March 27, 2018

Building Resilience in New Orleans Through Community-Led Public, Private, Nonprofit Partnerships

New Orleans Street Flooding

By Nicholas Satterfield, an Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow at New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA), a quasi-governmental agency serving as a catalyst for the revitalization of the city, partnering in affordable and equitable strategic developments that celebrate the city’s neighborhoods and honor its traditions. NORA accomplishes this mission by addressing the core community needs; the facilitation of affordable housing development, commercial revitalization and land stewardship.

As I sat in a quiet testing center, focused and attempting to complete my second Architectural Registration Exam, I heard the thunderstorms outside. I heard the wind swirling and the rain pouring down. I thought to myself, “This is nothing out of the ordinary.” New Orleans frequently tops the list of America’s wettest cities. It is also home to the most sophisticated pumping system in the world, capable of removing over two million cubic feet of water per minute.  

Street flooding is a common occurrence, but ask any New Orleanian and they’ll tell you, “Simply move your car away from a catch basin or pull it onto the neutral ground and everything will be alright.” It never occurred to me that during this afternoon thunderstorm on August 5, 2017, so many would be left underwater.  

Neighborhoods finally beginning to forget the damage caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were once again faced with adversity.

But this wasn’t Katrina. This wasn’t Rita, Gustav, Ike, Isaac, or Betsy.  

Searching for Alternative Solutions

This was a late summer thunderstorm that rolled through, and over the course of a few hours, dropped nearly ten inches of rain on the city, leaving in its wake flooded streets, homes, businesses and a community all too familiar with picking up the pieces.  

Citizens, having lost confidence in the systems put in place to keep the city dry, have begun looking for alternative solutions. New Orleanians have been taught for decades that the best way to manage stormwater is to get it off your property, into the street, down a storm drain and pumped into Lake Pontchartrain. They are now learning to retain water on-site, slow its runoff and focus on infiltration.

Critical Partnerships to Strengthen the City's Resilience Efforts

It should be noted that these ideas began reshaping the city long before the flood of August 5th, 2017. Led by public/private/nonprofit partnerships, most of what is seen today has played an active role in the post-Katrina rebuilding effort. Mission-driven and nonprofit organizations such as the Urban Conservancy, Water Collaborative and Ripple Effect, as well as for-profit businesses like Waggonner & Ball Architects and Dana Brown & Associates, have all been critical partners, strengthening the city’s resilience efforts.  

Tulane University and The Albert and Tina Small Center for Collaborative Design have begun developing resources, cultivating design expertise, and providing a vision for the future of New Orleans. In addition, the City of New Orleans Office of Resilience and Sustainability (ORS), with funding provided by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Disaster Resilience Competition, have undertaken a network of initiatives to help study, educate, and implement green infrastructure projects citywide. This coordinated effort will culminate with the city’s first comprehensive Resilience District in the Gentilly neighborhood.  

The Creation of the Community Adaptation Program 

In partnership with ORS, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority (NORA) created the Community Adaptation Program (CAP), which will enable low-to-moderate-income homeowners in the Gentilly area to better manage stormwater on their property. Through this effort, NORA will oversee the design and implementation of stormwater management interventions on private residential property.  These include rain gardens, detention basins, and impermeable surface removal.

Additionally, CAP will serve to provide a mechanism for the local government to administer and oversee a unique workforce development program, which will support an industry of skilled installers of resilient features on small scattered-site private property.  It is hoped that this program will also serve as a pilot that can be implemented in neighborhoods across the city. 

A New Tool to Model Impact in Real Time

ORS and NORA have teamed up with Deltares, “an independent institute for applied research in the field of water and subsurface,” to develop the Adaptation Support Tool (AST). The AST software allows residents to select various green infrastructure interventions and model their individual and collective impacts in real time. This process paired with other tools such as NORA’s Green Infrastructure Maintenance Manual provides area residents with the information they need to make informed decisions about how to best manage stormwater and reduce their risk.  

Since the concepts of green infrastructure are quite new and every homeowner’s needs are unique, each CAP participant will be paired with a team of design, construction, and green infrastructure experts to guide them through the process. Prior to beginning design, homeowners will attend a training workshop where they will learn about the benefits of green infrastructure, the installation process, and the maintenance required for each intervention.  

Once construction is finalized, CAP participants will be provided a personalized operations and maintenance manual, prepared by their professional green infrastructure team. The manual will include diagrams identifying the types of plants, functional components, as well as a schedule of maintenance tasks required for each of the interventions.      

Seeing Beyond the Physical Impact of the Work

At the completion of CAP, Gentilly residents will not only see the physical impact of their work, but they will also appreciate how and why green infrastructure is so important. The hope is to elevate the understanding behind the individual and collective benefits of green infrastructure and how each resident can play a crucial role in reducing the risk of their community.  

They will be connected to a network of professionals with expertise in design, installation, and maintenance. They will know how and why the city is investing in resilience, and they will have a voice as local leaders make decisions that shape their community.  

The events that occurred on August 5 were a reminder of how vulnerable we are to natural disasters. Be it wind, rain, rising sea levels, or coastal erosion, New Orleans remains ground zero, fighting to manage the impacts of a changing climate.  Thunderstorms once seen as a break in the late summer heat, now carry torrential rain capable of bringing the city to a halt. However, New Orleans remains poised to take up this fight.  

By forging ahead and building networks of strong-willed, intelligent, and resilient citizens, New Orleanians are prepared not only to survive but also to thrive.  

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