Katrina Revisited: Walter Gallas and Preservation on the Ground

By Special Contributor posted 08-26-2015 12:08

By Walter Gallas

This week marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, a devastating storm that affected the entire Gulf Coast. In this three-part series we'll hear from three individuals—Richard Moe, Walter Gallas, and Patty Gay—who worked on recovery and preservation efforts in the wake of the storm.

 Walter Gallas in Holy Cross. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation
Walter Gallas in Holy Cross. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation
It's hard to believe that it's been ten years since Hurricane Katrina. I was living in Washington, D.C., and working at National Trust headquarters when the storm hit on August 29, 2005, and I watched the initial blows of this powerful storm in horror. Little did I know that I would soon be back in New Orleans, having left just one year before.

Just a few weeks after the storm, the Trust's Richard Moe, Peter Brink, and John Hildreth made a reconnaissance trip to New Orleans, gaining access to the city through then-Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu (today's mayor of New Orleans). Seeing the conditions firsthand, Moe made the decision to do whatever the National Trust could to help.

In October, I was sent to New Orleans to gather information and reach out to city officials and local partners. Five weeks after the storm, the place felt like the wild, wild West with military and police officers everywhere and people scrambling to figure out what was going on in different neighborhoods and what steps to take next. Nevertheless the overall spirit of the city and its residents came through very clearly. This was a place that everyone was determined to bring back from the edge of total calamity.

Once the floodwaters receded and the vastness of the flooding of New Orleans was appreciated, conflicting stories emerged about how much of the city would be demolished in the aftermath. The number of anticipated demolitions varied widely, reaching as high as 50,000 according to one member of the city administration in early October. But then the numbers began to settle down to a few thousand, not tens of thousands, as inspections went forward and numbers were verified.

That fall, two staff members from the National Trust's Charleston office, Mary Ruffin Hanbury and Joseph McGill worked full time in New Orleans managing volunteers who distributed clean-up supplies to homeowners and participated in the early recovery efforts.

I moved back to New Orleans in January 2006 to direct the newly created New Orleans Field Office, which was located in the headquarters of the Preservation Resource Center (PRC). The decision to open this and a Gulf Coast Recovery Office in Biloxi, Mississippi, was an unprecedented action by the National Trust. New Orleans native Kevin Mercadel joined me as field officer. We worked together for three and a half years, in what most of the time felt like breakneck speed as one issue after another presented itself.

As a result of our information gathering, we were able to develop strategies that would drive the Trust’s activities in the field. The New Orleans Field Office would work to prevent unnecessary demolitions in National Register/local districts, help residents get back into their homes, and use a demonstration project dubbed HOME AGAIN! New Orleans, in partnership with PRC, to show that older homes were resilient and could be rehabilitated even after being flooded.

The National Trust can look back at these strategies in New Orleans and say with confidence that they worked.

 James Turner, a volunteer for the National Trust from Detroit at a HOME AGAIN! property in New Orleans. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation
James Turner, a volunteer for the National Trust from Detroit at a HOME AGAIN! property in New Orleans. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation
For example, according to a 2009 FEMA historic preservation report, over the prior three years the City of New Orleans had proposed 9,215 residential properties for FEMA-funded demolition. Of those, 1,121 were determined to be National Register contributing or eligible buildings. But through our efforts and those of our partner, the Preservation Resource Center, 800 were removed from the list of proposed demolitions, leaving 321 historic houses ultimately demolished. We did make a difference.

Selectively salvaged material from the FEMA-funded demolitions was transferred to the warehouse of the PRC, where it was sold at nominal prices to homeowners working to rehabilitate their historic homes.

The HOME AGAIN! New Orleans program enabled the completion of 25 owner-occupied houses, largely in the Lower Ninth Ward's Holy Cross neighborhood. The project provided $1 million in technical assistance and grant funds.

Of course, other challenges and battles presented themselves during this period, almost all of them tied to the fact that federal money was involved in the recovery. The New Orleans public schools were in bad shape, and the system was eager to take advantage of FEMA money to rebuild. The question became—which buildings to save and rehabilitate and which to demolish and replace? The modernist school buildings of New Orleans did not survive.

Another long-term struggle was over the proposed demolition and replacement of New Orleans “Big Four,” New Deal-era public housing developments, which represented more than 4,000 units of housing. The federal government and local public housing authority were determined to demolish and not adapt the housing, forcing former city residents to delay their return even longer.
 Charity Hospital Central Massing | Credit: Carolyn Bennett
Charity Hospital Central Massing | Credit: Carolyn Bennett
But no battle seemed bigger than the one to try to save the Lower Mid-City neighborhood from demolition to make way for a new University Medical Center and a new VA hospital. Sandra Stokes with the Foundation for Historic Louisiana was a key partner in this, raising money for a reuse study and plan for the shuttered Charity Hospital, and working with the National Trust and community members to deliver the facts about Charity’s true condition and to prove that the Art Deco hospital could be adapted as a 21st-century medical facility in less time and lower cost than building new.

(In early August of this year, the new University Medical Center opened, with the new VA hospital to follow next year. They rose on the acreage that had contained 165 historic homes in the Mid-City National Register District. Meanwhile Charity Hospital still sits empty.)

Ten years on, New Orleans is a place that is different, yet still the same. Population demographics have shifted, housing patterns are changing, and the crush of tourism has grown. Still, it remains a city with an incredibly rich and complex culture, borne out of an equally complicated history. It continues to struggle with social issues and crime, public budgets are tight, and the historic preservation issues of past decades rear their heads again and again.

There is no telling what the next ten years have in store for New Orleans. Nevertheless, I have always felt honored that I could represent the National Trust on the ground in New Orleans at such a crucial time in its history.

Walter Gallas is the executive director at Louisiana Landmarks Society. He was the director of the New Orleans Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation from 2006-2009.

#HurricaneKatrina #DisasterRelief #11Most #Advocacy

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