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New Orleans is transforming from natural disaster zone to resilient city

Flooding parks, state-of-the-art underground water networks and predator gardens—it might sound like the work of science fiction, but it’s just some of the ways that New Orleans is building a more resilient city, and helping to look after its most vulnerable residents.

Since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005—resulting in some 1,833 deaths, displacing around 273,000 people, and resulting in USD $41.1 billion dollars in insurance payments to people affected across six states—New Orleans has been looking at ways to mitigate future disasters, particularly for the city’s poorest residents.

“Our aim is not simply react to flooding events of the past, but to make the neighbourhood more resilient for future climate change,” says Mary Kincaid, Sustainable Infrastructure Program Manager for the City of New Orleans. 

Kincaid says that a series of urban water projects are storing water, adding green space and making improvements to roadways and drainage systems.

“The smallest technique we have is a bioswale, an engineered ditch that allows for both surface flow and storage,” she says. “We also have projects we’re creating underground storage in modular tanks of several million gallons of water under the football field at a local school.”

One of the driving factors in New Orleans’ focus on resilience is research that shows natural disasters disproportionately affect on low-to-moderate income people, especially in terms of displacement, unemployment, and rising cost of living. 

“Climate change is affecting our storm modelling, and we expect to see greater displacement of lower income people in natural disasters,” says Kincaid. “There will be more urban heat, and there will be more intense storm events.”

In collaboration with the New Orleans Redevelopment Agency, who took possession of vacant lots that were no longer habitable after Hurricane Katrina, the city has turned the vacant lots into pocket parks that also store stormwater, which has helped to increase housing values in the surrounding areas.

“We have also created the Mirabeau Water Garden, which includes recreational lawns, a walking path, a weir for circulating water, and the planting of cypress and pine trees,” she says. “It stores water for 72 hours or less so that we don’t collect mosquitos, and by storing water it stops water backing up at the pump station and possibly causing flooding.”

Storing the stormwater is also beneficial to the soil, as it acts as an infusion of fresh water into the system. This in turn places places less stress on the tree canopy, which is the key defence for houses against hurricane winds.

Kincaid says that building resilience means taking a holistic approach to the environment, such as ensuring a healthy ecological cycle and avoiding monocultures.

“In New Orleans, we are starting to build predator gardens—spaces in which we can plant native species that feed dragonflies and other creatures that prey on species such as mosquitoes, pigeons, and rats—animals that have adapted to living with human civilisation.”

“These projects underscore the importance of looking at the entire biome of your city,” she says.


About the author: Elle Hardy writes as a correspondent for the International WaterCentre, charged with exploring water challenges and the ways these challenges are managed around the world. You can follow Ellle on Twitter @ellehardy.

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