We’ve Got to Do It Smarter

Illustration by Melissa McGill

Charles Allen is the director of the Office of Coastal and Environmental Affairs for the City of New Orleans. He formerly served as president of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association and as acting director of the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement & Development. Here, he shares his thoughts about the role of sustainability in the city’s rebuilding process, the pace of the city’s recovery, and how New Orleans will fare when the next big storm hits.

Interview by Calvin Hennick

Q. What are some examples of sustainable practices implemented during the city’s post-Katrina recovery?
Our public works department has installed energy-efficient street lighting. We also helped to establish a program where residents and businesses can get loans to do energy-efficient retrofits in their homes and buildings. In the Mid-City area, there’s the Lafitte Greenway project, focused on providing pedestrian walkways and bike paths, but there’s also going to be rain gardens, bioswales—all those sorts of water retention features.

Q. With all there was to do to rebuild the city after Katrina, why focus on sustainability at all?
There’s been this realization that, as we come back, we’ve got to do it better, we’ve got to do it smarter—we have to learn from the lessons of Katrina and Rita. As we deal with heavy rain events, as we do more and build more things that recharge the soil, and not rely so heavily on the pumping system, things like that help us to manage Mother Nature better than we might have been able to do otherwise. The proliferation around the city of solar panels, and people trying to do various things to make their homes and buildings more energy efficient, that reduces their utility costs. People then have more resources to make investments in their quality of life. That speaks to resilience.

Q. Has the city’s focus on sustainability increased during the recovery period, as compared to before the storm?
I think so. It’s like any other situation in life: You tend to learn better the hard way. You tend to really learn, and really become mindful of what you should have done, when something shocks you into a hard reality. We just have to be mindful that the ways and practices before Katrina, are not the ways and practices that we need to continue to follow going forward.

Q. Is the city prepared for another storm of Katrina’s magnitude?
I think we are. Since the storm, the Army Corps of Engineers—the federal government—has invested in a $14.5 billion storm risk-reduction system that surrounds the greater New Orleans metropolitan area. Nothing is foolproof, but we feel very confident in the system that is protecting us on a daily basis. We’ve had some tests. A couple of years ago, we had a major hurricane, Hurricane Isaac. And the system performed as designed, with no issues. We did not evacuate the city. There were points where the storm surge was just a little bit below Katrina, and if we had had the levee system that we had during Katrina for Hurricane Isaac, the city could have flooded.

Q. It’s been almost 10 years since Katrina. Is the city all the way back?
Not to the degree that a lot of us might like, but we’ve covered a lot of good ground. We’re still a city where, in terms of systems and so forth, we’re designed to support a larger population than we have right now, but you hear that all of these indicators are showing that there’s more and more people and activity coming back. The people are the critical thing. As we get more people back, as we get a more expanded tax base to help support municipal services, then that cost burden reduces over time. We’re maybe not there yet, but one thing is for certain: We’re stronger, we feel we’re better, and we feel that the trajectory is in a good, positive direction.