New Orleans has been called “The Crescent City,” “The Capital of the Caribbean,” and “The City that Care Forgot.” But it is probably best known as “The Big Easy.” In late-August and early-September, 2005, much of the Big Easy was largely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent failure of levees surrounding the city. Though horrific and tragic, the Katrina catastrophe was not the first to strike a large city, and it almost certainly will not be the last.
One year later, on October 23-29, 37 students and 3 professors from the Graduate Program in Urban and Regional Planning went to New Orleans to learn what is being done to plan the city’s reconstruction in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding. I organized the trip with the assistance of other faculty and staff, but it could not have been conducted without the assistance of Dr. Robert S. Becker, a 1971 graduate of Iowa’s Planning Program who is a former director of the City Planning Commission and currently the director of City Park in New Orleans.
While in New Orleans, we toured the city to witness the extent of the catastrophe, met with representatives of variety of organizations involved in planning the city’s reconstruction, completed a community service project for the city, and witnessed the first citywide “Community Congress” for the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP).
Like other field trips the Planning Program has conducted over the past several years to the Twin Cities, Louisville, and Kansas City, this trip was designed to give students a good opportunity to connect their course readings and discussions with one of the nation’s larger city-regions and, by enabling them to meet with various professionals and citizens, to give them a better sense of the kinds of work practicing planners (and others involved in the process of planning) actually do.
But this trip was special. No city-region in the United States has ever experienced a catastrophe of the scale and intensity witnessed in New Orleans. And no U. S. city has ever faced such a complex and important urban planning challenge.
On its first evening in New Orleans, we went to City Park to hear Bob Becker provide an overview of the scale of destruction and the reconstruction planning that has been conducted thus far. On the following morning, Becker guided us through some of the hardest hit neighborhoods, including the Lower Ninth Ward, Gentilly, Lakeview, and points in between. The extent of devastation was hard to take, even a year after the floodwaters receded. In the afternoon, we met with Leslie Alley (Assistant Director of the City Planning Commission), Walter Brooks (Director of the Regional Planning Commission), and Steven Bingler (Head of Concordia Associates and Coordinator of the UNOP process).
On the second full day, we met with Pam Dasheill (President of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association in the Lower Ninth Ward), Dr. Ralph Thayer (a former professor at the University of New Orleans who assisted the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) with its long-range ESF-14 planning), Barry Hokanson (a 1986 graduate of the U of Iowa’s planning program who has been working as a consultant for FEMA), and Dr. Robert Collins (head of the planning and policy studies program at Dillard University).
On our third full day in the city, we met with Martin Landrieu (neighborhood leader for planning in District 5, which includes Lakeview) and Dr. Jane Brooks (a professor of planning at the University of New Orleans who focuses on the city’s culture and historic architecture). In the afternoon we contributed 120 man-hours towards cleaning up the city’s much-loved fountain at City Park. While the group was doing this work, two young men walked up to ask what we were doing. When told, one of them said, “I used to come here all the time as a young man, and I can’t tell you how much it means to us to see you down here doing this work.” The other young man said he was producing a photographic essay about the city’s reconstruction. He took photos of the students laboring hard.
On Saturday morning we went to the Morial Convention Center to witness UNOP’s first city-wide “Community Congress.” At this event, a team of urban planners and engineers reported on the current status of the city’s reconstruction and highlighted the vast amount of work that remains to be accomplished. Roughly 300 residents from New Orleans’ various neighborhoods participated in this event, and provided immediate feedback to the planners by using a technology provided by “AmericaSpeaks.” As the group of students began to leave, the person who was speaking (Dr. Carolyn J. Luakensmeyer) asked us to stop. She said to the crowed, “I want you to know that a group of students has come down here from the University of Iowa to help us with our city’s reconstruction…Let’s give them a big hand of applause.” And then she said that she too is a graduate of the University of Iowa.
What a powerful and moving experience!