Post-Katrina, the largest concentration of historic
homes in any U.S. city remains largely intact
New Orleans will never be the same. But its best hope for a future
— any future — appears to lie with its past.
Despite the widespread destruction throughout the city, the
incomparable concentration of historic homes and buildings in New
Orleans came through the storm far better than many feared. And in
a time of chaos, when city and state officials often seem confused
or working at cross-purposes, preservationists appear to have a
clear agenda, methods in place to reach their goals, and assistance
from national foundations and others with significant means.
"There's such a resurgence of interest in our historic structures
in the city," notes Meg Lousteau, director of the Louisiana
Landmarks Society in New Orleans.
When Katrina bore down on Louisiana, many people feared catastrophe
for a city that may have the largest historic housing stock for its
size of any in the country. New Orleans has 20 National Register of
Historic Places districts, containing at least 37,000 historic
homes, explains Peter Brink, senior vice president at the
Washington, D.C.-based National Trust for Historic Preservation. An
additional 13 locally designated districts add thousands to that
figure, with the New Orleans archetypal "shotgun" houses (so-called
because the narrow, rectangular homes have no hallways, so each
room opens into the next all the way through the house) surrounded
by homes portraying a panoply of 18th-, 19th-, and early
The early "shotgun" homes (above) of New Orleans (so-called
because they had no hallways and each room opened into the next all
the way through the house), were built on piers at least 3 feet
high in anticipation of flooding, and they traditionally included
wind-resistant hip roofs.
Early 20th-century Cottage-style homes, such as the one below,
were often elevated on a "throwaway floor" that could be flooded
without damage to the main living area.
Tremé and other historic neighborhoods may contain Greek
Revival, double-galleried Italianate, Arts & Crafts, and other
styles — sometimes many on one block.
Although as of late January preservationists remained unsure of
exactly how many homes wouldn't survive Katrina, everyone agreed
that, in Brink's words, "overall, historic homes did well." One
measure: In all of the 20 National Register districts and a
scattering of the local districts, fewer than 500 homes had
appeared on city demolition lists, notes Patricia Gay, executive
director of the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans.
In general, the older the homes were, the better they withstood
Katrina. Preservationists and architects said this seeming irony
was due in part to the fact that the earliest New Orleans residents
built on the highest ground near the banks of the Mississippi and
along several natural ridges that stretch into the city. "All the
neighborhoods that developed prior to 1900 were not flooded," Gay
But the experts also chalked up the resilience of the historic
homes to the wisdom of their builders and the materials they used.
In the era before levees and pumps gave the appearance of
protection, New Orleans builders were well aware of the potential
for floods. As a result, "they had the good sense to build off the
ground," explains Frank Masson, a New Orleans architect who
specializes in restoring historic homes and buildings.
He notes that builders placed shotgun homes atop piers with
first-floor joists elevated 3 feet above the ground "almost without
exception." What's more, builders of 19th-century homes used water-
and rot-resistant cypress framing and full 3- by 4-inch studs.
Homes were "very substantially built," he points out. Walled with
lime-based plaster instead of mold-attracting drywall, older homes
even resisted mold better.
All that said, yesterday's builders didn't get everything right.
Historic homes typically were not constructed with the hurricane
tie-downs that connect rafters, walls, and foundations in their
newer counterparts, Masson says. So when they did flood, the water
pushed some off their foundations, he reports.
And there was no question that flooding did major damage in some
historic neighborhoods. This was true, for example, in Holy Cross,
a neighborhood of several hundred homes in the lower 9th Ward that
flooded heavily despite a relatively elevated perch near the river.
As a result, Holy Cross was one of a notably few historic
neighborhoods that Brink characterized as "precarious."
"I think of it as a tipping district where there could be a lot of
demolition or everything could be saved," he says.
But Holy Cross, and historic neighborhoods with a similar plight,
has Brinks and other preservationists working on its behalf —
a powerful ally the thousands of 20th-century slab-built homes
elsewhere in the lower 9th and in east New Orleans do not share.
Among other activities, the Preservation Resource Center is seeking
to restore "Demonstration Homes" in eight different historic
neighborhoods to serve as examples for residents unsure of whether
or not they want to rebuild. The center has also assembled teams of
construction and architectural experts to scrutinize every historic
home the city tagged for demolition and, if possible, fight that
"We see a lot of buildings that we can't understand why they should
be candidates for demolition," Gay notes.
The preservationists' efforts have also garnered national and
international assistance. The National Trust, for example, asked
Congress for $60 million in grants to help homeowners in historic
districts rebuild. Organizations such as the World Monuments Fund
and Credit Suisse bank contributed to restoration efforts. Even
Wilco, the rock band, staged a benefit concert for historic
All the activity gives the appearance that historic New Orleans
will largely come through Katrina, a huge asset for a city that
initially had few other reasons for hope. What will be much harder
to resuscitate from pre-storm New Orleans is the racial and
economic diversity of many historic neighborhoods. The Preservation
Resource Center is seeking financial support for grants for
low-income homeowners, but gentrification is figured to mushroom as
those with the most resources restore, rebuild, or purchase.
— Aaron Hoover
Study Argues for Tougher Codes
Using a wind-damage model based on National Hurricane Center
estimates of Katrina's winds at landfall, researchers at Louisiana
State University concluded that upgrading building codes to meet
gory 3 force winds would have prevented much of the damage in
Mississippi and Louisiana.
