Then and Now: What Hurricane Katrina Meant for Preservation in New Orleans
By Walter Gallas, Executive Director at Louisiana Landmarks Society and former director of the National Trust's New Orleans Field Office
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 National 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...