Living Large in Limbo: Ten Years After the Flood
Santa Monica’s Global Green USA makes environmental history in post-Katrina New Orleans
By Kelly Hayes-Raitt
Nearly four years after Hurricane Katrina and the collapse of New Orleans’ levees, there was nothing alive but the mold that marbled the walls and ceilings of the living rooms I toured in America’s poorest neighborhood.
No rats or roaches, just layers of the intimate detritus of people’s lives: An upturned tricycle, intact figurines knocked from a shelf, a porn DVD. I gingerly moved through a ravaged rowhouse, sidestepping an overturned couch, piles of rotting books, clumps of fallen drywall. I held my arm over my nose to stifle the musky smell of that black, furry mold.
Back on the street, I could still smell it.
“Imagine an entire city smelling like this. That’s what it was like right after Katrina,” said Oscar Brown as he turned his back on the abandoned housing project. Each front porch was tattooed with a spray-painted symbol indicating the date the home was searched and the number of bodies discovered inside.
Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast on Aug. 28, 2005, and some 80% of New Orleans was submerged when almost every levee in the city crumbled. Nearly 2,000 people died. More than a million people from the Gulf Coast fled the flooding, creating the largest refugee population in America’s history.
When I toured New Orleans’ Ninth Ward that first time in 2009, most residents still hadn’t returned.
“I left home with two changes of clothing thinking we’d be gone a couple of days — never dreaming it would be three years!” one man told me.
Ignored before the epic flooding, the neighborhood was still grappling with a lack of services: No grocery stores, no fire stations, no health care. The National Guard pulled out the week I visited.
“My wife and I just had a daughter,” Brown told me at the time. “The nearest hospital was 45 minutes away.”
During the six weeks following the hurricane, the only people allowed in were “military, medical and media,” said Darryl Malek-Wiley, a Sierra Club organizer who secured a press pass from the non-profit’s magazine in order to return to his neighborhood.
Also allowed in during those first weeks were the contractors, modern-day carpetbaggers who fleeced taxpayers. During the two weeks following the storm, $62 billion in non-competitive bid contracts were awarded primarily to politically connected corporations. Halliburton, for example, (the corporation then-Vice Pres. Dick Cheney had headed) was awarded $131 million in Katrina relief money even though in the previous year the FBI, the Treasury Department, the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense had initiated separate investigations into allegations of overbilling in Iraq and of violating U.S. sanctions by conducting business with Iran.
Another politically connected company, Bechtel, was awarded a contract to build temporary trailers, which cost taxpayers $200,000 each. One study later concluded that the trailers emitted formaldehyde in levels nearly equal to what a professional embalmer would be exposed to. It was a problem so profound that then Rep. Henry Waxman held a congressional oversight hearing about it.
“If they had given folks $200,000,” Malek-Wiley said wryly, “we’d have our homes back.”
When I revisited the Ninth Ward in the months before Friday’s tenth anniversary of the storm and flooding, fewer than half the pre- storm residents have returned. But I’m struck by the number of solar panels I count on rebuilt homes.
“As of 2013, there were 2,800 solar panels in New Orleans, 10% of which were in the Ninth Ward,” Malek-Wiley said. “Per capita, that’s five times more solar panels per person than in the rest of city.”
I ask about a basketball court shaded by a solar array: “It’s a legacy project from the Super Bowl,” Malek-Wiley explains.
Santa Monica-headquartered Global Green USA and the Brad Pitt-funded Make It Right Foundation have built 108 energy-efficient and sustainable homes, with more on the way. Global Green created what they called a “greenprint” to “sustainably rebuild schools and homes to be climate-resilient in order to save residents money, improve [their] health and reduce the impact of global climate change that contributed to Katrina.”
That “greenprint” has been so effective that in 2009 TIME magazine wrote “…no organization is doing more to green New Orleans than Global Green USA.”
“Is there any other place in the U.S. with 105 LEED-certified homes in such close proximity?” Malek-Wiley asks, referring to the homes Global Green and Make It Right have built that meet high environmental standards set by the U.S. Green Building Council.
But even among the optimism, remnants of old house foundations protrude from the ground at odd angles like tombstones. Weed-covered homes persist in reminding the community of what was lost. Angry protests of the residents’ betrayal pop up at odd places. One new roof is spray-painted “We love you, Jesus. The Crafts Family OK. We need gas, ice, water.” A hand-scrawled sign outside a home at the foot of the St. Clairbourne Bridge reads “We want our country to love us as much as we love our country.”
Michelle Pyne, an organizer for Global Green who moved to the Ninth Ward four years ago to support the community’s rebuilding, shows me the new community center they are building. It will include an exhibit about climate change — about how the gulf’s warming increases the number and intensity of hurricanes and flooding.
Global Green also works with the neighborhood to keep rainwater on-site through catch barrels, cisterns, rain gardens, manmade wetlands and bio-swales, the earthen, non-concrete gutters that absorb runoff.
“The focus has changed from [re]building to storm-water management,” Pyne explains as we walk through nearby community gardens. “We’re recharging the groundwater rather than relying on the [levees’] pumps.”
It’s an uphill battle: The Louisiana coast loses wetlands at the rate of “a football field every 30 minutes,” says the Sierra Club’s Malek-Wiley. “Not from one place. It’s a little here, a little there … cumulative. But we now have an urban water plan. We never had that before.”
He notes that after the devastation that water brought to millions of New Orleaneans, “We now have new ways to live with water.”
Kelly Hayes-Raitt, a Santa Monica resident, spent two weeks helping to clean up the Ninth Ward in March 2009 and revisited in March this year. She’s incorporating her interviews into a book about refugees and blogs at LivingLargeInLimbo.com. She
can be reached at KellyArgonaut-Column@aol.com.