Days 209-21: New Orleans: Not totally being rebuilt green but getting there…

Well, I have fallen in love with New Orleans. Granted, it’s wintertime and cool; sweat wasn’t running down every crease of my pregnant body (maybe I would feel different in the dog days of August) and I never saw the city before Katrina hit, or experienced the crime after, but I have to say that, having lived in NYC for 9 yrs, the Big Easy seems to slide the Big Apple a creaky wooden chair saying, Man, sit down for awhile and listen to this jazz…And i didn’t even get to see the nightlife! ANd we were told to be careful where we walked at nighttime…

We got to New Orleans hoping to see how the rebuilding is going down there in the aftermath of the Hurricane – is it ‘green?’ Are people interested? Is there funding? It seems that there is indeed ‘green’ rebuilding happening but it is not the norm – Katrina devastated so much of the population and the infrastructure of the city that New Orleans had its hands full just trying to get people evacuated to safety and attempt reconnection and massive cleanup, much less sit down and rethink how to contruct over half an entire city in a thoughtful and sustainable way.

And yet, even now, some 2 1/2 years later, there are people living in tents under the freeways and many more homeless people than before the storm. Will homes be built for them? – and if they are not built sustainably, then what? What if the same lack of foresight in initial design/ engineering that caused the levees to fail during Katrina likewise prevails in the rebuilding of New Orleans infrastructure? This great opportunity to start from scratch – put some real thought into what is truly sustainable – could be lost and we could see a slipshod and hurried rebuilding of New Orleans that will leave the city and its people vulnerable still…i really hope that is not what happens…

We visited with Ken Ford, a longtime resident of the Chalmette neighborhood, who explained how Exxon’s ever-expanding petroleum plant poisons the air and water where he lives. One swipe of his fingertips across the backyard patio table demonstrated how much soot accumulates within a few hours – airborne pollutants that are accumulating in the air on a constant basis, changing the composition of what residents are breathing. Ken should know; he is living on half a lung and has been keeping track of air quality in Chalmette for quite some time…

Next to his house, an abandoned playground sits empty, with broken swings and not much hope of coming back to life as the area is not considered safe for children to be running around. It stands next to a tall air monitoring tower…A man in his truck wants to know if we are there to help fix the swingset cause he will do whatever we need to help us if we are…he just wants a place for his little daughter to play…When I ask him if he thinks that breathing air from the refinery might make it hard for his little daughter to breathe, he says he imagines it does but he’s lived there all his life and what are you going to do?

Anne Rolfes, Program Director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, (you can find info on Bucket Brigades in other communities at www.bucketbrigade.net) explained how giant corporations like Exxon will name the plants after the communities they are in close proximity to (ie: “Chalmette refinery”) in order to stir a sense of local community pride and avoid being targeted or sued as a polluter. She showed us how special buckets with vacuum bags are used to take air samples that can be checked for pollutants and then acted upon if the results are nasty (which they usually are). Anne admits that community organizing around this issue is much harder now, after Katrina, but she remains undeterred and steadfast in her determination to help clean up the air for the people of New Orleans and Louisiana. They are lucky to have her.

On the green building front, we talked with a young New Orleans native named John Moore who studied green building in Atlanta and returned home after Katrina to help Global Green with reconstruction in the 9th Ward. He was very happy to show us the first nearly completed building – a passive solar, very energy efficient abode that will serve as a sort of demo to the community as other houses are being built. (And yes, as some of you may have heard, Brad Pitt did help make a lot of this reconstruction happen. John vouched for Brad’s being an upstanding guy who happens to be an architectural buff and, fortunately for New Orleans, a philanthropist with some considerable green.)

Tomorrow’s blog: how the Bayou is faring in the wake of Katrina and from the glut of oil refineries on Louisiana’s fragile coast. Also, how the BAGmonster went over at Mardi Gras…

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