Americans are a big-hearted group with a short attention span. Two years after Hurricane Katrina plowed down everything in her path along the Gulf of Mexico coastline, we've moved on to other subjects of sympathy. The bridge disaster in Minneapolis is this week's horror. Meanwhile, in coastal Louisiana and Mississippi, and parts of Alabama and Florida as well, people are still trying to rebuild their lives and their towns. They're missing bridges, too, driving miles out of their way for a bag of groceries. But these difficult conditions no longer grab headlines, unless it's to dub New Orleans the “murder capital” of the country. Such coverage shakes the fragile spirits of those stalwart souls struggling to remain ambitious for the region's recovery. Is it any wonder crime is back up in New Orleans? Social services are stretched to the breaking point. Many agencies, like their citizens, are still calling FEMA trailers home base. The police department—what's left of it—is in trailers, with its evidence collection jammed into an 18-wheeler. New Orleans has lost more than 500 police officers since Katrina; they've moved on to join relatives and friends in more hopeful environs.
Indeed, the brain-and-muscle drain is one of the biggest problems the area faces. Many displaced workers have found greener pastures—or simply a roof over their heads and a reliable paycheck—elsewhere. This includes architects. Some just couldn't outlast the project paralysis that followed Katrina.
So many favorable conditions have to align to make a place viable for its citizens. “Where will I live? Do I have a job? Can I find a school for my child? Is my family safe here?” Any of these needs unmet can turn into a deal breaker. Yes, there are heroes aplenty persevering in New Orleans, sacrificing salary and safe haven, but even heroes lose heart after multiple setbacks and disappointments.
In this special issue, we profile a handful of architects who are working tenaciously to put the pieces of post-Katrina Louisiana and Mississippi—the states hardest hit—back together again. They are alternately hopeful and pessimistic. Everyone participating in the recovery has a different view of what the finished picture should look like. So consensus on what to do now and next is difficult to secure. Almost no one thinks rebuilt neighborhoods should tower atop 12-foot-high foundations, and yet in some places that may happen.
All sorts of foundations are being laid that may generate unwanted results. For instance, current financial incentives are encouraging the construction of rental housing rather than for-sale units. Not much of a lure for people trying to find a way back home.
What will the region look like 10 years down the road? Will monolithic building codes create a homogeny of design similar to what we saw in Oakland, Calif., after the 1991 firestorm? Suddenly every new house was a stucco Mediterranean with a red tile roof. Singular solutions breed monotonous, rootless responses.
What everyone loves most about the Gulf Coastal towns is how different they look and feel from anywhere else in the country. We must encourage diversity among those rethinking and rebuilding in Katrina's wake. And we must help the locals resist outside ideas that don't fit the climate and spirit of this incomparable place.