The total or near-total devastation across about 90,000 sq miles offers the opportunity to improve communities, agree the experts. But they caution that the path toward rebuilding will be filled with volatile debate and difficult decisions. For New Orleans and other hobbled cities, the entire undertaking, from planning through reconstruction, might take a generation.

"We are looking forward to an outcome that is better than the present," says Andres Duany, a principal of Miami-based planner Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co. From experience with South Florida’s Hurricane Andrew, implementation could take about 15 years, he says.

Duany, through the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) is the organizer of an Oct. 11-18 planning charette in Biloxi, Miss. (see related story). CNU was invited to put on the charette by Mississippi Gov. Haley R. Barbour (R).


"While visions and planning concepts such as new urbanism can get us excited, raise the level of discussion and even offer very worthy solutions, the best results will only come from a good [planning] process at the local level," says Sherry P. Carter, a partner of Carter & Carter Associates, Murphy, N.C., and Sarasota, Fla.’s former chief planner.

The process should include all constituents, say the experts. "The critical thing with local planning is getting buy-in from the community," says James Schwab, senior research associate, with a specialty in disaster mitigation, at the American Planning Association (APA), Chicago. "It’s the community, not outsiders, that will be implementing the plan," he adds.


Ken Topping, president of Topping Associates International, Cambria, Calif., agrees, adding that local planners should work as part of the local government’s recovery team. "Get all the stakeholders involved at the front end," he advises.

Tasks should be prioritized and assigned in response to analytic needs of the overall organization, says Topping, a disaster prevention and recovery advisor with experience outside the U.S. in Australia, Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan.

Local efforts should be coordinated with regional efforts. "It is very important" that the recovery team includes the metropolitan planning organization to coordinate municipal and community needs, says Heather Smith, CNU’s planning director.

It is imperative to first perform an infrastructure assessment, followed by a careful look at the population. "This is extremely challenging in the hard-hit areas, for no one knows who will come back," says Smith.

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Urbanists Invade the Gulf Coast Suburbs to come

Note: A full audio recording of the discussion of planning for the rebuilding will be available on Tuesday 10/11. Please check back later.

The burning questions facing Gulf Coast communities and New Orleans and its surroundings are obvious. Not so the answers. Should the levees that protect New Orleans be rebuilt stronger? Should consideration be given to the extreme of relocating sections or all of the city or to move Gulf Coast communities–lock, stock and barrel–out of harm’s way? Should grade in New Orleans be elevated above sea level in some areas? Should zoning be changed to prevent redevelopment on the shoreline? Should vulnerable areas be turned back to nature? Should building codes be changed to require houses in the path of the storm be built on pilings? Should certain building materials be outlawed?

In many places, there will be a combination of solutions. Topping says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must take the lead safety role over the next 100 years, regarding rebuilding the levees and rebuilding the Mississippi Delta. Schwab is pushing for a levee to resist a Category 5 hurricane. "After that, there is a need to look at what else would make a community stronger," he says.

Monte Wilson, vice president of the HOK Planning Group, Atlanta, suggests that it is important to let environmental issues guide in the rebuilding effort. "I don’t pretend to know which areas ought to be brought back to a more natural state, but I think this is one of the really tough questions in a conversation full of tough questions," says Wilson. "It’s a very volatile discussion, but if we don’t address it at that level, we’re just providing Band-Aids."

Experiences from other places may help. Small towns in Alaska and the Midwest have been relocated. But relocation is complicated and can take a long time because it involves buying out the property owners, agree all. The basic question of moving an entire city, such as New Orleans, is a "nonstarter," says Topping. Social, cultural and economic costs virtually compel the return of the city, he says.

"One of the functions of outside planning assistance is to provide some other models that have worked in other settings," says Schwab.

There are precedents for housing on pilings, for example. And after Chicago’s great fire in 1871, most buildings were constructed from brick and stone, rather than wood.

With the caveat that Katrina’s damage is far beyond anyone’s experience, Carter says that most municipalities already have long-range planning that deals with disasters. As far as whether to allow nonconforming structures to be rebuilt in kind, most buildings codes have provisions that require a rebuild to current codes if more than 50% of a structure is destroyed. Click here to view chart

Carter says that local planners could implement best practices in overlay zoning districts. "This would potentially simplify the rewriting of numerous conditions within numerous districts," she says.

Boundaries and requirements could be defined by and include provisions regarding environmental, social or economic issues, such as structure or grade elevation, transit access, bolting standards and crime prevention through environmental design. This is the way that property rights and the unique features of individual communities are better protected, says Carter.

Change building materials. Build on pilings. Bring up the grade. Relocate buildings and communities. Whatever the ultimate decisions, there needs to be time to assess zoning and code issues, particularly structural issues that would increase building and occupant safety, say sources.

Interim regulations might include a moratorium on reconstruction during a reassessment period. "After the devastating earthquake in Kobe, Japan, the city imposed an initial reassessment period of two months," Topping says. That was extended to two years for the hardest-hit zones. During that time, town-rebuilding groups worked out the issues with the government. At the end of four years, 160,000 units of housing had been rebuilt. "It’s an unusual story, but replicable," says Topping.

The Biloxi charette, in which CNU is going to promote more walkable and livable communities, is "a wonderful opportunity for visioning that normally doesn’t get done in a day-to-day planning process," says Topping. The down side is that it is being done so early that it may have to be redone in a year.

In can take 18 months to two years to come up with a viable plan for rebuilding, say sources. "There has to be a mechanism to move beyond good ideas of charrettes" and into implemen-tation," says Wilson.

CNU’s Smith, who is involved with planning the Biloxi charette, says it will be inclusive. Representatives of the state are working to designate representatives from local communities. "They will be ‘plugged in’ to communicate with other residents not present," she says.

The goal is to work on environmental, retail, transportation, social, planning and code issues. The idea is to think short term and long term, Smith says.

With so much at stake in the entire region, there is an opportunity to redo it "right," chorus planners. "Five years down the line, people will be very frustrated at the speed. But in 10 years, there will likely be communities that far exceed the quality that existed before the storm, says Topping.

lanners envisioning ways to rebuild in areas hit hard by Hurricane Katrina agree it is critical to plan carefully at the local level, with early involvement of all stakeholders. Yet sources also stress the importance of gathering input from outsiders with a particular expertise, such as disaster mitigation or recovery.