10 Years After Katrina — A Roadmap to a More Resilient Gulf Coast

By Sherry-Lea Bloodworth Botop for Huffington Post

On the eve of the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, and as direct participants in its aftermath and recovery, it’s important to look back and chronicle the lessons the country has learned — and how much it has yet to understand about how to recover from such disasters. Our insights come from the role architects, urban planners and philanthropists have played in this ongoing education. Louisiana and Mississippi were the test-beds; here’s what we learned from them:

  • Re-build beyond code. Mississippi leads the country with programs through the Institute for Business and Home Safety that provide financial incentives to design and build beyond code. Spending an extra $500 when fortifying a roof can now result in a 20 percent insurance reduction. At the federal level, the Department of Homeland Security is exploring a “Resilient Star” standard, which would make a big difference to advance fortified building.
  • Don’t rush to rebuild, especially in the same place. After Katrina, government on both the federal and state levels felt enormous voter pressure to re-build quickly. With confusion rampant about base flood elevations, many people rushed to rebuild their homes at their previous elevations. They then suffered additional damage from Hurricanes Gustav (2008) and Isaac (2011) and because of changes to flood insurance subsidies, were shocked at the price tag that accompanied this decision. There will always be the holdouts who say: “I want what I had before the storm.” We need to convince people that such decisions come at a much higher cost.
  • Give insurers a reason to stay. No insurer wants to take another hit like Katrina, which caused more than $41 billion in insured losses across six states. With no statewide building code in Louisiana, insurers were set to flee. But the state legislature quickly created the Louisiana State Uniform Construction Code Council. This established a statewide code that featured stronger wind-design requirements that made buildings more resilient in post-Katrina storms like Gustav and Isaac. With an enforceable code in place, insurers knew that stronger structures would be a part of post-Katrina building in Louisiana so they continued to do business in the state.
  • Public-private partnerships must rule. The public and private sector must work together. Philanthropy and the private sectors must be aware of how our federal agencies function and use their combined strengths and expertise to coordinate investments. It is far better to do this prior to disasters so that the framework is in place to address the aftermath of catastrophic events. Then communities can continuously work on efforts to prevent or mitigate impacts on people, places and environments.
  • Invest in social cohesion. Take every opportunity to look for ways to build community — not just following disaster, but as part of daily life. Residents of New Orleans may not have entirely understood how a city works, but they now recognize its failures and shortcomings more than ever in the 10 years following the storm. Resilient design has been a way to bridge those shortcomings. It keeps communities in place and intact while preparing them with an appropriate architectural response. It allows cities to not just confront a significant disaster or emergency, but pick up the pieces thereafter.
  • Have local architects at the table. The architect “code of ethics” is health, safety and welfare. Architects must be part of the critical dialogue in local, state and federal planning efforts. If you want these efforts to succeed, always engage the community in the conversation and listen to their input — that is who we are all working for in the end. Outside designs imposed on communities are doomed to fail.

Bloodworth-Botop is executive director of the Architects Foundation, the non-profit social impact extension of the American Institute of Architects.