concern at the state of healthcare in New Orleans. With two thirds of acute care beds gone and the only level 1 trauma center—Charity Hospital—not functioning, the situation is dire. Add to that the loss of medical staff, most of whom have not returned, and the loss of medical records, and it’s clear, said Strom, that rebuilding the system will be a challenge. Compounding the problem, said Strom is the upcoming Mardi Gras celebration, when ambulance calls normally triple. “Where is the surge capacity for that going to come from?”

Richard Gelles, Dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice, reported that the situation is similarly alarming in the area of child welfare, with virtually no framework in place to report child abuse or neglect or to service the children already in the system.

In a session on “Recreating a Sense of Place” urbanism professor Witold Ribczynski talked about the difficulty of rebuilding a modern city. Pre-industrial or third world cities are easier to rebuild, he pointed out, since there is little infrastructure, whereas in a large metropolitan city like New Orleans, “What do you put in first? Schools? Supermarkets? Home Depot?” While the market normally sorts things out, he said, in this case that’s not going to happen. U.S. cities, he said, are shaped by demand, not plan, and demand in New Orleans has been weak for the last 50 years. In his view, “Katrina fast forwarded New Orleans’ decline by maybe 100 years.”

Associate Professor of Historic Preservation Randall Mason talked about the need to put historic preservation at the heart of the response rather than as a secondary consideration. But he added “those of us in preservation need to think more creatively about what historic preservation is.” In a field premised on “fixing things” as they are and arresting decay, it can be a challenge to acknowledge the need to let things change, he said, but that will be crucial to any rebuilding effort.

Jonathan Barnett, practice professor in City and Regional Planning at Penn Design, reiterated Morial’s call to plan for a future city “as big or bigger than it was before the storm, with its good features restored and its bad features overcome.” Barnett acknowledged that not everyone will come back—though they all should have the opportunity to—but said that’s not a reason to pull in and only rebuild some areas. “On the contrary,” he said, you have to think big and “plan for a city that will be a location of choice.”

Keep it authentic

“We have a little thing that we do,” said New Orleans pianist and R & B singer Eddie Bo at the end of the day, lightly stroking the keys of a piano wheeled in especially for his performance. “We have the logical side and the creative side [try to become] friends.” Bo then launched into a soft jazz piece, his body rocking back and forth as he smoothly transitioned to a soulful version of “You Are My Sunshine.”

But Bo isn’t simply a musician tied to the heart of New Orleans, explained folklorist and host of NPR’s “American Routes” Nick Spitzer, who was the presenter of the symposium’s final discussion. Bo is also a building artisan. “I have to do both—I love them both,” Bo said simply.

Many lives in New Orleans center on aesthetics—and many residents make a living combining music making with a building trade or craft. It is this deep commitment to the arts and a diverse ethnic history that make the city so unique, said Spitzer.

Sixth generation Creole plasterer Earl Barthé explained that his work is deeply connected to New Orleans’ soul and blues music. “When I talk about plastering, I’m not just whistling Dixie,” he said. “I’m talking about plastering from my heart.”

Spitzer noted that since music is an organizing principal in New Orleans, it makes sense to bring those individuals back to their communities in the hopes that other residents will follow. “Without music, we can’t rebuild this city,” he said. “It will bring people back, it will organize people. It will make people feel good, it will give people hope for the future.”

He also suggested a program similar to the WPA, enacted after World War II, where artisans and musicians would be given the tools to rebuild the city. “In a town where everyone had been so past-focused,” he said, “I turn the question around as a folklorist and ask, what is the authentic future?”

Originally published on February 23, 2006