The study examined three simple changes to current protection:
providing opening impact-resistant windows and doors, upgrading
nailing schedules for roof sheathing, and using hurricane straps to
reinforce the connection between roof and wall structures. The
researchers found that applying these improvements would add only
4.5% to new home construction costs but could have prevented the
loss of 273,000 homes in Louisiana alone.
Three basic code protections — opening protection, better
nailing for roof sheathing, and hurricane straps — could
eliminate 80% of the damage from a Category 3 hurricane, such as
the damage shown to this home.
According to Frank Lepore of the National Hurricane Center in
Miami, about 20% of all the hurricanes are Category 3 or higher but
account for 80% of hurricane damage costs, suggesting that focusing
on Category 3 protection levels may provide the best target for
code revisions in all coastal regions.
Coastal High Hazard Study
According to a recent study by the Florida Department of Community
Affairs, Florida has the greatest probability of any state in the
nation experiencing a Category 3 or higher hurricane. Given the
unprecedented number of hurricanes striking Florida in the last two
years — including Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan, and
Jeanne in 2004 and Hurricanes Dennis, Katrina, Rita, and Wilma in
2005 — Florida officials are debating with increased fervor
the question of how the state should plan to protect residents who
increasingly settle along the state's 825 miles of sandy coastline.
An estimated 80% of Florida's 18 million residents (projected to
increase to around 25 million by the year 2025) live within 10
miles of the coast, inhabiting residential and commercial coastal
properties fast approaching $1 trillion. With property damage from
recent storm activity in the billions of dollars, the question
carries economic as well as sociological and environmental
The DCA's Coastal High Hazard Study Committee (available at
www.dca.state.fl.us) focused its final report on
recommendations for managing growth in Coastal High Hazard Areas
(CHHA) defined as the Category 1 hurricane evacuation zones. Many
of the issues and recommendations tackled the technical issues of
measuring and reporting wind and flood conditions from major
storms, aiming for a consistent and coordinated model on which to
base state policy. But many of the issues covered in the report
could have a direct and immediate bearing on builders and
developers in the state if they're used to guide many of the state
laws currently under review. These laws include those aimed at
establishing building and zoning codes, requirements for
disclosures during real-estate transaction seaward of the Coastal
Construction Control Line (CCCL), and reevaluating property
setbacks to provide better protection.
Combining satellite images with data from NOAA, Google Earth
(earth.google.com) has become the latest tool for
tracking hurricanes. The technology is free to any user but
requires downloading a program to view the 3-D Earth images.
A simpler, but very effective tool for gathering up-to-the-minute
hurricane tracking comes from the Central Florida Hurricane Center,
which uses a hybrid (also know as a "hack") of Google maps and NOAA
tracking information (see "Storm Data" at flhurricane.com).
A September 6, 2005, image on Google Earth (top) combines
satellite images of New Orleans with overlays made with data from
the National Geospatial Agency to detail damages from Hurricane
Katrina. Above, a dynamic forecast plot of Hurricane Wilma includes
round markers along the storm's path. Mouseovers at each marker
indicate the position, time, wind speed, air pressure, and
predicted direction of the storm's movement.
School of DemolitionIn the wake of disaster, contractors require
With 210,000 of its homes damaged or destroyed, New Orleans still
faces the unprecedented task of clearing away entire neighborhoods.
Combined with the ongoing cleanup and removal of Mississippi's
flattened coastline, demolition contractors in the region are
lining up for a massive job.
Mike Taylor, executive director of the National Demolition
Association, anticipates that Bechtel, Halliburton, and other major
infrastructure corporations will coordinate the workload, and
demolition firms from around the country have already set up shop
as contractors and subcontractors. The challenges for these firms,
large and small, include containing hazardous materials, waste
storage and transport, and working around damaged gas and utility
In the aftermath of major disaster, demolition has become its
own specialty. Due to the sheer number of buildings that need to be
taken down, many demo jobs often require a different skill set than
most remodelers are used to, including expertise in containing
hazardous materials and working around damaged gas and utility
Some demolishers have experience from the '04 hurricanes in Florida
and the World Trade Center cleanup. But others may soon get it from
professional training: The ability to deal with disasters is
becoming so commonplace that the federal Occupational Safety and
Health Administration (OSHA) is now testing training and
certification programs for demolition workers at disaster sites,
Disaster certification is the latest sign that the demolition
industry is rapidly professionalizing — an important step,
considering it faces not only a seemingly increasing number of
coastal disasters but also the aging industrial infrastructure of
This past fall, Purdue University became the first university in
the nation to offer a demolition specialization within its
Construction Management program. Two dozen students signed up for
the first of an anticipated three courses in the program, which
Texas A&M is already considering copying.
"The biggest challenge in developing the course was that you can't
just pick up a textbook and use it as a guide, because there isn't
such a thing," says graduate instructor Mark Shaurette, who
developed the curriculum. "There's no book, period."
One thing both students and working demolishers are learning more
and more about: sorting, packaging, and shipping different waste
materials. With billions of tons of debris awaiting demolishers on
the Gulf Coast, increasingly restrictive landfill rules coupled
with China's demand for scrap has made waste handling a top
"The demolition business is becoming less and less a business of
wrecking and more and more a business for handling materials,"
Shaurette explains. —A.H.