The City of New Orleans seeps a deep sense of survival.
Stemming from the historical economic significance of the port, this City was at the centre of intensity of nationhood tensions between the French and the Spanish ultimately culminating with the Louisiana purchase and incorporation of the State into US Federation.
Fights, floods, slavery and song have created a cultural fabric that continues to permeate the streets and social norms today. This year - 2018, the some 1.2 million New Orleanians will celebrate their tricentenary where the sounds and sensation of jazz, creole cuisine and colours of Mardi Gras will no doubt feature prominently. From the port to downpours it has been the geography of this city that has impacted and influenced its rise and fall like no other.
City growth and destruction have been dictated by its proximity and interdependence on waterways. The river and port make it the commercial centre of the gulf coast of the United States while these very same waterways and low-lying land mass make it highly vulnerable to the grueling, pervasive impact of flood.
Over the decades this vulnerability has driven investment into what is now a highly complex system of levees and drainage pumps all aimed at seeking to ward off and protect the city from frequent rising waters, heavy rainfall and high incidents of hurricanes.
In 2005 this infrastructure provided little resistance to the devastating forces of Hurricane Katrina. Eighty per cent of the city was flooded and one of the hardest hit areas was the small close-knit community of St Barnard Parish.
Some thirteen years on, the residents of St Barnard remain thankful that, with the razing of all local fire, police or emergency services, the Canadian Mounties appeared from the mud and embraced this ‘forgotten community' to lend a sturdy hand.
Since that time a dozen schools have been built, modern buildings with the latest technology have been constructed, streets have been restored and a 152-mile bike and walk way network is almost complete.
It is however the people that are missing from this community. While the US Census bureau records St Barnard as one of the fastest growing country parishes in the US it remains only half the population that it was before Katrina.
Parish President, Guy McInnis, (pictured in the photo to the right with Katherine O'Regan) attributes this to a misunderstanding and misdirection of some of the post Katrina recovery efforts that disconnected people from the community of St Barnard. That the support, rehousing, and job programmes while critical, in effect promoted relocation rather than repatriation. He believes that the biggest lesson is that ‘the further you let the residents get away from the community the harder it is to get them back.” Instead, the recovery focus should be on “working together to clean up the community and provide incentives to stay at home.”
While President McInnis is now focused on restoring the population of St Barnard, he is equally adamant that it is not just about more numbers and improved amenity. That integral to rebuilding the Parish is a restoration of the soft infrastructure, of the unique sense of community. Community events, resident participation in decision making and building local organisational capacity are playing a significant
role in the city plans.
For McInnis and the Parish their resilience and their future will come from a reconnection and rebuilding of a community that perpetuates their Spanish and French roots and embraces a passion for the Mississippi River that is the City’s reason for being.
This article is one of a series from the 2018 Walk Bike Place Conference, New Orleans, USA.
Katherine O’Regan, Executive Director
Cities Leadership Institute