Finding Community in the Floodwaters

Designers from SCAPE’s New Orleans and New York offices talk about the lessons from Hurricane Ida, in and out of the office.

By Jennifer Reut

In early September, a few days after Hurricane Ida raked through Louisiana on its way up the East Coast, three designers from SCAPE Studio met up on Zoom to talk with Landscape Architecture Magazine’s Acting Editor, Jennifer Reut, about Ida’s aftermath. SCAPE’s practice has long focused on coastal resilience and sea-level rise, but Ida’s dual impact on New Orleans (August 29) and New York (September 1) was the first time that designers from both offices had experienced catastrophic flooding from the same storm. Hurricane Ida’s aftermath offered a chance to reflect on what is changing and what isn’t in the profession and the public’s understanding of climate-fueled catastrophes.

Gathered were John Donnelly, ASLA, the technical principal at SCAPE, who had recently moved to New Orleans to work at SCAPE’s office there. Studio Director Chris Barnes, ASLA, had founded the New Orleans office when he moved back home to Louisiana, and Design Principal Gena Wirth, ASLA, called in from SCAPE’s New York office. This is an excerpt from the conversation that took place on September 10. The full interview will appear in Landscape Architecture Magazine in November 2021.

Damage from Hurricane Ida in Pointe-aux-Chênes, Louisiana, where volunteers from SCAPE are pitching in with the recycling organization Glass Half Full to help with the cleanup. Photo by Liz Camuti.

LAM: Let’s talk about when Hurricane Ida came through New Orleans, and then also hit the SCAPE office in New York. I’m interested in the kinds of conversations and responses you had to both offices experiencing this truly deadly sequence.

John Donnelly: There’s the response of the office, which I think was really just making sure that people [were] safe, where they needed to be. We are flexible enough to get people set up so that people could do what they needed to do. We had some staff in the New Orleans office. Their families have been living in this region for generations. So they had family homes to go [to] and look after and take care of and clean up the damage. For me, as a transplant, leading up to the storm was like, okay, how serious is this? Do we evacuate? Do we not evacuate?

And it pretty quickly became clear that this was very serious and continued to get even more so. And I think, you know, everyone in New Orleans kind of evacuated in the course of 24 hours and waited it out in various locations all across the Southeast. We were dealing with what was happening in New Orleans, and then to learn that the same storm was just raging through the rest of the country and had significant impacts on the Northeast was doubly eye-opening. I don’t know, I felt the real connection.

Chris Barnes: We have [a] plan, but that plan kind of is a static thing, right? And these are fluid events. Leading up to the storm, I’m playing a little bit of fire marshal. I’m like, “Hey guys, are you watching the news?”

To me, it was more about safety and knowing where people were [who] weren’t that familiar [with the city] and less about continuity work, because everybody’s bringing their laptop with them. If they have the comforts of Internet and electricity, or if you have the luxury to evacuate, that’s something you have.

LAM: Do your clients respond differently after something like this? Do you find that your role in your own community is made different in some ways by what’s happened recently?

Gena Wirth: I definitely see clients beginning to respond to it more. I feel like there is beginning to be greater understanding of the shared implications, and the shared burdens that we’re beginning to face nationally. I think for a long time everyone knew their local issues, right? If you work in New Orleans, you know that your car can flood in a heavy rainstorm, you go out and you go move it, and it’s not something surprising. You know there’s localized stormwater issues, you know there’s hurricane risks. If you work in New York City, we’ve been really focused as a city on coastal flood protection.

And so, to see that type of flooding [from Ida], I think, really opened people’s eyes to the greater impacts of climate change and just how nested and how overlapping and how dangerous these issues really are, and how they truly are beginning to affect everyone.

Even this year New York City was impacted by all of the fires in the West. And I think this year has really felt like this moment of people awakening to the shared greater problem, and not viewing these weather events as local phenomena that just need to be adapted to and designed around. These are greater challenges that are going [to] impact us in ways that we almost can’t completely speculate on.

I think it’s true that there’s this collective shock at what’s happening and, I hope, a collective awakening.

