Hope for rebuilding... lies in flexible, vibrant social networks formed in communities as they rebuild.

Submitted by Norm Roulet on Mon, 07/10/2006 - 07:59.


I've certainly paid much more attention to my alma mater, Tulane University, and home for many years, New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA), since hurricane Katrina hit last year, and what I have seen is inspired regional planning combined with collaborative community building, from which we in NEO stand to learn many great lessons.

The first lesson we have learned is to seek best practices and world class leadership from afar, as of Tulane's President Cowen (formerly of Case) and three other renowned past and present university presidents tapped to help Case define future leadership.

The next lesson to learn from NOLA is it takes a village... "As part of the university's increased emphasis on urban community-building, Tulane is creating a new program, the Partnership for the Transformation of Urban Communities, that will support educational, outreach and research programs of national and international relevance."

Now, as NEO is building action plans for regional collaboration, to build a new economy on the North Coast of America, it is an excellent time to consider the process of rebuilding the Gulf Coast, and think as big as Texas, as you'll realize our view of a region is small compared to the scale of collaboration required to address significant ecological and social issues ahead... e.g. sewage system upgrades and pollution control to save our local streams and Lake Erie, in collaboration with other state in rebuilding all of the Great Lakes. Think big and multi-state about regionalism, and learn how it is being done where it is needed most:

Hope for rebuilding the Gulf Coast lies in flexible, vibrant social networks formed in communities as they rebuild.

Madeline Vann - mvann at tulane dot edu

Local and national experts and community members participating in a recent National Academies of Science conference came to that conclusion despite plenty of discussions about other elements of rebuilding, such as environmental health, sustainable rebuilding and infrastructure needs.

The June conference, titled "Rebuilding Health, Sustainability and Disaster Preparedness in the Gulf Coast Region," brought together three national round tables--the first time such a gathering has been held outside Washington, D.C.--joining experts from around the country with representatives of communities and organizations from the area spanning from Pass Christian, Miss., to Beaumont, Texas.

Although discussion of the regional impact of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita was crucial, William Hooke [http://www.meteohistory.org/ichm_bios/hooke.htm], chair of the Disaster Round Table, reminded participants that the goal was to provide insights that would apply to disasters anywhere in the country. Members of the round tables will produce the report in the coming months.

The role of scientists in the rebuilding, says Maureen Lichtveld, chair of environmental health sciences at Tulane and the local organizer of the conference, is to "Get your hands dirty working in communities, helping to translate science into action."

The value of good science was not lost on the community participants at the conference, who reported an eagerness in their neighborhoods to rebuild. Yet, as the Rev. Luke Nguyen Hungdung, parochial vicar of Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church [http://www.maryqueenofvietnam.org/] commented, scientists can also translate the needs of community for policy makers.

"Be our advocate at the national level," Luke told participants. "Be our voice."

Lynn Goldman [http://faculty.jhsph.edu/?F=Lynn&L=Goldman], an expert in environmental health policy from Johns Hopkins University, closed the meeting with a draft summary of the lessons learned, including the following:

  • The narrative of a disaster and recovery is important. Alternative narratives other than those published by the news media need to be created to sustain the resiliency of the recovery effort.
  • Disaster planning should be culturally sensitive and involve faith-based community organizations.
  • Consider alternative approaches in the aftermath. For example, many small shelters may be more effective than one big one.
  • The process of recovery in Louisiana has been much slower than would be expected from past experience and from the process in Mississippi. Reasons for that include differences between the nature of the disaster (storm surge vs. levee break) and perception ("natural disaster" vs. "human failure") and inadequate external resources.
  • It is important to build homes that resist flood and wind damage. To support that, a community needs adequate building and zoning codes, accurate flood plain maps and house designs using appropriate materials.
  • For restoration of the natural environment, scientists can learn from lessons of the Everglades; a consensus can be developed to put in place new systems that harness the natural ecosystem and hopefully can reverse the losses over the last several decades.
  • Coastal systems should sustain rural communities.
  • Translate the science so that policy makers, community leaders and the public can understand what approaches can be workable, where investments need to be made and what will be the payoff for alternative approaches.
  • Support the development of "participatory, information-rich planning processes" to help imagine alternative futures.
  • Break down the "silos"; form collaborations that allow transdisciplinary approaches to the research.
  • Rebuild the region's science infrastructure.