(submitted to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, 8/26/09)

As we mark the four-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, residents and lovers of New Orleans will be looking back.  I am just worried we will not be looking back far enough.

Let me reflect a bit: Four years ago this week my life changed – and it had very little to do with Hurricane Katrina.  In fact, as I settled into my new freshman dorm room in Connecticut, I was oblivious to the scale of the tragedy that was unfolding in New Orleans.  After the revelation that the quirky city I had happily visited during high school was still under water a week after the storm, I realized I would need to start taking responsibility for keeping myself informed about current events.  I had no idea at the time how New Orleans would continue to shape my four years at college.

As I delved into my urban studies coursework during my junior year, I jumped at an internship opportunity in New Orleans last summer with a non-profit organization called Global Green.  Taking advantage of every summer night and weekend to explore the city, this boring New Englander fell in love with the people, music, food, architecture, and other rich cultural traditions that make New Orleans unique.

Meanwhile, as I supported Global Green’s policy and outreach efforts to promote sustainable, energy-efficient building in the Gulf Coast region after Katrina, I interacted on a regular basis with local residents who had lost the homes they had worked so hard to purchase.  For many of these proud residents, the question was not whether to rebuild, but how to rebuild.  Motivated by this concern, I formulated my senior thesis research around approaches to housing design in New Orleans.  That is when I really started looking back.

Anyone who knows anything about New Orleans’s history knows that Hurricane Katrina was hardly the city’s first encounter with nature.  In his famous history, New Orleans: The Making of an Urban Landscape, Peirce F. Lewis notes that the choice of site for New Orleans “guaranteed that the form of the city’s physical growth would be shaped by local environment to a far greater degree than in most other American cities.” Combating hot, humid summers and the constant threat of flooding from the river, New Orleans homes have always faced a natural process of adverse selection.  There exists no prescribed process for perpetuating successful housing design elements in this survival of the fittest environment.  However, a thoughtful examination of historical building practices in the city and their successes and failures can help ensure that the destruction of Katrina will not be reproduced along with the housing stock.

As I conducted my research, two still-standing, historical examples stood out for their unique ability to adapt creatively to their environment.  The Pitot House, a late eighteenth-century French colonial plantation house on the once-tidal Bayou St. John, features first-floor building materials that could withstand tidal activity and an umbrella-like, double-pitched roof that protected residents from the hot sun and heavy rains.

The Doullut Steamboat Houses, built in the early twentieth century adjacent to the Mississippi River levee, integrate Japanese influences and a tribute to the Mississippi steamboat culture into beautiful residences that grace the Holy Cross neighborhood of the Lower Ninth Ward.  Built by a riverboat pilot and ship-builder, the houses are designed to survive the flood season that no longer occurs since the man-made levees were constructed.

In succumbing to a blind faith in the power of human engineering to protect people from nature by separating the two spheres through the levee system, New Orleanians have lost sight of the need to adapt creatively to the natural setting.  Only a revival of this sensibility can provide a housing stock that will protect and inspire residents and thus preserve the unique identity that has made so many, this author included, fall in love with New Orleans.

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