Catalyzing Collective Action, One Homeowner at a Time
By Skylar Hughes with contributions from Urban Conservancy staff
17 years after Hurricane Katrina, the Lower Ninth Ward, which endured some of the gravest effects of Hurricane Katrina, is still regularly underwater. Today, its residents carry both the memory of Katrina’s devastation and the present reality of intensifying rainfall. But the Lower Nine is a force to be reckoned with, and community leader Gaynell Brady says one solution brings hope for the future.
Gaynell Brady has lived in the Lower Ninth Ward, or “Lower Nine,” her entire life. For generations her family, as well as many others, called the Lower Nine home, with no intention of leaving. “It’s the same blocks, the same front porch communities. You feel the warmth here– it just looks different.” For the past two years Brady has been working as the Lower Ninth Ward Homeownership Association’s (L9WHA) Executive Director, mobilizing the community to counter their current environmental situation. Of the approximately 4,750 residential buildings in the Lower Nine pre-Katrina, it’s estimated that around 3,000 were damaged beyond repair. Since then, only about 37% of households returned to this historic community. “It seems as if the storm just happened last year. We’re still in recovery mode in the Lower Nine, especially when you see the growth in other communities.”
The challenges facing the Lower Nine have grown even more complex in light of the climate crisis. Climate change has exacerbated the frequency and intensity of rain events in New Orleans, and the flooding typical of this city is expected to worsen. “When you’re dealing with homeowners who see water coming up in their lots after a rainfall, that makes people nervous. Of course you know what they’re going to think about, right?” says Brady. Flooding after a storm is no longer a possibility, but an expectation in this neighborhood. “I’ve been here 45 years, and I’ve never experienced this rapid intensification, that takes us days to recover. We can’t even get simple rain down here.”
But Brady maintains that there are solutions, and has recently found promise in one in particular– green infrastructure. Green infrastructure refers to stormwater management systems that mimic nature by soaking up and storing stormwater, such as rain gardens, permeable pavement, and green roofs. Data from various studies in the U.S. show that extensive green infrastructure can capture more than 80 percent of the runoff generated annually by storms. “We must disturb the surface of the earth to correct the mistakes we made as mankind.” Brady explains. “Once you get the ground put back in its most natural state, you can finally go outside after it rains, because you wouldn’t be sitting in two feet of water.”
New Orleans has been readily implementing green infrastructure citywide for years now, but residential projects tend to happen primarily in white, high-income households. “Folks who don’t have capital are being left behind again,” stresses Brady. She is stepping up to battle these inequities, and give the Lower Nine the environmental attention it deserves. “This is real. This is our lives, and our community, and our culture. People don’t understand what we lose when we don’t protect our neighborhoods.”
Brady has a goal of implementing green infrastructure on every residential property in the Lower Nine to show her community that collective action really is enough to combat their circumstances. Since early 2021, Brady and the L9WHA have been working with the Urban Conservancy to make this goal a reality. Through the Urban Conservancy’s Front Yard Initiative (FYI) Direct program, and with additional financial and technical assistance from WaterWise Gulf South, L9WHA has facilitated the installation of green infrastructure on ten residential properties. 100% of participants are black or brown, and 100% own the property where the green infrastructure was installed. “We need to start taking small changes in the right direction. The implementation of green infrastructure allows us to go to the city and say we’ve done our part, what about you?” says Brady, a WaterWise neighborhood champion.
The FYI Direct program is a modified version of the traditional FYI program which incentivizes homeowners to reduce excessive paving by providing limited financial reimbursements based on how much paving is removed. FYI Direct makes green infrastructure accessible to residents who experience the worst consequences of flooding, but aren’t in a financial position to address it, by fully funding small-scale residential projects. Generous philanthropic support is provided by Entergy’s Environmental Innovation Fund, the Borchard Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Environmental Fund, the Wisner Fund, and individual donors. The UC directly hires local Black-owned businesses to design and build residential nature-based installations.
Brady utilizes the promise of green infrastructure as a stepping stone in the fight for preservation. She envisions a learning lab where area homeowners, students, emerging green sector professionals, and other community members can learn more about– and see examples of– nature-based solutions to stormwater management including permeable paving systems, rain gardens, and native and naturalized plants. “The thing that I love about this community so much is that once this information gets out there, it doesn’t take us long to catch on,” Brady explains. “We have to work together to increase knowledge.”
The L9WHA and the Urban Conservancy are collaborating with a broad range of other partners to secure funding to install the lab at the L9WHA office location, on the former grounds of the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum, on Deslonde Street. On January 17, 2023, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Day of Service, L9WHA hosted the Urban Conservancy and other partners and volunteers to kick off the transformation by installing rain gardens, painting rain barrels, and doing a neighborhood litter pick-up. WaterWise Gulf South and the Kresge Foundation provided funding for the green infrastructure installation. Brady envisions this space as an opportunity to continue to engage and educate community members while providing habitat for birds and other pollinators. Given the location’s high visibility and its historic significance, Brady considers it an ideal location for such a community space.
Brady is optimistic about what the future holds for the Lower Nine, and committed to doing whatever she can to ensure the neighborhood thrives. “Our community is so warm, it’s so inviting. And I would hate to lose all of that because we sat on our hands.”
This is the first in a series of stories focused on flood mitigation efforts by Lower Ninth Ward homeowners in partnership with the Urban Conservancy by Skylar Hughes. Skylar is a Robertson Scholar and rising sophomore at Duke University. The Robertson Scholars Program is a joint undergraduate scholarship program between Chapel Hill and Duke University.
Read more Homeowner Stories here.
Back to Announcements