Reflecting forward in New Orleans with resiliency thinking


Is your municipality ready? 

Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina buckled a city that I once called home. As the storm hurtled through the Gulf on its way inland, it found and exploited the city’s weakest points. We all felt anguish for this place of exquisite beauty and history and worried for those who lived there as it was broadcast in real-time.

Today, city and county leaders face the same dangers but very different circumstances. More is known about risks and responses because the storm’s impact on New Orleans and resulting recovery effort set in motion a series of activities that today are part of a global movement called resiliency. Individual cities and counties around the United States now place resiliency in the foreground of environmental, social and economic issues. Global programs, such as the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities, are assisting many jurisdictions in that planning by supporting the hiring of chief resilience officers and providing support to organize their work.

In the years since Katrina, I’ve increasingly focused on ways to contribute to this global challenge, helping jurisdictions to address mitigation as well as build climate adaptation plans. Plans typically include:

  • Defining climate risks in near and longer term
  • Assessing the associated vulnerabilities for social, economic and environmental systems
  • Strengthening the reliability of building systems and coupling that with increased provisions for passive survivability for critical facilities
  • Improving disaster preparedness planning to enhance citizen awareness as well as response and recovery
  • Addressing dependencies and consequences of one system to another

The ultimate goal is always better understanding risk and vulnerability, increasing citizen awareness and maintaining essential safety.

Georgetown University reports that adaptation plans are underway in at least 15 states and hundreds of localities. Between 2011 and 2013, at least 60 jurisdictions have qualified for National Disaster Recovery funds, known as Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) assistance, for federally declared disasters. In fact, Perkins+Will worked with jurisdictions on entries for HUD’s $1 Billion National Disaster Recovery Competition in response to these events.

We’ve rebalanced our attention toward preparation for the new realities that most climate scientists project. Jurisdictions have easy access to National Climate Assessment summaries as a minimum, and should review these to understand how projected changes will impact their region. Jurisdiction leaders should use this material as a starting point to examine their vulnerabilities and to assess how to best leverage investments to increase protection, but also to be careful not to waste capital. The work is enormous, but it is necessary. Helpfully, support comes from many directions.

As the people of New Orleans tackled the challenge of a post-hurricane landscape, the city began to right itself. Support poured in from community members and from outsiders who wanted to help. Teams organized to try to harness these contributions to best serve the residents and the future of New Orleans. This city was strong and ready to rebuild, but it also was ready to think differently, recognizing that simply repeating past tactics could not and would not serve future generations. Its culture, while fraught with inequities in many ways, was filled with an innate goodness of spirit and willfulness to not only survive, but to thrive.

That’s the challenge that most municipalities now face: acknowledging social, economic and environmental risks and their cascading consequences while, at the same time, taking advantage of the very things they’re best at doing. However, it’s also necessary to just get started. Look at the science that’s freely available. Conduct the vulnerability assessment to understand risks. Develop Climate Adaptation Plans that support mitigation while planning for a more difficult future. And leverage those good things.

As principal and global discipline leader for planning and strategies at Perkins + Will, Janice Barnes, PhD, LEED AP, employs strategic planning to help clients meet business goals. With over 25 years of design experience bridging practical applications with empirical research, Barnes is internationally recognized for expertise in linking environmental, social and economic indicators to advance resiliency principles. 


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Derek Prall

Derek Prall is a professional journalist who has held numerous positions with a variety of print and online publications including The Public Manager magazine and the New Jersey Herald. He is a 2008...

Jason Axelrod

Jason Axelrod is an award-winning journalist who has reported for The Seattle Times, The Arizona Republic, the Phoenix Business Journal and Mother Nature Network, among other outlets. Jason...
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