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Ben on BenchPenn IUR co-directors, Eugenie L. Birch and Susan Wachter are editing a volume of the symposium papers accompanied by maps and illustrations, Rebuilding Urban Places after Disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina, to be published by Penn Press early this summer. Below, they provide a glimpse of the ideas and lesssons learned from Hurricane Katrina that evolved from the recent Symposium.

Ideas and Lessons from the
Penn Institute for Urban Research-sponsored Symposium
“Rebuilding Urban Places After Disaster:
Lessons from Hurricane Katrina”

by Eugenie L. Birch and Susan Wachter

More than 40 visiting professors, public officials, Penn faculty, students and alumni made presentations at the two-day “Rebuilding Urban Places After Disaster: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina” symposium sponsored by the Penn Institute for Urban Research in early February. Attending sessions held in Houston Hall and Jon M. Huntsman Hall, approximately 200 attendees heard a powerful keynote address from former New Orleans mayor Marc Morial (C ’80) and, at the completion of the symposium a day later, left the meeting room accompanied by the strains of “When the Saints Come Marching In” played by famed New Orleans pianist Eddie Bo, whose spirited, bittersweet performance of this and other works reminded all of the determination of the New Orleans citizens to restore their city.

The focus of the symposium, Lessons from Hurricane Katrina was omnipresent throughout the proceedings that included, in addition to the keynote address, a presidential convocation, six panels, a dinner address and the release of Blues for New Orleans, by Penn Professor Emeritus of English Roger Abrahams, Nick Spitzer (C ’72), John Swed, and Robert Farris Thompson—the first book in the Penn Press/Penn Institute for Urban Research series, The City in the 21st Century City.

The first panel, “Penn on the Front Lines,” featured the work of members of the Penn community in Louisiana and Mississippi in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Moderated by Arthur Rubenstein, Dean, School of Medicine, the panel featured Eileen Sullivan-Marx, Associate Professor and Norma Cuellar,  Assistant Professor, both from the School of Nursing, who spoke about Penn’s efforts to help evacuees to the Philadelphia area and emergency response in the Gulf Region; Lisa Murphy and Cynthia Otto, Associate Professors, School of Veterinary Medicine, who relayed their experiences attending to the animal crisis; Sandy Sorlien, Lecturer, School of Design, who discussed rebuilding efforts along the Mississippi Coast; Lee Farmer (MCP ’04),  Eric McAfee (MCP ’04), and Laura Blackstone, Master of Urban Spatial Analytics candidate, who reported on their work with FEMA; and Paul Farmer, Executive Director, American Planning Association (APA) who related the massive Louisiana visioning efforts sponsored by the APA and American Institute of Architects. At dinner, Times-Picayune reporter Martha Carr told conference speakers of her experience reporting on a disaster when she and her city were its victims. Philadelphia Inquirer editor, Chris Satullo assessed Carr’s and her associates work as exemplifying the best in civic journalism.

The following day, Provost Ronald Daniels’ introduction reminded the audience that this symposium followed December’s National Symposium on Risk and Disaster. President Amy Gutmann followed with a thoughtful convocation reminding us of the University’s responsibility to convene and deliberate on the issues addressed by the symposium’s five panels, “Making Places Less Vulnerable,” “Re-establishing Economic Viability to Urban Regions,” “Using Anchor Institutions in Rebuilding,” “The Needs of the Displaced: Responding to Issues of Class, Race and Recovery” and “Recreating a Sense of Place.” At every session, the contributors offered deep and enduring lessons. That some of the lessons were contradictory only illustrated the complexity, difficulty, and challenges of restoring urban places. While the lessons were disputed by some and agreed upon by others, the exchanges were informative, lively, and controversial.

In the environmental area for example, Robert Giegengack, Davidson Kennedy Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, argued that the interplay between age-old geological processes and more recent human activities along the length of the Mississippi River make the current location of New Orleans untenable. “The hard fact remains: New Orleans will remain vulnerable to future Katrina-like events, and the risk of such events will gradually increase...in the future, due to systematic deterioration of the natural environment of the Mississippi Delta. The long-term fate of the city is hardly in question.” Concluding with a controversial quotation: “[S]peaking from the climate and the environmental-science perspective, a hundred years from now there’s just no way there’s going to be a city there... If you look at the geological record, these coastal areas come and go. Sometimes they’re under water and sometimes they’re not. Maybe a colossal engineering effort can do something, but at some point that is going to fail. This is just the way geology and climate work. You can’t fight it forever.”  

