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.
On what seemed like truly the first day of fall, this October Jenny Wolff, Front Yard Initiative Program Manager, and I met with Mid-City homeowner Khai Nguyen nearly a year after the completion of his FYI project. While sitting on Khai’s patio in his backyard, we discussed the process of his project, the native plants he included, and his deep appreciation for community.
As Program Manager of Community Development Corporation MQVN, co-founder of VEGGI Farmers Cooperative, and a New Orleans native, Khai was happy to talk with us about sustainability and the importance of being stewards of the New Orleans landscape.
Khai has been living in his home since 2014, an older single-family cottage, but he has lived in a few neighborhoods in New Orleans as an adult and spent his childhood in New Orleans East. When we asked Khai about his initial motivations for partaking in the Front Yard Initiative, he explained that his front yard was 100% concrete and unlevel; for Khai, even after a drizzle there would be standing water in front of his home as rainwater pooled in the lower areas, forcing him to step through or jump over the water to get into his home. Khai heard about our design workshop through friends and knew he would benefit. Khai even invited two of his friends to join him at the workshop who also had overpaving issues at their homes.
Once at the workshop, Khai decided he should not only create a design for his front yard but one for his backyard, too: “The backyard was a mess. There was a lot of concrete everywhere and we barely spent any time outside.” He admitted that the neighbors who lived behind him sometimes experienced flooding due to all of the concrete on his property too. After four years of living in his home, Khai realized that his backyard was a source of stress where it could be a source of calm. Although the FYI program no longer funds backyard concrete removal, many homeowners have been inspired to remove concrete from their front, back, and side yards all at once and apply the knowledge they gain from the FYI design workshop to their entire properties.
Khai decided to DIY his project, committing himself to working on his yard every weekend until it was finished. He drew inspiration and experience from a rain garden install he coordinated with the VEGGI Farmers Co-op.
With help from a friend, Khai was able to remove 745 square feet of concrete and enjoyed the added benefit of exchanging ideas with his two friends also moving forward with their FYI project. In his front yard, Khai removed all of the concrete from the right of way, the area between the street and sidewalk, and a portion along the front of his home.
Now, Khai has Muhly grass and a few types of ornamental flowers growing. In addition to these plants, a few months after he completed his project, he had two Little Gem Magnolias planted by SOUL. In his backyard, Khai removed just over 500 square feet of concrete. Where there was once a 200 square foot island of grass, Khai now has a string of native plants and trees planted along the perimeter of his backyard which protects his neighbors from flooding, a couple of garden beds, and a gravel area with a table and chairs for hosting activities with friends and family. Khai bought his materials, gravel, sand, sod, mulch, and plants, from a number of local gardening stores, including: Bantings, Jefferson Feed, Gomez Pine Straw, and Wood Materials.
As far as challenges with his project, Khai ran into a brick wall… literally. Like many homeowners who remove concrete from their yards, Khai found a number of buried layers of materials, most of which were bricks. Also like many homeowners who find bricks, Khai was able to salvage them in order to incorporate them into his design as a practical and attractive solution.
Khai has seen a number of improvements in the year since his project was completed: “Now my roommate, Sophie, spends a lot of time out here doing work, and when the weather’s nice we have people over.” Khai also agreed that the native plants proved helpful in periods of both heavy flooding and drought and that his Muhly grass especially is “very, very hardy.”
Besides the two friends he went through FYI with, Khai mentioned that he has encouraged many others to go through the program because he believes FYI itself is“really encouraging folks to make the city more water friendly and more prepared.”
This kind of active stewardship is encouraging to us as well. It was exciting to hear that Khai is spreading the message about stormwater management and employing green infrastructure in some of his projects with his organization. Khai also remarked about how the reimbursement process was easy, but cost can prove to be a barrier for many who may not have the cash upfront. And while concrete removal is not necessary in all cases of improving stormwater management – Khai told us how in New Orleans East removing lawns and installing concrete to make room for more cars in multigenerational homes is more of the issue there – it is important to understand that stormwater management requires many perspectives to understand all the approaches necessary to tackle our collective issue: flooding.
Story and interview by Blake Allen.
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