Southern creole cuisine, jazz tunes, rollicking zydeco jams, stunning architecture, and a busy night life—these unique characteristics of New Orleans make it an ideal vacation spot for people across the country. What were my two colleagues—Pam Myers and Martha Bohrt—and I looking forward to most when we spent three days in the city in late March? Learning first-hand how the Big Easy is increasing its resilience by improving the way they handle stormwater and the water bodies surrounding the city, which on average sits a foot below sea level.
An annual event organized by Cities of Service, the Resilience AmeriCorps Academy brought together 20 VISTAs and their supervisors (Volunteers in Service to America) from 10 U.S. cities to participate in a hands-on training. In partnership with the Corporation for National and Community Service and the Rockefeller Foundation, Cities of Service recruits, trains, and embeds two AmeriCorps VISTAs in each city to build capacity for social, economic, and environmental resilience initiatives in vulnerable communities.
Pam, Martha, and I represented team Norfolk at the Academy. Pam and I are Resilience AmeriCorps VISTAs advancing community-based initiatives such as Bank On and Retain Your Rain. Martha, the City Manager’s Fellow, is our VISTA Supervisor, who supports resilience initiatives at all levels in the city. New Orleans offered an excellent learning opportunity for team Norfolk, as our coastal communities share challenges such as rising sea levels, extreme weather, land subsidence, and economic shifts. Like Norfolk, New Orleans also has adopted a new way of managing stormwater: choosing to live with the water, rather than fighting against it.
Green Infrastructure on the Ground
Our three-day, action-packed Academy kicked off with a tour of the Gentilly Resilience District. Led by Charles Allen, Resilience Outreach Manager for the City of New Orleans, the tour began at the NORA Green Water Lot, an 11,000-square-foot rain garden that can store 89,000 gallons of rainwater. In addition to flood reduction benefits, the garden enhances the beauty of the neighborhood.
The next stop on our tour was the site of the future Mirabeau Water Garden. As the bus pulled up to the curb, we were immediately enamored with a cluster of enormous oak trees full of history. This 25-acre site was the former home of the Congregation of St. Joseph, which was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. After the storm, the congregation donated the land to the City of New Orleans under the condition that the oak trees never be removed.
The Mirabeau Water Garden will reduce flooding by diverting and temporarily storing up to 10 million gallons of rainwater from the stormwater system. It will also clean pollutants out of the rainwater and improve watershed health, as well as serve as an outdoor classroom to educate citizens—some of the best lessons coming from the resilient ancient oaks themselves. Mirabeau is an incredible example of how the city is using green infrastructure to manage stormwater in a different way.
Journey to Resilience
The next morning, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu stopped by and described New Orleans’ historic journey towards resilience. Mayor Landrieu emphasized the crucial role that citizens played in rebuilding the city after Hurricane Katrina, along with the important role that national service plays not only in responding to crises, but also addressing chronic issues that every city faces. Mayor Landrieu’s passionate speech left a lasting impression on us and fueled us through the rest of the academy’s activities.
The next day and a half were packed with brainstorming sessions and hands-on exercises on resilience concepts, community engagement, and impact volunteering strategies led by Cities of Service program managers. In breakout sessions, VISTAs and supervisors brainstormed ways to apply the new concepts and strategies to initiatives in our own cities.
The Academy wrapped up with delicious Po’ Boy sandwiches and with words of encouragement from Cities of Service and our fellow AmeriCorps VISTAs. Team Norfolk left the academy better connected to a network of other people across the country doing phenomenal work to make their cities more resilient to current and future shocks and stresses.
We are grateful and excited to be part of the growing resilience movement worldwide, and we look forward to incorporating everything we learned at the academy into our efforts here in Norfolk.