Professor David Veshosky is driving a rented red Borrego SUV through the empty streets of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward on a cloudy day in early January as several of his engineering students stare silently out the backseat windows at the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina more than five years ago. The once vibrant neighborhood is now a wasteland of vacant fields and rotting, ramshackle homes, some of which still bear red Xs on the front, indicating the property had been searched for bodies in the aftermath of the flood.
“This is a lot more sad and desolate than I thought,” says Melanie DeFazio ’11 (Branchburg, N.J.), who along with Jon Martin ’11 (Slatersville, R.I.) is working with community groups through the College’s Economic Empowerment and Global Learning Project (EEGLP) to provide more sustainable housing in the L9W. EEGLP was founded by Gladstone Fluney Hutchinson, associate professor of economics, who is now on leave working in Jamaica as director-general of the Planning Institute of Jamaica.
“You don’t get the same perspective from Google Earth,” says Martin as Veshosky, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, navigates past piles of old tires, downed electrical wires, and bunches of hip-high weeds.
The two civil engineering majors spent more than 600 hours over the past summer and fall semester calculating the carbon footprint of the New Orleans neighborhood under different repopulation scenarios and then came up with suggestions for shrinking it through construction of energy-efficient homes and other measures.
They didn’t do it for a grade or class credit, and now they’re in New Orleans for the first time to present their findings to a prestigious group of community leaders at Tulane University.
Although this is Martin and DeFazio’s first time to the Crescent City, Lafayette students have been traveling with Veshosky to New Orleans since 2007 and have worked on several projects in the Lower 9th, including designing plans for the conversion of an old school to an arts and community center, drafting a feasibility study for a grocery store, and empowering residents to start their own businesses.
It’s another example of how Lafayette takes a “Solve this” approach to education by encouraging students to use original and creative thought in finding solutions to problems that matter.
“You’re really affecting people’s lives,” says DeFazio. “You’re not just crunching numbers and looking stuff up online.”
As the flood waters slowly receded in the fall of 2005, displaced residents of the L9W began reaching out to one another through email, checking on each other’s welfare, offering support, and sharing ideas for rebuilding the neighborhood. They viewed the disaster as an opportunity to improve the community, but conditions within the L9W varied widely. The northern part, where the Industrial Canal flood wall collapsed, was completely destroyed, but the Holy Cross neighborhood, located on higher ground, received only moderate damage.
Regardless, residents of the L9W were not allowed back into their homes until May 2006, because utility service could not be restored until then.
The months passed slowly, says Kathy Muse, a resident of the Holy Cross neighborhood and program coordinator of the L9W’s Center for Sustainable Development and Engagement (CSED), which formed in the aftermath of Katrina.
“We started meeting across town in the community room of a Methodist church to talk about what would be a good way to rebuild,” says Muse.
In June 2006, the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, with the help of experts in sustainable community development and members of private, nonprofit, and governmental organizations, adopted a vision for reconstruction. They also voted to try and become the first carbon-neutral community in the country by 2020.
But no one really knew what that meant or how to quantify it, says CSED board member Darryl Malek-Wiley, a field organizer for the Sierra Club.
“Lafayette College came in and said ‘we can help you with that,’” he says. “We’re not a rich organization. We don’t have all these dollars to go to a consultant and say, ‘Here’s $100,000.’ That’s the value of Lafayette students. They’re doing real-world research to help the community. They’re not studying the community and that’s the difference. We’ve had folks come down and want to study us and we say, ‘We don’t need to be studied. Go study that neighborhood.’”
On the Tuesday after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Martin and DeFazio dressed in their best professional attire, fired up a PowerPoint presentation and delivered mixed news to a roomful of community leaders gathered at the Center for Bioenvironmental Research of Xavier and Tulane Universities, a tall glass and concrete structure in the heart of New Orleans.
First the bad news: Carbon neutrality isn’t obtainable. But — and here comes the good news — the community can meet President Obama’s goal of reducing carbon emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.
“If you take the right steps, we believe through our calculations it can be done,” said DeFazio, her dark hair pulled into a long ponytail.
Using graphs and charts, the students then showed how tons of carbon could be mitigated in the L9W through specific measures, such as installing solar panels (21,000 tons annually), building homes adhering to green design criteria (11,449 pounds per year per house), and recycling building materials from deconstructed homes (1.7 tons per house).
The students also calculated that using green design to construct a new 1,000 square-foot cottage would cost about $3,000 more.
Throughout the 30-minute presentation, the two never insinuated that they knew what was best for the Gulf community, and were careful in responding to questions, mindful of not appearing arrogant.
“If you were all powerful and had an unlimited budget, what would do to make it a perfect situation?” asked John McLachlan, a professor at Tulane and director of the Center for Bioenvironmental Research.
“Our job isn’t to tell people how to repopulate or where to build their houses,” said Martin. “We’re just giving you scenarios for reducing carbon.”
It’s an attitude residents of L9W seem to appreciate. “After the flood, a lot of urban planners came in and said the space should remain green,” Muse said after the students’ presentation. “We felt like ‘why would you preserve the property as green space and you’re not talking about doing that in more affluent areas that were just as devastated.’”
Afterward, McLachlan called the students’ report a “useful tool to help frame our thinking.”
“I haven’t seen any other university utilize student researchers like Lafayette,” he said. “The relationship has been really purposeful. We represent a natural lab for Lafayette students and our lab has benefited from their input. We now have a working document and we’re committed to taking the next step.”
What that may be remains to be seen. But one thing is certain – the resilient residents of the L9W are committed to resurrecting their cherished community and Lafayette will be there to help.