Not necessarily so, responded Anuradha Mathur, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture, School of Design. Like Giegengack, Mathur who has been engaged in long-term studies of the Mississippi, acknowledged its power—it drains 41% of the continental United States, carries more than 550,000 million cubic meters of water and 300 tons of sediment annually—but maintained that designers can fashion ways to co-exist with the River’s shifting terrain if they reconceive settlements that work with natural forces, appreciating “the intrinsic dynamism of the delta.”

Raymond Burby, Professor of City and Regional Planning, University of North Carolina, offered evidence supporting elements of both of the previous authors’ arguments. He demonstrated that in cities experiencing growth constraints from natural barriers, as in the case of New Orleans, or from sprawl-limiting public policy, pressures to build in hazardous areas (flood plains, steep slopes, earthquake fault zones) overcomes caution unless state-level mandates prevent such activity. Citing the $26 billion annual price tag of property losses due to natural hazards, he offered dramatic evidence of the effectiveness of denying development in hazard-prone areas by contrasting the New Orleans and Miami-Dade County experiences where the latter enforced restrictive growth boundaries.

Jumping into the fray, Barbara Faga, Chair, EDAW and Frederick Steiner, Dean, School of Architecture, University of Texas, then unveiled a new tool, sustainability mapping, for undertaking the approaches recommended by Mathur and Burby. Crafted by the environmental engineering firm, EDAW, and the GIS powerhouse, ESRI, these maps combined the best, publicly available, geospatial data (flood zones, storm surges, marshlands, barrier islands, coastal zones, wildlife habitat and prime farmland) and prediction models to assess the risk involved by developing along the Gulf Coast. Never done before, the maps yield definitive directions for development by outlining risk zones ranging from the highest to minimal to provide comprehensive and transparent information about development and rebuilding. Patrick Leahy, Acting Director, U.S. Geological Survey, forcefully underlined the importance of the development of natural hazards science based on geographic/geologic data as critical to public safety.

In a demonstration of the practical application of contemporary engineering, hazards management, urban design and planning techniques, Jonathan Barnett, Professor of Practice, School of Design, presented the preliminary report of WRT, the firm engaged by the Bring Back New Orleans Commission. First, however, he sharply refuted any assertion that New Orleans should not be rebuilt in place: “The people who are talking about rebuilding New Orleans in another location also need to suggest where the city should go. It turns out to be very difficult to secure approval for a few thousand temporary Federal Emergency Management Agency  trailers in the jurisdictions around New Orleans, much less for relocating the entire city.” He then demonstrated dramatically the natural risks faced by many of the nation’s cities citing New York among other examples: “A direct hit by a category 3 storm produces a true disaster movie scenario, with 30 foot-high flood surges rolling up Lower Manhattan.” Describing their job as making order out of chaos, he showed how their basic assumptions (rebuilding a city for a smaller population, securing the city against a repeat of the kind of flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina; making all parts of the city accessible so that every location is part of a desirable neighborhood; planning for the parks and open space to attract returning and new citizens and make the city more sustainable) played out in the city’s landscape. The resulting report mapped areas for public investment and private redevelopment and a process for incorporating citizen input. 

One of the more lively exchanges occurred among the Louisiana-focused and Mississippi-based rebuilders, the latter being represented by Sandy Sorlien, Lecturer in the School of Design, Department of Fine Arts. Having been a key figure in the Mississippi Renewal Forum’s charrette held in the early days after the hurricane, Sorlien advocated adoption of its New Urbanist principles and the use of the so-called Katrina Cottage—an alternative to the FEMA trailer or mobile home—in rebuilding. The principles, implemented through local regulation call for compact development, combine residential and commercial uses and use design guidelines specifying treatments of building facades and other details usually left to the individual.

Not all attendees supported the New Urbanist approach. Three presenters, Marilyn Taylor, Chair, Urban Land Institute and Partner, Skidmore Owings & Merrill, Dell Upton, Harrison Professor of Anthropology and Architecture, University of Virginia and Randall Mason, Associate Professor of Historic Preservation, Penn School of Design, asserted the primacy of indigenous culture and local architecture in informing design and planning rebuilding decisions.

Illustrating indigenous artistic and musical culture was Nick Spitzer, creator and host of National Public Radio’s American Routes. He moderated a discussion with two Creole craftsmen. Earle Barthé, a sixth generation plasterer, narrated video showing his plastering techniques and showed samples of his work. Eddie Bo, the noted pianist who also is a skilled carpenter, played a range of selections representing the rich musical heritage of New Orleans and the Gulf region and the importance of music and culture in the rebuilding process.

