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Tracing Post-Storm Recovery in New York and New Orleans

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In New Orleans, like New York, the city is working to create future communities that can live with the water in their backyards. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.

Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, following his series about the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Kensinger looks at efforts to rebuild New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

In America's great coastal cities, including New York and New Orleans, the new realities of climate change are shaping the future of waterfront development. The first month of 2015 has already seen the publication of several alarming studies pointing to the difficulties ahead: 2014 ended as the hottest year on record, marine life is headed towards a mass extinction, and sea levels have been rising 25 percent faster then previously believed. Surrounded by water, both New York and New Orleans have been forced to reimagine and rebuild their coastlines, while at the same time recovering from the aftermath of devastating hurricanes.

It has been almost a decade since Hurricane Katrina pushed into New Orleans, breaching levees, flooding neighborhoods, and causing widespread destruction. The city will mark the 10th anniversary of this historic storm in 2015, but its recovery is far from complete. While some of its neighborhoods have experienced a rebirth since the hurricane, with new parks, homes and businesses evolving alongside a rising tide of gentrification, the city is still struggling to cope with basic infrastructure issues. A walk through New Orleans today reveals abandoned boats and burned cars, streets that are unnavigable, abandoned lots, and empty houses marked by Katrina crosses.

The uneven progress in New Orleans has created a valuable study in contrasts for cities like New York, which has sought to rebuild its own waterfront communities in the years following Hurricane Sandy. "What is interesting is that a lot of the advisors in New York were Katrina people," said Luisa Dantas, a New Orleans-based filmmaker who has documented the recovery efforts in New Orleans and New York for the Land Of Opportunity project. "I do think there was a lessons learned aspect to it. Like, how not to do it." While the destruction caused by Katrina was far more severe than the impact of Sandy, both cities are experimenting with creative strategies to address the specter of rising sea levels, and are tailoring their solutions to fit individual neighborhoods.

Two of the most successful instances of rebuilding in New Orleans offer unique examples of post-storm creativity: Musicians' Village—an Upper 9th Ward community created by Habitat For Humanity to support the city's musical culture—and the Make It Right houses, an "architecturally avant garde" collection of homes in the Lower 9th Ward, funded in part by Brad Pitt. These two developments embrace a vision of communal reinvention far more advanced than anything attempted in New York City, where rebuilding decisions in devastated neighborhoods like Breezy Point and Sea Gate have largely been left to the individual homeowners who can afford to return.

Both Musicians' Village and "The Brad Pitt Houses" are continuing to expand their footprints. In 2014, a specially designed home was built at Musicians' Village for a legless trumpet player, while Make It Right plans to add 50 more homes to the 100 LEED certified houses it has already constructed.  Both have also experienced growing pains, including reports of wood rotting in the humid weather. However, these projects' all-encompassing vision of a new way of life—including colorful and resilient homes, distinctive parks, senior housing, and community centers—presents a holistic, forward-thinking response to planned rebuilding that New York could learn much from.

One drawback of these planned communities is that their limited scope has led to a "checkerboard" effect in the larger neighborhood context, with newly created homes in one block bordered by decaying schools, gutted housing projects, or empty lots in the next. Compared to the planned retreat from the water organized in several New York communities after Hurricane Sandy, which was facilitated by buyouts from the Governor's Office of Storm Recovery, the vast open spaces left behind in Hurricane Katrina's wake have traveled a disorganized path towards redevelopment.

Until 2012, New Orleans held the title of "the most blighted city in America" due to a large amount of abandoned or crumbling housing stock. After a concentrated effort, the city removed 10,000 units of "blight" from the landscape by 2014, demolishing 4,000 properties and auctioning off thousands of unused lots to neighbors, representing a 30 percent reduction of the city's "blight count."  However, abandoned homes and overgrown lots remain, with some still used as dumping grounds for cars and trash. "In Staten Island, they are sensibly letting nature take back an area, and that's what should happen here," argued Julie Dermansky, a Louisiana-based photographer and journalist whose work has explored the aftereffects of both Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy. "Overall, it's impossible not to notice that New York, New Jersey, Staten Island are recovering much faster than New Orleans."

One of the best places to contemplate the possible future of New Orleans is out at the farthest eastern section of the city, many miles from the densely populated center. Beyond the city's vast Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge and outside a new set of massive levee gates, the neighborhoods of the New Orleans East Land Bridge are a good example of how America's cities are losing the battle against the ravages of time and nature. The landscape here is similar to the Rockaways in Queens—a narrow spit of land holding humble single-story residences, with huge bodies of water lapping away at either side. Like the neighborhoods of the Rockaways, which were all submerged by Sandy, the communities on the land bridge beg the question of how far we are willing to go to continue living in coastal flood zones.