Volunteers worked alongside residents of Pointe-aux-Chênes, many of whom returned home to begin picking up the pieces from the hurricane. Photo by Liz Camuti.

Barnes: I’ve never been to a community where there isn’t a shared trauma or an event in recent memory that can be used as a baseline to help explain the implications, and then using these tools to explain why these things might be happening, whether it’s the regional or national scale. Because we’ve all lived through it.

LAM: We’ve all had at least some form of environmental trauma visited upon us or that we’ve experienced in the last couple years. So there’s a sad baseline that we can all connect to there, but that can be a really powerful tool.

Wirth: And I think it’s really beginning to impact our more typical landscape architecture resilience work, too. Describing stormwater flooding to clients has always been something really difficult, in terms of thinking about elevating sites or building in large-scale green infrastructure. There’s often just a typical client conversation that happens about meeting the requirements versus exceeding the requirements.

Everyone wants to do best [practices], but everyone also has a budget to work with. And so often, some of these measures get value-engineered out throughout the process, but now that people are experiencing what’s happening in major cities with these extreme flash flood events, I think the risks are clear in a way that a flood map can’t make clear.

LAM: Do you think it’s changing the way people feel about living in New York City, or what the city actually is and how vulnerable the city is to coastal flooding?

Wirth: I think we’re realizing how resilient the people of New York City are, and how great and how multifaceted and how interrelated the risks are. One of the just really tragic things about the recent flash flooding was how it impacted many New Yorkers in underrepresented and more marginalized communities living in basement apartments, dealing with affordable housing challenges. Those ways that the risks are intersecting are truly tragic and terrifying.

I have a lot of optimism about New York City and its resilient people. I think our infrastructure right now is distinctly not resilient in many ways. And that is the challenge at hand, that city agencies, designers, politicians, landowners all need to work together to really think about what are the best collective upgrades to city infrastructure that can happen, whether it’s thinking about stormwater systems, green infrastructure or waterways, our coastal edges, our electrical grids, our affordable housing challenges.

While New Orleans was largely spared, communities like Pointe-aux-Chênes along the Louisiana coast suffered significant damage from Hurricane Ida. Photo by Liz Camuti.

I feel that the past years have revealed that you can’t isolate a single issue and try and solve it. You have to think in a comprehensive and interdisciplinary way about the challenges that we face as a community. Not just upgrading the stormwater system, but also thinking about gentrification and climate change within communities. So it makes the problems more complicated and bigger. And I think that’s really the challenge, but I think we’re all realizing that problems are bigger than what we thought they were.

Donnelly: And just hearing you describe that, Gena, much of what you just said could have been used to describe New Orleans. I think there’s some real parallels. These storm events are sort of a shared experience. And in talking with people, even before the hurricane, about what they love about New Orleans, why they’re here, and the thing that keeps coming up is this idea of community.

New Orleans really dodged a bullet. We didn’t catch the brunt of the storm. The pumps worked as expected, the surge barrier worked as expected. It was the first real test of that. But all the places outside the surge barrier are the places that were most affected and really devastated. Those are the communities that are like literally drowning with subsidence and sea-level rise. And those are the ones that have the least support.

I think it’s very easy to overlook some of these other areas. In the immediate aftermath, there’s a lot of attention, a lot of conversation about what’s happening there, but what happens a year later?

One of the things that really struck me was the juxtaposition of this powerful petrochemical economy that the community wants and supports in a lot of ways, but it’s not really supporting the community. And this community still has all this destruction and all this loss [from Hurricane Laura] that’s apparent as you drive through it.

But we’re looking to the future and trying to improve it through the work that we do. So I think there’s something inherently optimistic about just the practice of landscape architecture. It has to be.

Wirth: That was the whole point of our Future Coast work—so much of the scenarios for Louisiana are all about the red and green map, and just how much of the coast is going to disappear; visualizing the loss. That work is all about visualizing a potential positive future that would look different. It’s not exactly the same as it has been or as it is now, but it’s possible to visualize new ways to live together in this space.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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