The tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina was a poignant reminder of the power of nature and our often ineffective efforts to control and contain it. As we have come to understand more fully in the decade since, Katrina also exposed a number of troubling truths about America that many had chosen to ignore or deny. Growing inequality. The persistence of institutional racism and racist attitudes. The social and economic costs of de-industrialization. The interconnectedness of the built and natural environments.
The New York City-based Rockefeller Foundation was one of the first philanthropic organizations to respond to the devastation caused by Katrina, and within months the foundation had been enlisted by the Louisiana Recovery Authority to assume a leading role in the recovery planning process for New Orleans. Recently, PND caught up with a busy Judith Rodin, Rockefeller's president, to talk about the foundation's role in the recovery process and what it learned from its efforts about urban resilience in an age of climate change.
Philanthropy News Digest: The Rockefeller Foundation was instrumental, post-Katrina, in the formation of the Unified New Orleans Plan. What was the foundation looking to accomplish by supporting the UNOP effort?
Judith Rodin: I stepped into the presidency at the Rockefeller Foundation in March 2005, and Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005. Like many others, we responded to the immediate need, in our case funding Enterprise Community Partners and Habitat for Humanity to work on rebuilding the city's devastated housing stock. But then, in early 2006, I got a call from Walter Isaacson, who at the time was co-chair of the Louisiana Recovery Authority and wanted to gauge our interest in restarting the recovery planning process, which, six months after the storm, had stalled. Walter knew that my then-colleague Darren Walker [now president of the Ford Foundation] and I both had experience with collaborative community development efforts involving stressed, often fractious, and impoverished communities. We also knew that without a plan, the bulk of the federally authorized recovery money could not flow to the city. People were desperate, and our board authorized us to jump in. It was the first big test of the approach that would come to define the Rockefeller Foundation as it turned one hundred.
The goal in New Orleans was to use a deeply consultative, inclusive process to create a single unified plan that would go beyond recovery and rebuilding to expand the capacity of local institutions such as the Greater New Orleans Foundation and promote interventions that would build greater resilience in the city and the region.
From day one, we focused on community empowerment. The storm had exposed longstanding issues of race and class that contributed to the city's inadequate response; we wanted to work with all stakeholders — community leaders and elected officials, NGOs and the private sector, and, most importantly, the people who had been displaced, whether they had returned to their neighborhoods or not. Creating a shared vision was crucial if the recovery was to proceed more effectively and New Orleans was to become more resilient and better able to handle whatever the next shock might be, which, as it turned out, was the BP oil spill a few years later.
The funding we provided to support the creation of the Unified New Orleans Plan helped the city recover and rebuild. As New Orleans looks forward, we have been proud to partner with the city on its just released resilience strategy, which includes the city's priorities for long-term resilience building. Supported by 100 Resilient Cities, the global organization we founded to celebrate our centennial in 2013, it is one of the first strategies of its kind and will serve as an example to other cities around the world that are currently developing their own resilience strategies.
PND: If you had known then what you know today, what might the foundation have done differently to respond to Katrina?
JR: While it is tempting to look back and speculate about what everyone could have done differently, I think it is more constructive to look forward. New Orleans has come a long way over the past ten years, but there is obviously still much to do over the next ten.
Moving forward, it will be important to ensure that investments in building resilience benefit everyone in the city. Not everyone has gained equally over the last ten years as things in the city began to improve. Crime and unemployment among black males are still far too high. Resilience planning is being more intentionally designed to respond to and integrate physical infrastructure solutions with economic and social ones. For example, as the city continues rebuilding its water management system, it has done so in a way that responds to the threat of flooding and clears sewage more effectively for conversion into usable water. The new system will better manage water through an improved canal-and-pond system as well as bio-swales and rain gardens, keeping water inside the levees where it belongs. Importantly, this water management project is designed to provide job training and new, good jobs for two hundred and fifty currently unemployed African American men, with many more to come. This type of resilience planning is designed to respond not just to the physical needs of the city but also its social and economic needs. By preparing the city for future shocks, and also creating opportunity today, the city is realizing what we call the "resilience dividend."