Launch Slideshow

head above water

head above water

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    Greg Miles

    O'Byrne's firm designed the conversion of this former historic house in the French Quarter into condominiums. Her team's efforts to honor the building's historic elements paid off: In January, the project won an award of merit for historic preservation fr

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    Greg Miles

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    Greg Miles

    Perez, APC was working on a renovation of the Ascension Parish Governmental Complex in Gonzales, La., when Katrina hit. The firm finished the project in May 2006.

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    Perez, APC

    "My own firm lost 23 of the 25 projects we were working on," says Angela O'Byrne, president of Perez, APC in New Orleans.

I was not planning on evacuating. I never had before. My entire extended family evacuates every time there is a hurricane heading our way and I never do. I actually believed I would attend a construction meeting the next morning—Monday, Aug. 29, 2005—if the wind and rain weren't too bad.

I received calls from friends and family around the country on Sunday, all begging me to evacuate. I had a houseguest, and Sunday afternoon we watched the mayor, city council, and governor all get on TV, imploring people to leave. I had never seen that before. I remember feeling scared, for the first time, as they described the severity of the storm and what might happen to the city.

We called the area airports and found a flight for my friend leaving Alexandria, La., the next day. I thought of the people in my office who did not own cars. I tried to call them. No one picked up. Finally, one answered his cell phone and told me everyone had already evacuated. My friend and I jumped in my car and pulled out of the driveway.

It took us nine hours to reach Baton Rouge, La.—normally an hour-and-15-minute drive. I was afraid I would run out of gas, so we drove with the windows open and the air conditioner off. I could see the storm in my rearview mirror. The sky was black near the horizon. We arrived in Alexandria at 4:00 a.m., but all flights leaving from there had been cancelled. I got my friend to another airport in Shreveport, La., in time for a noon fiight. I had a public bid opening scheduled that night in Natchitoches, La., for the furniture package for a convention center my firm had designed. When I showed up, people looked like they'd seen a ghost. After the bid opening, I ate dinner with friends in Natchitoches, returned to the bed and breakfast where I was staying, and went to sleep. At some point the next morning, I turned on the TV and saw that New Orleans had flooded. I felt like I was sleepwalking for quite some time after that.

O'Byrne's firm designed the conversion of this former historic house in the French Quarter into condominiums. Her team's efforts to honor the building's historic elements paid off: In January, the project won an award of merit for historic preservation fr

O'Byrne's firm designed the conversion of this former historic house in the French Quarter into condominiums. Her team's efforts to honor the building's historic elements paid off: In January, the project won an award of merit for historic preservation fr

Credit: Greg Miles

I stayed in Natchitoches for two weeks. The city manager bought a TV for his office so I could watch what was happening in New Orleans. I spent my days there, watching the news and working on the furniture package. The crazy thing was not knowing where anyone had gone—not my relatives, my staff, or my friends. We have become so dependent on cell phones that I never bothered to ask where anyone would be going during an evacuation. Some of my staff called the government offices for the city of Natchitoches to ask if anyone there knew where I was. Eventually I got landline telephone numbers for all of them.

I drove to the East Coast two weeks after the storm—to Andover, Mass., where one of my sisters lives. I was not sure where to go or what to do next. I happened to be president of AIA New Orleans at the time, so I decided my next move should be to visit with AIA National. I had no agenda, but I knew I didn't want anyone there to forget us. So I next drove to Washington, D.C., and worked at AIA headquarters every day for three weeks. Staff members gave me a desk, computer, and phone and put me in a hotel nearby. They were and continue to be incredibly supportive of the entire Gulf Coast reconstruction effort.

moving forward

During my weeks in Washington, a group that included David Downey, Assoc. AIA, managing director of the AIA's Center for Communities by Design; Jim Dinegar, AIA's chief operating officer at the time; and displaced New Orleanians (myself included) crafted a proposal to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) seeking funding for a statewide planning conference. We never got a response. We would discover often in the ensuing months that the enabling legislation that created FEMA doesn't allow for many things that are needed after a disaster of great magnitude. I suggested to my new friends at AIA that we raise the money for the conference ourselves. Within two days, they had done so.

The event came to be called the Louisiana Recovery and Rebuilding Conference and convened Nov. 10–12, 2005, in New Orleans. Its format was educational, with panels of public officials, architects, planners, engineers, and businesspeople speaking on such topics as housing and economic development. The panelists answered questions from the audience, with both parties collaborating to formulate principles for rebuilding.

I found a Dutch engineer to bring fresh perspective to the discussion and was fascinated by what he said. He spoke about better, less expensive ways to build levees, floodwalls, flood-gates, and canals. He said it was pure folly to bring fingers of water into the city, protected only by levees. He talked of the need for political will and funding. He told us that in the Netherlands, the No. 1 political priority is flood protection. My heart fell when I heard that. Flood control for Louisiana isn't a national priority in the United States—it's not even on Congress' radar.

The prevailing mood at this conference was one of excitement. For the first time in three months, people seemed genuinely hopeful. There was a limited amount of space, and I received calls for weeks from people begging to be included. We tried to squeeze everyone in who wanted to be there.

Afterward, a small group of local architects and interested citizens continued to meet on Tuesday evenings. The goal was to keep the principles formulated at the conference alive, to implement them, to transform New Orleans. We decided to form a new nonprofit, called CityWorks. Stephen Braquet, FAIA, Michael Bell, AIA, and I began speaking all around the country about post-Katrina New Orleans, raising money. We hoped to model CityWorks after SPUR in San Francisco (www.spur.org) and the Regional Plan Association of the New York–New Jersey–Connecticut area (www.rpa.org)—both organizations dedicated to education and advocacy for excellence in urban planning and design, as well as good government.

During the first six months after the storm, CityWorks began donating time to neighborhood associations. The most remarkable thing, to me, was that people were driving long distances to attend the association meetings. Prior to the storm, neighborhood meetings were usually quiet. But now, everyone was speaking at once, and people were angry. They also had a great passion for bringing their neighborhoods back—in a better way than they had been before. Seeing people come again and again to weekend meetings made me feel very hopeful that the city would come back, regardless of the government's effort or lack thereof.

As we were launching CityWorks, Braquet—supported by myself and the other AIA New Orleans board members—led a revolution to make our chapter one of the best and most active in the nation. We hired full-time staff, got a storefront, and tripled the revenue of the chapter in 2006. The chapter has reached out to the community in many ways, most notably in a program that we initially called the Architect Pairing Program. Indigent homeowners were paired with 60 of our members, who provided design services at little or no cost.