Five years ago today, predictions were all we had to go by.
Hour after hour, computer models plotted a shifting course for a cataclysmic Category 5 hurricane screaming across the Gulf of Mexico, while on-air personalities struggled to articulate the area at greatest risk. Would it be Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, or Louisiana? Where would Katrina make her second and most powerful landfall?
Fast forward to the morning of Saturday, August 28, and suddenly there was just one cone of possibility on the TV screen. In this game of meteorological mathematics, the percentages had become clear: New Orleans would soon take the full brunt of the storm it had always feared. Unfortunately, by the time the last-minute press conferences convened, it seemed as if the questions were far louder than the calls for mandatory evacuations. Was there enough time? Would the levees hold? Was the City Beneath the Sea – and America – ready?
The answer to all of those questions was no.
Katrina roared ashore early the next morning as a weakened Category 3 storm. Five years later Americans still remember watching heart-breaking scenes of one of the costliest and most deadly storms ever. From every perspective – including a cultural one – this was an unprecedented disaster.
On this, the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, both the news and the images we see are brighter. New Orleans, a city steeped in tradition and proud of its preservation, is rising. Historic streets are teeming with tourists, shotgun-house neighborhoods are humming with the sound of hammers, and residents have a Super Bowl win in their back pocket that is about so much more than football.
Just as it was in the days immediately following the storm, the National Trust for Historic Preservation remains committed to this resilient city. From rallying national support to saving places that matter to rebuilding what the storm literally washed away, the National Trust is focused on a vibrant future for New Orleans – and the entire Gulf Coast.
Rebuilding Homes: In the wake of the storm, it was obvious that New Orleans needed the nation’s undivided attention and support. National Trust members responded, with funds – and power tools. Concerned preservationists from around the country arrived in the Crescent City days after the flood waters receded. In 2008, the National Trust coordinated numerous week-long volunteer trips to support the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans’ Rebuilding Together program. Living in habitat camps around the city, participants poured sweat equity into the rebuilding of homes desperately needed by handicapped, disabled, and elderly residents. Coupled with the efforts of the HOME AGAIN! project, 165 historic homes in the Holy Cross neighborhood received critical rebuilding assistance.
Reviving Communities: In the aftermath of Katrina, the question of whether to rebuild or demolish swirled around New Orleans like the storm clouds that had just passed. The National Trust resolved to invest promptly in preservation-based solutions for the city. Bringing a mix of dollars, development skills, and determination, National Trust community revitalization specialists joined with local leaders to promote the physical reconstruction of the city and its economic rebirth. The creation of an urban Main Street program in New Orleans in 2006 brought a proven revitalization strategy to six neighborhood business districts (including Oak Street pictured above), resulting in 439 jobs, 81 new businesses, and $48.6 million in public/private investment. The National Trust’s for-profit subsidiary, NTCIC, responded by investing $60 million in historic rehabilitation projects that created 2,000 jobs, $6 million in tax revenue, and $75 million in gross state product – in addition to creating apartments, offices, shops, hotels and a grocery store. The result was a significant boost to New Orleans’ economic recovery that in no way detracted from the very essence of its character.
Preserving Places that Matter: In 2008, American Express and the National Trust launched the Partners in Preservation program in New Orleans. While this successful program has gone on to distribute millions of dollars in preservation funding in two other major American cities, its flagship year focused specifically on historic sites in neighborhoods affected by Katrina. The end result was $400,000 in grants to jump start the restoration of places like the St. Augustine Church and Parish Hall, anchors in the city’s second-oldest African American parish since the mid-1800s.
Proving the Power of Main Street: In 2006, more than a thousand Main Street representatives convened in New Orleans for the National Main Streets Conference. Held just ten months after Katrina, the gathering was one of the first major conferences to take place in the city, and helped boost its economy after the disaster. Revitalization professionals from 45 states, Japan, and Canada came together to discuss the city’s quality of life and the importance Main Streets could play in New Orleans’ renaissance. Attendees also participated in work trips throughout the conference to clean out storm-damaged homes.
Advocating for What's Right: Sometimes aid comes in the form of a check. Other times in comes in the form of an indispensable national advocate. Since the storm, the National Trust has been on the ground – and in the courtroom – fighting for the future of New Orleans’ iconic Charity Hospital and the historic residential neighborhood that surrounds it. And the fight isn’t over. National Trust staff and supporters continue to advocate for the reuse of the landmark 1939 Art Deco hospital building, convinced this is the most expeditious way to provide local residents with desperately-needed health care facilities. Though the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and Louisiana State University have endorsed plans to sacrifice the historic Mid-City neighborhood around Charity to build new hospitals, preservationists won’t give up.
With five years and so many moving success stories behind us, it's hard not to think about what the future holds for this incredible place. New Orleans’ residents continue to come home to and reinvent their city, demonstrating the power of resilience, fighting the good preservation fight, and proving the all the naysayers wrong.
That's why the Crescent City still deserves our support. Please click here to see how you can get involved.
Jason Lloyd Clement is the director of community outreach at the National Trust, which is really just a fancy way of saying he’s a professional place lover. For him, any day that involves a bike, a camera, and a gritty historic neighborhood is basically the best day ever.