Often, the trailers' inhabitants just don't have the money to live anywhere else. Many had no insurance, and their homes represented their only assets. Although Louisiana's troubled reimbursement program, The Road Home, has picked up speed recently, it still had paid only 36,655 out of 158,489 applicants as of July 16. All along the Gulf Coast, property insurance costs two to four times its pre-storm price, further hindering attempts to find or build permanent housing. Construction costs have risen 40 percent, due mostly to a shortage of qualified labor.
A visit to the hardest-hit parts of New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward reveals a weed-filled wasteland where streets of shotgun houses used to sit. Storm surges swept most of the buildings there off their concrete slabs. Neighborhoods with less severe flooding still contain some boarded-up or caved-in houses on every block, mixed in with fully repaired residences.
But the damage extended beyond the physical. The displacement of many hotel and restaurant workers, who already were living on the financial edge, sent the city's all-important tourism industry reeling. In sleepy Mississippi beach towns such as Pass Christian and Waveland, which also rely on travelers' dollars for income, the storm destroyed most of the extensive historic housing stock—a key tourist attraction. Residents of Waveland and Bay St. Louis, Miss., now must drive 20 miles to the nearest surviving grocery store.
Bright spots do exist. Some New Orleans neighborhoods—especially those in the “Sliver by the River,” as the high-ground portion of the city is known—weathered the storm with minimal damage. In the Garden District, manicured antebellum mansions, chic boutiques, and fragrant magnolia trees contrast with TV-news images of a devastated city. The floodwaters also spared the wrought-iron balconies and color-drenched Creole cottages of the raucous French Quarter, and the sounds of live music once again stream out of jazz clubs there. This spring, the city's famous Jazz Fest attracted 375,000 people over six days—comparable to 400,000 over seven days in the pre-Katrina spring of 2005. Nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity, ACORN Housing Corp., and Architecture for Humanity [see full story] are rebuilding working-class neighborhoods in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, house by house. “In this area, a lot of people with very modest means are finding resources to help them rebuild,” says Allison Anderson, AIA, LEED AP, of Unabridged Architecture in Bay St. Louis.
The June version of The Katrina Index, a report updated monthly by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center and The Brookings Institution, holds positive news. “April delivery statistics from the U.S. Postal Service suggest that New Orleans and the metro area continue to repopulate,” the report says. “Active residential deliveries in Orleans Parish [i.e., within city limits] grew to 63.8 percent of pre-Katrina levels in April 2007.” The Mississippi Governor's Office of Recovery and Renewal reported in May that 98 percent of the state's coastal counties population had returned.
Architects from all over the country deserve much credit for the region's progress—starting with the locals who lost their homes, offices, and clients but still managed to assist their communities in the storm's aftermath. “Almost every residential architect here on the coast is involved in some kind of Katrina recovery effort,” says Dennis Cowart, whose Ocean Springs-based firm designed a memorial to the hurricane's victims in Biloxi, Miss. Hagstette ended up leading the rebuilding of Broadmoor's public library [see full story]. Another New Orleanian, Angela O'Byrne, AIA, nearly had to shut down her firm, yet she persevered by helping plan the Louisiana Recovery and Rebuilding Conference and co-founding a nonprofit [see full story]. Non-Gulf Coast designers pitched in, too, in a variety of ways. Almost 200 architects, urban planners, and landscape architects traveled to Biloxi on short notice to attend the Mississippi Renewal Forum in October 2005 [see full story]. Hundreds of firms around the world entered post-Katrina design competitions [see full story]. And architecture schools continue to send teams of students and professors to help nonprofits build houses.
Yet the way in which designers may wield the most substantial influence over the Gulf Coast's resurgence is through the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP), the official road map for the city's rebuilding. Managed by New Orleans-based architecture and planning firm Concordia, the UNOP process involved a set of individual neighborhood plans, larger district plans, and one overall citywide plan. Local planner Villavaso & Associates developed the citywide portion, while Concordia and a national advisory team selected four firms to lead district and neighborhood planning: Goody Clancy of Boston, Frederic Schwartz Architects of New York City, H3 Studio of St. Louis, and EDSA's Baltimore office. “I felt very strongly that there was no more important issue facing this country, in terms of urban issues, than the recovery of New Orleans,” says Goody Clancy's David Dixon, FAIA. Many more firms, including Miami-based DPZ, the Atlanta office of EDAW, Wayne Troyer Architects [see profile: wayne troyer, aia], and Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, helped with the neighborhood plans. And UNOP also incorporated feedback from the city's powerful neighborhood associations. The process “really was a cross section of the community,” says Nathan Chapman, president of Vieux Carré Property Owners, Residents, and Associates.
The resulting 10-year, $14.4 billion plan, released last spring, reimagines New Orleans as a pedestrian-friendly metropolis with nodes of high density. UNOP pinpoints specific redevelopment projects in each of the city's 13 planning districts, emphasizing mixed-use communities, public transportation, mixed-income housing, and long-term economic stability. By calling for every neighborhood to be rebuilt, it sidesteps the public outcry triggered by the earlier, discarded Bring New Orleans Back plan, which suggested turning some low-lying areas into parklands.