After suffering complete inundation and destruction during Katrina, some homes here have been rebuilt higher than ever, lifted up on impressive pilings taller than anything in New York City. But how much higher will they need to go, to survive the coming storms and tides? In the Rockaways, homeowners are now protected by a system of untested sand berms and baffle walls. Will they keep out the next flood, in a peninsula barely above sea level? No such protections have been built on the land bridge, although there has been talk of creating a billion dollar levee through the nearby wetlands, to join the numerous other earthworks and containment systems that New Orleans is currently building.

In the meantime, many residents have decided to leave this part of New Orleans behind, abandoning piers, boats, and plots of waterfront property with "For Sale" signs pounded into dusty driveways. The slow inland march of the sea has already claimed several towns just outside of the city, and the land bridge communities may be the next displaced by rising sea levels and wetlands loss. "Katrina wiped out so much of the natural protection for New Orleans that whatever comes now is going to be worse," said Dermansky. "And its probably going to be the same in the Sandy areas. You see the coastal erosion happening faster. You can really watch it."

For centuries, New Orleans has battled against the water, employing a fortress-like approach to defeat its swampy origins, pushing its levees higher and higher with each generation. New York City has had a different relationship to the sea, building beaches and boardwalks. But in both cities, entire neighborhoods have been alienated from the water in their own backyards, which is often hidden away behind walls, railroads, and industry, making public access difficult. Both cities are now working frantically to reverse centuries of neglect and pollution, recognizing perhaps too late the importance of the waterfront and the natural storm buffers it can provide. "We've been fighting the water—that's the thing. It's water containment versus the Dutch model of living with the water," said Luisa Dantas. "When are we going to get to the point where we are actually preparing for these things in a matter of fact way? When do we start transitioning from just being reactive to all this, to being proactive?"

New Orleans, built along the banks of the Mississippi River, has only a handful of access points for residents to reach the riverfront.

These include the newly built Crescent Park, which began construction in 2008 with a post-Katrina grant of $30 million, and opened its first section in 2014 in the rapidly gentrifying Bywater neighborhood.

Like much of New Orleans, the water here is hidden behind a barrier. Levees, floodwalls, and train tracks block off access to most of the Mississippi River, while canals and overflow basins throughout the city are generally difficult to access.

One mile north of Crescent Park, in the Upper 9th Ward, are the 72 homes of Musician's Village, an 8.2-acre planned community, which includes a pocket park and music center, built in the aftermath of Katrina.

Abandoned homes damaged by Katrina are scattered around the Upper 9th Ward communities near Musicians' Village.

These homes were part of Press Park, a Housing Authority of New Orleans complex that was badly flooded during Katrina. The complex, once made up of 225 townhouses, has remained empty since the storm.

In the Lower 9th Ward, where Katrina destroyed over 4,000 homes, the Make It Right foundation has built 100 unique homes for residents. Each home is sustainable and fully customized by the homeowner.

The community includes an "eco-friendly, solar-powered playground" and this pocket park built by the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority atop the foundation of a demolished house, as part of the NORA Green program.

A few blocks away, the ruins of another Lower 9th Ward home sit fallow as a new high school rises in the background. The contrast between ruins and new city projects is striking thoughout the city.

Though many empty lots have been cleared and sold throughout the city, some spaces are still used as dumping grounds.

Numerous abandoned homes encircle the Make It Right area. Some city blocks here have only one home that remains standing.

Overgrown lots and stray dogs remain in the area.

In the far eastern part of the city, the rebuilding style changes dramatically. This waterfront neighborhood, near Lake St. Catherine, is not protected by levees or floodwalls.

All homes rebuilt here on the New Orleans East Land Bridge were raised high above potential flood levels after Katrina. Many are now used as hunting and fishing camps.

Dozens of dirt roads lead to spaces where waterfront homes once stood. Now these spaces are used for makeshift campfire pits and trash dumps. The land bridge is one of the first lines of defense against storm surges entering Lake Pontchartrain.

The broken piers of these slowly vanishing communities stretch out into Lake Pontchartrain. Even if a levee is built, it is only a matter of time before this narrow spit of land is reclaimed by rising tides.
· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· The Post-Sandy Shoreline [Curbed NY]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]