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Rebecca Worby: Expanding the Story

What I Learned as a New Yorker in Resilient New Orleans.

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Image by Flickr user Brande Jackson

By Rebecca Worby

In early March, when winter seems to stretch on interminably in both directions, I would seize nearly any opportunity to leave New York. But getting invited to attend a conference in New Orleans—the opportunity offered to me this past March—was a particularly good one. A three-and-a-half-hour flight transported me to warm days with brightly colored houses and flowers, live oaks draped in Spanish moss and sparkling Mardi Gras beads, and the glittering, mesmerizing flow of the crescent-shaped bend in the Mississippi River that cups the city.

Before my trip, I read up on water management, green infrastructure, coastal restoration—all the most enticingly nerdy subjects concerning the urban landscape of New Orleans, at least according to me, a person and writer whose main preoccupation is the relationship between people and their environment. This research was also professionally necessary: I had been invited to be a media guest at the first-ever RES/CON: RES, resiliency; CON, conference.

A rebranding of the International Disaster Conference and Expo (IDCE), RES/CON’s new name suggests the message its organizers hoped to send: Resiliency is about more than just preparing for and responding to disasters. It’s about considering the long-term, building and developing systems that are adapted to better handle future risks. And it’s not only about a place’s most risky moments; it includes rebuilding in ways that improve the quality of daily life.

Robin Barnes, Executive Vice President and COO of Greater New Orleans, Inc., the economic development alliance that partnered with the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center to host the conference, explained that IDCE had been “very focused on recovery and preparedness,” a great conference for emergency managers. The idea for RES/CON was to build upon the IDCE foundation: to “keep emergency management in the mix,” Robin said, but expand the conversation significantly. The conference, like the city itself, needed to grow with the times: to move past recovery and toward a paradigm of resilience.

In a place where the land is sinking and the water is rising, pressing questions about climate change—concerning what’s sustainable, what can be fixed, what may be lost—cannot be ignored. These questions are not unique to southern Louisiana, but the region has had to create a path many coastal cities will eventually follow.

In the years since Hurricane Katrina, the city has had no choice but to develop an industry of resilience—and has established itself on the vanguard of that industry in the process. In a place where the land is sinking and the water is rising, pressing questions about climate change—concerning what’s sustainable, what can be fixed, what may be lost—cannot be ignored. These questions are not unique to southern Louisiana, but the region has had to create a path many coastal cities will eventually follow. New Orleans has become “a leader in the resiliency space,” explained Amy Armstrong, Director of City Relationships for 100 Resilient Cities, an organization dedicated to helping cities build resilience around the world while advancing the field. Amy called New Orleans “a natural home” for this industry. In fact, the Resilient New Orleans plan was recently awarded the American Planning Association’s National Planning Excellence Award for a Best Practice. Resilient New Orleans and 100 Resilient Cities’ strategies more generally represent a holistic approach that engages what Amy describes as the whole “ecosystem of the city.”

At RES/CON, I attended a session called “Business, Risk, and Resilience: Insights from Industry Leaders”. These leaders represented the industries of accounting, insurance, and fishing. I’ll admit that the fisherman’s remarks, decidedly more concrete—and more in tune with my personal affinities—than those of his fellow panelists, garnered the most attention from me. But what was most striking about the discussion was its variety, which was clearly intentional: it traversed not only the expected business territory of risk assessment resilience as a market but also the fisherman’s stories of personal experiences with shrimp and manta rays. Throwing these industries into the mix together created a dynamic uncommon in such settings. This speaks to the holistic nature of resiliency strategy: the conference itself reflected the collaboration that building resilience requires.

I knew that Greater New Orleans, Inc. was an economic development nonprofit, but it wasn’t until I began attending panels, and seeing how resiliency sprawled across sectors and industries at all levels, that I started to put together why it made sense for such an organization to host this conference. RES/CON wove the threads of resiliency’s “triple bottom line”—the environmental, the economic, and the social—into one conversation. Much of the discussion over the course of the conference centered on bringing together experts, placing the right people in rooms together, and getting people to listen to one another.

I came home to New York feeling completely smitten with New Orleans—evidently a common side effect of visiting—and feeling disconnected from my home. Superstorm Sandy had been a constant topic at RES/CON, and each time it came up, I felt the same twinge of surprise and recognition that I feel when the name of a good friend comes up in a conversation with strangers. Recovery efforts in New York? My New York?

I quickly realized that the New Orleanians and out-of-towners I met at the conference knew a lot more about New York—or at least about Sandy recovery and subsequent resiliency projects—than I did. That New Orleans could teach me something about New York shouldn’t have surprised me: everything New York has learned since Sandy, New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast had already learned from Katrina.

The city is now “contractually exporting the expertise and skills that have been honed since Katrina”; the people of New Orleans have begun to share and pass on what they’ve learned.

Robin noted that it’s not uncommon for New Orleanians to pick up and go elsewhere—she mentioned Haiti, Japan—to help with recovery and resilience. Nowhere has that help been more sought-after than in my hometown. In fact, Louisiana companies have landed more than $300 million in Sandy-related contracts. “It’s a big step for New Orleans,” Robin said, “to have that kind of revenue.” The city is now “contractually exporting the expertise and skills that have been honed since Katrina”; the people of New Orleans have begun to share and pass on what they’ve learned.

