Hurricane Katrina

A Better New Orleans is Possible

Will the reconstruction effort for the city be politics as usual, or can we rebuild it as a model city and beacon for possibility?
The best and the worst of America were on full display in the days following Hurricane Katrina. We are still seeing a desperate tug of war between two sides of the American character -- with the fate of New Orleans hanging in the balance.

As the Bush administration hands out reconstruction dollars, the clock is ticking: Will the response be politics as usual? Or will we be able to rebuild New Orleans as a model city and a beacon for possibility?

Looking Back: The Heartbreak -- And the Hope

The winds of Katrina blew back the curtain on some of the worst in U.S. politics. None of us can forget the heartbreaking images of our most vulnerable citizens abandoned to a horrific fate, trying to survive in a city underwater. Nor can we erase the image of a fly-over U.S. president, indifferent and detached during an unprecedented national catastrophe.

The better side of America also came into view. The media challenged the White House's preposterous spin that evacuation efforts were going fine. People of all classes and colors opened their hearts, homes and wallets to displaced families. And progressives led the way, through initiatives like HurricaneHousing.org -- our own "underground railroad" that housed tens of thousands of evacuees.

For the first time in more than a generation, caring deeply about the fate of the black poor seemed like the American thing to do.

The Moment at Hand: Profiteering or Possibility?

Charged with the monumental task of rebuilding, the government has squandered the hope and compassion of tens of millions. The same slowpoke White House that botched the evacuation is now moving at lightening speed to help its friends profit from the reconstruction:
  • Suspending environmental safeguards for Gulf fuel production.
  • Canceling affirmative action and living wage protections for workers rebuilding the region.
  • Passing out no-bid contracts to companies like Halliburton and Bechtel, with no obligation to employ Gulf workers who desperately need jobs.


New Orleans could ultimately re-emerge as a cartoon version of itself: a corporate theme park, the Big McEasy. The region's African-descended people are being priced out -- a new black diaspora, scattered to the winds. New buildings might rise from the rubble, but the spirit of New Orleans is in danger of being forever lost.

In response, the better parts of America are rallying to avert this second catastrophe:



Rebuilding New Orleans as a Model "Green" City

Inspired by these efforts, visionaries are looking beyond survival or a seat at the table. They want to set a bold agenda for reconstruction, ensuring that New Orleans is resurrected, not as a corporate theme park but as a vibrant eco-city, designed with innovation and built by local labor.

Long before Katrina, New Orleans was working on a vision of what could be. Business and community leaders had begun to lay plans for a green urban revitalization.

One proponent of a green renewal is Alan AtKisson. In his essay, Dreaming of a New New Orleans, AtKisson lays out his vision for a prosperous New Orleans:
  1. Work with nature, and technology, to protect the city from future worst-case scenarios.
  2. Use rebuilding to lift the poor to safer economic and social ground.
  3. Create an economy of creativity.
  4. Become a clean, green showcase.


AtKisson is not alone. Several groups have stepped up plans to make these goals a reality. Global Green and Habitat for Humanity want to build 10,000 green homes in the region; RebuildBetter.org is committed to implementing visionary solutions for the region; Eco-City Builders has elaborated a set of principles that could make New Orleans the greenest city on Earth; and New Orleans Rebuild Green, led by long-time black activist Malik Rahim, gives these ideas grassroots legs and credibility.

A Better City -- And a Better World -- Are Possible

Environmental justice luminary Carl Anthony is right when he says that we must think about a positive vision, not just react to the horrors. People of conscience must move beyond charitable aid -- beyond even just opposing the corporate carpetbaggers -- and towards vision-driven leadership.

If we meet this challenge, the better side of America will win the day. And progressives will help rebuild an American city in a way that reflects our deepest social and ecological values.

During the high point of anti-globalization protest, we used to shout proudly that "A better world is possible!" And it is. Let's help build a better New Orleans -- and show the world what we mean.
Van Jones is the executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which houses Reclaim The Future: Alliance For Green-Collar Jobs. A version of this essay was originally published at YES! Magazine.
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