David Sharpe

When residential architect set out to cover the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast two years after Hurricane Katrina's devastation, we assumed we'd end up with a story of hope. We did—sort of. Many of the local architects we talked to expressed optimism about the future of the region. They spoke with energy and passion about plans to renew neighborhoods, to remake cities and towns, and to fortify against the next hurricane. But the very same people, sometimes within the same conversation, also revealed serious doubts about the pace and direction of the recovery effort. Like the family of a critical care patient, they scrutinize every little change, veering back and forth between delight and despair. Especially in New Orleans, they anxiously await each new development in the rebuilding process, unsure whether it will help or harm. In this report, we've endeavored to illuminate the good and the bad, the true signs of hope and the harsh realities of its absence. Over and over, Gulf Coast architects emphasize that people around the country need to know what's really going on in this still-devastated but still-compelling area. They're right. Its redevelopment incorporates the most crucial issues facing architects today: land use, affordable housing, sustainable design, historic preservation, and social responsibility. How this process succeeds or fails will influence architecture and planning for decades to come.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, it propelled architect Kurt Hagstette, AIA, into a nomadic existence. He and his wife and children rode out the storm at his sister's house in Covington, La., then took shelter with his in-laws in Missouri. One son's private high school temporarily transferred its students to a similar school in Houston, so the family moved there and rented an apartment. “We didn't know whether they were going to board up New Orleans,” Hagstette says. As an associate at the New Orleans firm Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, which relocated to Baton Rouge, La., for three months after the storm, he spent each workweek in Baton Rouge and drove four hours back to Houston on the weekends.

Just before Katrina, Hagstette and wife Kelli Wright had remodeled a 1930s Cape Cod-style house in the Broadmoor neighborhood of New Orleans. They couldn't wait to get back to it, even though standing water had caused substantial damage. As soon as schools reopened and residents were permitted to return, they did, staying in another house they still owned in a part of the city spared by the storm. The Broadmoor home's first floor already sat three feet off the ground, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends, so Hagstette didn't go to the expensive, time-consuming trouble of raising it higher. “I figured I can always raise it later,” he says. “It was more important for me to get back into my house.” The family reoccupied their re-remodeled residence in July 2006, almost a year after the storm.

They count as the lucky ones, compared to some of their fellow Gulf Coast residents. As the world witnessed in August 2005, Hurricane Katrina took nearly 2,000 lives in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Hurricane Rita struck Louisiana and Texas 26 days later, hampering recovery efforts. The total cost of the damage from Katrina, estimated by the National Hurricane Center, is $81.2 billion.

reality check

According to figures released in mid-June, about 70,000 families along the Gulf Coast still are living in temporary housing units provided by FEMA. Studies by the Sierra Club and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have shown dangerously high formaldehyde levels inside the FEMA trailers—just one of the many reported problems with these emergency shelters. “People are living in inhumane conditions,” says 6-foot-7-inch architect Bruce Tolar, whose family stayed in a non-FEMA trailer for seven months while their house in Ocean Springs, Miss., underwent repairs. “I could hardly stand up in ours, and ours was a little above a FEMA standard. After two months, the cabinet doors started falling off. For those who have never had the ability to get out of the trailers, it's awful.”