Underscoring other human dimensions of rebuilding, Elijah Anderson, Penn’s Charles and William Day Distinguished Professor of Social Sciences, reminded the audience that the racial inequities displayed in the hurricane’s immediate aftermath not only emphasized the New Orleans situation but also mirrored national conditions as he called for using the recovery for reform. Vivian Gasdsen, Associate Professor, Penn Graduate School of Education, outlined needed educational programs for a system faltering even before the disaster. Richard Gelles, Dean, School of Social Policy and Practice, described the issues facing foster children and battered women forgotten in the confusion while Brian Strom, George S. Pepper Professor of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, School of Medicine, and John Timoney, Chief of Police, City of Miami, discussed public health and safety concerns.

In surveying the restoration of critical basic services in housing and transportation, Gary Hack, Paley Professor and Dean, Penn School of Design; Rachel Weinberger, Assistant Professor of City and Regional Planning, Penn School of Design; and Jeffrey Lubell, Executive Director, Center for Housing Policy, proposed a series of practical and policy considerations including the right level of government to address housing, transportation and neighborhood specific recovery efforts.

A fundamental concern of the symposium was the restoration of economy in New Orleans and Gulf Coast. One of the more important lessons that emerged was the re-conceptualization of the hurricane-ravished place not as a series of cities or states but as a mega-region. This concept, identified by faculty and students at the University of Pennsylvania in 2004, and currently being explored by a consortium of universities, research organizations and foundations, including the Regional Plan Association of New York, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and the Ford Foundation, in an ongoing project, America 2050, is a unit composed of inter-related metropolitan regions bound together by large systems (environmental, economic and transportation). In describing the Gulf Coast Mega-region, Robert Lang, Director, Metropolitan Institute, Virginia Tech, argued that the Interstate Route 10 corridor, running from Houston to Pensacola, united the large area. While experts debate the exact boundaries of this region and whether it might extend beyond west and north of Houston, Lang’s presentation not only explored economic and functional linkages between the region’s major cities, but also presented data related to the area’s resilience, arguing that regarding the larger geography in the rebuilding effort identifies clear roles for New Orleans, Houston, Baton Rouge and other urban places in the future national and global economies.

Many of the presenters based their assumptions on Lawrence Vale and Thomas Campanella’s The Resilient City (2005) that explored lessons from earlier disasters in American history: the Chicago Fire (1871) and the San Francisco Earthquake (1906). At the conference, however, Vale, who is Head and Professor, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, warned that learning from past had its limits, cautioning “A fine line runs between capitalizing on an unexpected traumatic disruption as an opportunity to pursue some much-needed improvements and the more dubious practice of using devastation as a cover for more opportunistic agendas yielding less obvious public benefits.”  Mark Zandi, President of Moody’s Economy.com brought the discussion to the metropolitan/city levels analyzing the likelihood of the various cities to rebound while Leland Speed, Executive Director, Mississippi Development Authority outlined the actions his state including the blending of regional and local visions as developed in the state-authorized, privately sponsored Mississippi Renewal Forum charrettes. Held in the early days after the hurricane, the Forum also developed investment incentives including tax abatement strategies.

One of the more powerful expositions of economic revival emanated from the presentation on the post-hurricane work undertaken by New Orleans’ universities. Anchor institutions like Tulane and Xavier are working tirelessly to repair damage to student facilities, provide housing for faculty and staff, and to open to high enrollment figures in the spring semester. Led by Provost Lester Lefton, the Tulane University team reported a 91% return of their undergraduates, recounting how they also started a charter school to service the university and neighborhood families, developed new curriculum based on rebuilding needs and forged institutional partnership agreements with neighboring universities. Thomas Bonner, Kellogg Professor of English, Xavier University, noted the importance of reopening his institution, a historically black college and university (HBCU): “It is a signal to families that higher education is returning in force to the beleaguered city. As important is the symbolic value that a major part of the city’s African American culture has not disappeared: Michael White is playing his clarinet; Xavier Review is in press with a flood-themed issue; our president, Norman Francis, is chairing the state’s recovery committee; our students are once again part of the milieu who walk on Royal Street in the French Quarter and on Magazine Street uptown.”

Click here to see images from the Katrina Conference and others from a recent trip to New Orleans by Amy Montgomery, Penn Institute for Urban Research


After the “Rebuilding Urban Places after Disaster” symposium, Eugenie Birch and Amy Montgomery toured the Gulf Region meeting with conference speakers and viewing the rebuilding efforts including this site in Gulfport, Mississippi.


  Almanac, Vol. 52, No. 25, March 14, 2006


March 14, 2006
Volume 52 Number 25


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