When Robin and I spoke on the phone a week or so after the conference, I was back in Brooklyn. She, it turned out, was just several blocks away from me, another link in the bridge between our cities.

I mentioned that I had felt somewhat removed from Sandy.

Robin understood. Sandy “impacted a very specific geography and community,” she said. “If you lived on the Upper West Side, Sandy didn’t happen to you.” When the storm hit, I was at a friend’s place in Chelsea. That night I saw a flash of green and then watched Manhattan go dark below Fourteenth Street from a roof I probably shouldn’t have been on. But beyond that one unsettling moment, Sandy was a minor inconvenience for me. I lost nothing except access to the transit system. I had to cancel a few sessions of the freshman comp class I was teaching that semester; I had a few slightly difficult days. The storm felt like a blip to me even though, on some level, I knew it to be an indicator of what could lie ahead for my city.

“Katrina happened to everyone,” Robin said. Sandy affected smaller communities, so relief and rebuilding efforts have not engaged the whole city. “We often say that, unfortunately, it takes a major disaster,” she told me. “It takes you being impacted to really understand what’s going on and start delving into it.” As a New Yorker herself, Robin didn’t understand until she moved to Louisiana. Until she began working with fishermen and learning about the impacts of coastal erosion and climate on salinity, she had no sense of how fishermen have had to adapt over decades. I had no idea, either, until the fisherman who participated in RES/CON’s “Business, Risk, and Resilience” panel mentioned that coastal restoration is itself a threat to much of the fishing industry because in order to build land, we are re-introducing freshwater in areas whose salinity fishermen rely upon.

“If you’re not close to that, it’s like a story,” Robin said. “If it’s not your story, it’s like watching Beasts of the Southern Wild.” I found myself nodding on the phone, remembering myself as a self-absorbed college student in 2005: all I recalled of Hurricane Katrina was catching bits of the news coverage at the university gym while trying to sweat out my freshman orientation hangovers and anxiety. And even more embarrassingly, a year later, when the writers’ group I was a member of hosted an event as part of a post-Katrina art exhibition (titled Disaster! One Year Later) on campus, I read a poem I’d written about a series of photos of the interiors of flooded homes. I’ve long since given up poetry, but the fact that it was not a very good poem (“people’s longings seen only in/ lost belongings/ and broken things”) embarrasses me less than the distance it held: a response not to the hurricane itself, but to the display of photos that made its way to my college. That’s how removed I was. If you’re not close to that, it’s like a story.

The disconnect between people like me and the very real future of our coastal cities is going to disappear over time no matter what. But I don’t want to wait for a major disaster.

In the months since RES/CON, all this has become an ongoing preoccupation of mine, coloring my reading, writing, and thinking: the vulnerability of New Orleans, the unruliness of water, what it means to call a precarious landscape home, what it might mean in the future. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this time of obsession has opened up something in me. It has changed the way I look at the ecosystem of the city—both my own and elsewhere. The disconnect between people like me and the very real future of our coastal cities is going to disappear over time no matter what. But I don’t want to wait for a major disaster, as Robin said, to really understand what’s going on. I want to make a choice, to actively overcome that disconnect.

Maybe what it means to live in a sinking city like New Orleans is still just a story to me. Maybe even the future of living in New York is still just a story to me. But the stories are expanding, becoming more real. I’m starting to pay attention to pieces of the story that I might once have overlooked, like subway signs indicating ongoing “Fix & Fortify” Sandy recovery work. I’m realizing just how much of what makes a city resilient gets built in tiny, incremental, often bureaucratically difficult steps, many of which remain invisible to the city’s residents until the moment when they are most needed. And I’m beginning to see the holes in my own story—everything I don’t know, everything my daily life allows me to ignore—and want to fill them.
For one thing, I want to become more aware of what’s happening in my own changing urban landscape—and waterscape. I want to learn more about resiliency efforts in New York like the East Side Coastal Resiliency Project (nicknamed “the Dryline”) and the Red Hook Integrated Flood Protection System Project, which are geared toward protecting vulnerable, low-lying areas here in New York from flooding and stormwater while providing day-to-day community benefits. I recently attended Rebuild By Design: 2 Years Later, a full-day event celebrating what Rebuild By Design’s resilience projects in areas affected by Sandy have accomplished and looking ahead. What for nearly everyone else in the room was a series of reviews and updates was, for me, a brief and eye-opening introduction to the world of post-Sandy resilience initiatives that RES/CON had begun to make visible to me.

As an ecologist I met at RES/CON pointed out, the word “resiliency” has a certain looseness; it can be used to mean nearly anything to anyone. Like “sustainability,” it’s a buzzword that has lately been thrown around to describe a broad range of ideas and practices. It’s a marketing strategy (it gently pushes the word “disaster” out of the spotlight), an industry, and a feel-good term. We have to be mindful of who is using it, the ecologist pointed out, and who it is serving. But I still think resiliency, as a concept and a practice, has more potential for good than bad. Though it may be a buzzword, it’s serving a purpose and changing the way we build and plan for the better. But I appreciated the reminder to step back, to never forget that language can obscure, that every story leaves things out.

Rebecca Worby received her MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia University. Her work has appeared in Pacific Standard, Salon, Orion Magazine, and Catapult. To see more of her work, visit her website or follow her on Twitter @beccaworby.

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