Five Years After Katrina, Green Homes in Low-Income Neighborhoods Just Starting to Sprout

By Tasha Eichenseher in New Orleans

Huge abandoned swaths of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward feel like post-apocalyptic wilderness, overgrown grass littered with vacant homes and lonely concrete foundations. But springing up in a few sections are homes of Caribbean blue and Easter egg green–capped with solar panels, secured with energy-efficient windows, and equipped with systems to catch rainwater.
foundation.jpgPhotograph of a Make It Right home by Tasha Eichenseher

This two-square-mile area–where 4,000 homes were lost to Hurricane Katrina floodwaters in 2005–now has the largest collection of the greenest homes in the world, according to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which sets nationwide standards for sustainable construction.

While the tragic disaster damaged nearly 50,000 homes in New Orleans, including those in the Ninth Ward, it also left a clean slate for architects and developers looking for an incubator for sustainable building projects and ideas. Many focused on redevelopment in traditionally African-American lower-to-middle-income Lower Ninth Ward neighborhoods–areas that were hit hardest, both by the storm and its economic fallout.

(According to the American Red Cross, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, both in 2005, destroyed approximately 350,000 homes in the 90,000-square-mile area from southeastern Texas to the Florida Keys.)
(Look at before-and-after photos of the region damaged by Katrina, including the Lower Ninth Ward.)

As you traverse Lower Ninth Ward neighborhoods today, it is clear that rebuilding progress is slow. Fewer than 200 homes have been rebuilt. But the new dwellings display a fervent effort to do things differently. As we detail in our story about the New Orleans rebuilding for our Great Energy Challenge series, “For Hurricane Katrina Victims, A Solar Restart,” rooftop solar electric panels and solar water heaters are standard. Energy efficiency is as woven into the design as flood resilience. There also has been a remarkable effort to integrate innovative water re-use systems in the new green homes, but as we explain in our story, “Post-Katrina Green Homeowners Barred From Recycling Water,” for our special series of stories on freshwater, old regulatory barriers have slowed progress on those green building aims.
levee.jpgPhotograph of a Make It Right home by Tasha Eichenseher

The Make It Right development, spearheaded by actor Brad Pitt, and adjacent to the Industrial Canal levee that failed during Katrina, is now home to the largest concentration of USGBC platinum-certified–the highest ranking–residential structures in the world. Fifty Make It Right homes have been completed since December 2008, with 100 more planned.

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s Global Green project just a few miles south in the Lower Ninth Ward’s Holy Cross neighborhood has helped lead the charge, finishing its first platinum home in May 2008. It now has five very energy efficient800-1,300-square-foot homes that sit just past the Mississippi River levee.

Rachel Neill might be Global Green’s first buyer. She’s made an offer on a $135,000 two-bedroom, one-bath, bright pink home. But she didn’t live here before the storm. A New Orleans resident for 20 years, she moved to the neighborhood in 2007 because she could afford to buy there. What is most appealing to her about a Global Green home? She actually was drawn to its location next to the river, despite the tragedy endured by her predecessors here. Neill, an addiction counselor, trusts the long-term durability of the homes that are being built. And the size and lower utility bills also are appealing. “It won’t be a drain financially,” she explains. “I could spend my whole life there.”
Photograph of Global Green housing by Tasha Eichenseher

Folks are already settled into Make It Right homes. Robert Green, who talked to National Geographic News about life near the levee, has called the Lower Ninth Ward home for 42 years. He lost his mother and three-year-old granddaughter when the Industrial Canal levee broke on August 29, 2005, unleashing floodwaters as high as 20 feet.

Listen to his take on the neighborhood, redevelopment, and other green features of his new home here:

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn