A lesson in resilience, from New Orleans to Seattle

Can community resilience be created? Or is it something that only arises organically, the result of shared historical struggle?

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Jazz at New Orleans' Preservation Hall. Credit: Flickr user rickz

Taking off from Seattle en route to New Orleans, I watched as the plane passed over the verdant hillsides and deep blue lakes of the Puget Sound below. What greeted me in New Orleans was a different sight altogether: brown earth, hazy and polluted air, expanses of flat marshland and extraterrestrial-like oil rigs.

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Landing in New Orleans

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Seattle from above

It was my first trip to the American South, and I was excited to be there, but the taxi driver who picked us up, an immigrant from Cairo, had little to recommend us to our new surroundings. “New Orleans is a poor city," he told us. "I don’t like it here. People don’t have ambition. They are uneducated, poor and ignorant.”

It is true that the city's brute racial inequalities and flood-prone geography have played integral roles in determining its fate. And yet the city’s vivacious energy is night and day with Seattle's: Commuters offered up their unused bus passes. Strangers were quick to offer help with directions. Our Couchsurfing host even left his house unlocked for us.

That's a far cry from the stereotype of the typical Seattleite — nerdy, ambitious and civically engaged, if a little cold.

There are lessons for Seattle in the way New Orleans has played the hand it was dealt.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina flooded 80 percent of the city and killed almost 1,500 people. After-the-fact flooding worsened racial divides. Lower-income neighborhoods with predominately black residents experienced the most flooding and displacement. Wealthier areas of the city, largely inhabited by whites, such as the touristy French Quarter and the estate-filled Garden District, were far less affected.

One taxi driver, chauffeuring my friend and I through the Garden District, with its still pristine mansions, told me how his own house was flooded — “eight feet underwater for weeks” — with no electricity. “This is where all the rich folk live," he said, "not the poor folk like me.”

A century from now, without proper engineering and an expected five-feet of sea level rise, 88 percent of New Orleans is predicted to be underwater. New Orleans’ extremely low elevation, quickly disappearing marshlands and high risk for powerful hurricanes will make the city non-existent in the future unless robust climate adaptation and mitigation strategies are enacted.

Seattleites may labor under a delusion of safety, but natural disaster here would be no less devastating. According to a report by the Earthquake Engineering Research Institute, a 6.7 magnitude earthquake on the Seattle fault, which some claim has a 1 in 10 chance of occurring in the not-so-distant future, would cause 1,600 deaths, 24,200 injured victims and over 183,500 damaged buildings. It would also severely damage the Port of Seattle, light 130 fires and cause at least partial closures on each of the six highways entering the city. In total, it's estimated such an event would cost the city $33 billion.

A major natural catastrophe would exacerbate Seattle's deepening inequalities. The Chinatown-International District, where thirty-six percent of residents live below the poverty line, would be the most damaged by a major earthquake — largely due to dilapidated buildings.

Flooding would leave wealthier neighborhoods, such as Queen Anne and Capitol Hill, largely untouched. Down in the Duwamish River Valley, neighborhoods like South Park (where the per capita income is 42 percent below the Seattle metro area average and 66 percent of the population are racial minorities) would bear the brunt.

What will define us as a city is not the disaster itself, but how we respond to it. The Crescent City, with its spirit of resilience, is a possible role model.

New Orleans, which lost nearly a third of its population between 2000 and 2010, accepts the death it has experienced, visible in the above-ground cemeteries that dot every neighborhood. And the city keeps on bustling.

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A small message of resilience - written on a house in the Bywater.

In 2014, New Orleans joined the 100 Resilient Cities initiative, which provides resources to cities to combat “physical, social and economic challenges.” The city now has a Chief Resilience Officer and Mayor Mitch Landrieu, a lifelong city resident, is himself a vision of New Orleans' resilience.

"We’re resilience. . . . The truth of the matter is our educational attainment is much lower than other places; our health is much lower than other places. What a strange place for people to be showing the country that it can really work."

Locals, even those without a chance of rebuilding, are moving back, finding new ways to make life in the city work. One woman recounted with a grin how she had relocated to Houston after the storm, but returned as soon as she could. New Orleans, the locals will tell you, is home. It cannot be duplicated.

For all of their ogling over the Olympics, 'new Seattle' is missing that sense of place. The thousands of people flooding into the city are here for their jobs more than the community. Cookie-cutter developments and glassy condos don't do much to foster a sense of place.

Can community resilience be created? Or is it something that only arises organically, the result of shared historical struggle?

When the big one hits, Seattle ought to hope that we can muster something beyond technical resilience; that the city's tech force has more grit than we've so far given them credit for.


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