Big Opportunity in the Big Easy

June 1 marked the official beginning of hurricane season in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico. But many coastal residents are still focused on recovery and clean up from last year’s deadly storms. Recent reports warn that the levees around New Orleans remain “inadequate,” and communities are hurrying to rebuild homes, schools, and businesses before hurricane activity peaks in August and September. One of the greatest challenges they face is to rebuild wisely—not just quickly—and in a way that will provide a cleaner, more livable environment.

Over the past eight months, New Orleans clean-up crews have been systemically hauling abandoned cars, refrigerators, building materials, and other debris to local landfills. But this response is discouraging many environmentalists, who believe the city has huge potential for recovering and reusing these resources. According to Shane Endicott, founder and executive director of the Rebuilding Center in Portland, Oregon, a damaged home is not a useless building. “Depending on the condition of the home, on average 85 percent of components can be reclaimed,” Endicott says.

A few local groups have recognized the opportunity that decades-worth of debris affords. The ReClaim New Orleans project, a partnership of non-profit organizations that includes the Rebuilding Center, Mercy Corps, and the Green Project, is working with willing residents to salvage reusable materials from their former homes and businesses. The effort is inspired by similar disaster responses in U.S. history: photographs from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, for example, reveal brigades of workers recovering bricks from toppled buildings for use in new construction.

The process of “deconstruction,” though slower than demolition, saves space in landfills, reduces the need for new materials, and can save residents money. It can also bring employment to residents struggling to get back on their feet. According to ReClaim New Orleans program officer Preston Browning, deconstruction provides five or six jobs for every two demolition jobs.

Deconstruction may also have psychological benefits, says Barbara A. Caldwell, director of New Orleans’ Green Project, who finds that some displaced residents gain comfort from knowing that materials from their homes can be reused. “Just to know that their house might live on makes them feel better,” Caldwell explains. However, because the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other government agencies currently cover the full cost of demolition, and demolition contractors are flooding the region, deconstruction is becoming less cost effective for residents.

Other reconstruction efforts are seeking creative design ideas for rebuilding the city in a way that will benefit local communities. In mid-April, Global Green USA, in partnership with Hollywood actor Brad Pitt, announced its “Sustainable Design Competition for New Orleans,” open to architects, students, urban planners, and anyone else with a vision for a healthy, sustainable, and affordable rebuilding of the city. And the National Housing Trust (NHT) and the Enterprise Foundation have formed a partnership to fund projects to create affordable, environmentally friendly housing, while encouraging strong community input.

You Can Help!
To support sustainable rebuilding efforts in New Orleans, join the Green Project’s “Adopt a Home” program to help a family offset deconstruction costs, or contact any of the organizations mentioned above to offer your time, money, or ideas. Also, consider going on a “voluntourism” trip where you can combine hands-on rebuilding efforts with tourism activities. For more information on deconstruction, visit

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.