In the wake of destructive shocks, a variety of strategies have shaped the effort to rebuild communities. While New Orleans, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, garnered significant, though ultimately unsuccessful, celebrity support, a new initiative in Puerto Rico is aiming to build resilience with the needs and financial means of local residents in mind. This new approach aims to improve the affordability of resilient design, and emphasizes the value of rebuilding with an eye towards the risk of future disasters.

The destruction and decimation caused by Hurricane Katrina still weighs on the minds of Americans. Over 10 years later, the storm’s damage has still not been fully repaired and many residents remain unable to return home. This is especially true in one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in New Orleans: the Lower Ninth Ward. When Katrina reached New Orleans, surge flooding coming from the Mississippi river was intensified by the failure of levees and flood walls in several locations bordering the ward. Blocks of homes were swept clean off their foundations, leaving residents (many of whom did not have flood insurance) in a suddenly desolate situation with grim prospects of a quick return to normalcy.

A house constructed by Make It Right (Source Flickr/Mark Gstohl)
A house constructed by Make It Right (Source Flickr/Mark Gstohl)

Two years after the storm, actor Brad Pitt founded a non-profit organization called Make It Right, through which he donated millions of dollars and facilitated the coordination of architects, international diplomats, celebrities, and politicians in order to rehabilitate the Lower Ninth Ward by building and selling houses to those who had lost theirs. The houses were designed to meet LEED platinum certification standards for environmental sustainability, and representatives of the foundation told residents that if another flood came, the houses would be able to float. To date, the organization has built 109 houses of the 150 it pledged. However, many of these houses have been found to be defective, with residents reporting rotting wood, malfunctioning electric wiring, defective plumbing, pervasive mold and damaged roofs. Further, a class action lawsuit was filed against the foundation in respect to the deteriorating conditions of the houses and consequential health effects described by some residents. Mold growing in several homes has lead to residents worrying about what the long term health implications are for their families and if they feel safe in their homes, which disrupts the stability, cohesion and overall resilience of the community. An attorney involved in the case stated, “We have filed to make Make It Right make it right.” 

A home in Puerto Rico damaged by Hurricane Maria (Source Wikimedia Commons/Yuisa Rios)
A house in Puerto Rico damaged by Hurricane Maria (Source Wikimedia Commons/Yuisa Rios)

Over 1,600 miles away in Puerto Rico, residents displaced by Hurricane Maria are also trying to rebuild after catastrophic disaster. Architect Astrid Diaz is a member of  the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Mitigation Assessment Team which assessed infrastructure damage in the aftermath of the storm. She estimates that the island is in need of at least 75,000 new homes. To fill this need, Diaz has developed what she believes to be a housing design which will be resilient in the face of future storms, while still incorporating traditional Puerto Rican architectural design. The homes are designed with steel mesh that can withstand 184 mph winds, and have a layer of mortar to ensure their stability. Her design is also customizable, with the option to choose between one to three bedrooms and add a second floor. Additionally, the homes will have the capability to utilize rainwater through a combination of solar panels and a wind generator. Each house is made to be built within a $30,000 budget. Diaz’s first modular home is set to be unveiled on Puerto Rico’s Vieques island.

One of the many challenges homeowners face in the wake of disasters likes Katrina and Maria is the affordability of investing in resilience. FEMA’s Individual and Households program provides financial assistance for those who cannot rebuild through other means. However, the agency grants assistance only to return a given building “to its original form, function and design.” This means that any upgrades to homes which would incorporate modifications to prepare for a future disaster must be financed by the homeowner. Repairing and rebuilding in this way fails to put the homeowner in a better position for the next disaster. Craig Fugate, Director of FEMA under President Barack Obama, said at a forum following Hurricane Maria, “You’re talking billions [of dollars] of rebuilding, and the current plan will rebuild back the way it was, rebuild it back to the past, rebuild it back to fail again,” adding that we need to think about how “to build to the future, build to future risk, build it so we make sound financial investments the first time, not have to come back time and time again.”

Sources and Further Reading

Past FEMA head urges smarter rebuilding after natural disastersEOS

Where did Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation go wrong?Architectural Digest

In Puerto Rico, the campaign for a hurricane proof houseNPR

Brad Pitt sued by New Orleans residents who say Make It Right sold them ‘defective’ homesNBC News

Brad Pitt’s housing nonprofit Make It Right faces lawsuit – Fast Company

Astrid Diaz Designs Hurricane-Proof Modular Home for Puerto RicoHome Crux

Rebuilding under the FEMA public assistance program: repair? replace? relocate?Disaster Recovery Today