A Perfect Storm: New Orleans & Sustainability

In early 2006, the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association chose to partner with the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources to map out a plan for “sustainable restoration”. They invited top planners to lead their efforts at creating a better, energy independent, ‘greener’ neighborhood.

On August 29, 2005, the world changed forever for residents of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. At 7:45 a.m. that morning, hours after Hurricane Katrina had already moved north, two floodwall sections on the Industrial Canal were flattened by storm surge ”“ sending a wall of water as high as 30 feet eastward across the Lower Ninth Ward. In this, one of the poorest areas of New Orleans, cars were tossed about like toys, homes were knocked off their foundations. Despite the city’s mandatory evacuation rules, many residents had stayed: this area had not flooded for more than 40 years ”“ and never like this.

Once the floodwaters finally stopped rising, thousands became stranded in their homes; some drowned. In this natural ”˜bowl’, the water stayed for three weeks, topping many homes in lower lying areas. Even to the south in the Holy Cross Neighborhood, water levels remained at depths of 3 to 15 feet. Here, too, in this historic district with one of the highest rates of homeownership in all of New Orleans, the residents became evacuees, their solidly-built houses uninhabitable due to the damage done by floodwaters. Most of their contents were destroyed beyond repair. Walls and floors had to be torn out due to mold. No electric. No water. No home.

Today, nearly two years since Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levees here and elsewhere in New Orleans, fewer than 20% of residents have been able to return to their homes ”“ and most of those living back in the Lower Ninth Ward still reside in FEMA trailers. City, state and federal government support has been virtually non-existent, insurance monies limited (most homeowners did not have flood insurance). Still, an amazing rebirth has been underway. It began just months after hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the city. And it began with the Holy Cross people themselves.

In early 2006, the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association chose to partner with the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources to map out a plan for “sustainable restoration”. They invited top planners including architect Bob Berkebile to lead their efforts at creating a better, energy independent, ”˜greener’ neighborhood. In turn, this served as the catalyst for an unprecedented series of sustainability initiatives ”“ all concentrated in this small community of 1,800 homes.

Last summer, Global Green launched its Sustainable Design Competition for New Orleans. Co-sponsored by actor Brad Pitt, the competition attracted hundreds of entries internationally; the winning design, GREEN.N.O.LA, is a multi-family mixed-use development that includes an array of active and passive renewable energy features. The location? Right in Holy Cross next to the Mississippi River. Ground has already broken at the site and the first demonstration home is expected to be up and ready for touring this fall.


Yet this was only the beginning in what has become, in essence, a “perfect storm of sustainability”. Last fall, an international preservation workshop and conference was held right on the levee In Holy Cross. In March 2007, Sharp Solar donated and installed 10 complete photovoltaic (PV) rooftop units to nine residents and one community center as part of a national “solar build” in the neighborhood. Each of these 1.5 kilowatt solar electric systems (approximately 80 modules) will offset up to 10% of a homeowner’s annual electricity costs. That was followed by Green Light New Orleans Day in March, where energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs were installed in homes throughout Holy Cross. The neighborhood was also the site of the New Orleans “Step It Up 2007! National Day of Climate Action” rally ”“ fitting, perhaps, as the first of 1,400 events held nationally on April 14. In addition, April saw the debut of the new Center For Sustainable Engagement & Development, a program created by Holy Cross residents to strengthen their rebuilding efforts and become the nation’s first zero carbon community. Yes, the first.

This remarkable journey continues for the Holy Cross Neighborhood with national demonstration projects underway for green deconstruction, sustainable affordable housing, bayou restoration and others. To learn more, visit www.zerocarbonNOLA.org.

Dave Macaulay of Kansas City writes about architecture and is the award-winning author of The Ecological Engineer. He has been working with residents and community organizations in the Lower Ninth Ward for nearly a year and half. His blog, Help Holy Cross http://www.helpholycross.org chronicles the rebuilding and sustainability efforts of the Holy Cross Neighborhood. In addition, he was co-creator of the “Perfect Storm” Webcast and Website http://www.zerocarbonNOLA.org.