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For Hurricane Katrina Victims, A Solar Restart

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC. AUGUST 26, 2010. By Marianne Lavelle

Renewable energy, efficiency part of New Orleans rebuilding

The rooftop of Robert Green’s home bears two unmistakable marks that it is part of the effort to rebuild New Orleans with a new resilience.

There is a safe exit to a secure area of the roof—a feature that needs no explanation for longtime Lower Ninth Ward residents like Green, who lost both his mother and his three-year-old granddaughter in 20-foot-high floodwaters after the Industrial Canal levee broke in the wake of Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005.

But in addition to that echo of the tragic past, there is an installation that points to a hopeful future: 15 solar photovoltaic panels.

Green’s home is one of 50 that have been completed so far in the Make it Right development, spearheaded by actor Brad Pitt, which aims to incorporate renewable energy and efficiency into every element of design. Similarly, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s Global Green project in the Lower Ninth Ward’s Holy Cross neighborhood has five low-energy homes. And the Pontchartrain Park Neighborhood Association, organized by actor Wendell Pierce, also is aiming to rebuild with solar and geothermal energy in every home.

Making use of Louisiana’s new incentives for renewable energy—among the best in the country—the projects aim to show that the up-front effort and investment in clean energy will pay dividends for the community, and for the individual homeowners, for years to come.

Getting It Right After Things Went So Wrong

Green moved into his 1,800-square-foot Make It Right home in July 2009, after spending three years in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer on the same site. “A sense of family and community is still here,” explains Green. He paid $126,000 for his new house with solar electric panels that can generate up to three kilowatts of energy. And the home is built to reduce the need for power, with Energy Star appliances and a tankless water heater.

Of course, there are many other features Green likes—the low-emissions carpeting and paint that he says helps keep his asthma symptoms at bay, the better light and air circulation, and “a sense of security.” Make It Right homes, many with a view of the levee, are elevated against future floods, and bolstered with frames and windows that can withstand 160 mile-per-hour winds. In addition to the rooftop escape hatches, they have insulation that is easier to replace should it mold.

And, says Green, there are the energy savings. Green says he has seen his summer electricity bill drop from more than $300 a month in the 1910 home that was destroyed in the flood and demolished, to $170 a month in his FEMA trailer, and to now around $125 in his new home.

“Day to day I breathe better,” says Green, “and it doesn’t cost as much.”

Getting It Right After Things Went So Wrong

Green moved into his 1,800-square-foot Make It Right home in July 2009, after spending three years in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer on the same site. “A sense of family and community is still here,” explains Green. He paid $126,000 for his new house with solar electric panels that can generate up to three kilowatts of energy. And the home is built to reduce the need for power, with Energy Star appliances and a tankless water heater.

Of course, there are many other features Green likes—the low-emissions carpeting and paint that he says helps keep his asthma symptoms at bay, the better light and air circulation, and “a sense of security.” Make It Right homes, many with a view of the levee, are elevated against future floods, and bolstered with frames and windows that can withstand 160 mile-per-hour winds. In addition to the rooftop escape hatches, they have insulation that is easier to replace should it mold.

And, says Green, there are the energy savings. Green says he has seen his summer electricity bill drop from more than $300 a month in the 1910 home that was destroyed in the flood and demolished, to $170 a month in his FEMA trailer, and to now around $125 in his new home.

“Day to day I breathe better,” says Green, “and it doesn’t cost as much.”

Rebuilding With the Goal of Lower Energy Costs


Cutting future home energy costs has been an important goal for those involved in rebuilding, who are well aware that in lower-income homes, as much as 50 percent of take-home pay can get burned up by utility bills. It’s a significant factor in the Lower Ninth Ward, where the average annual income in 2000 was just under $28,000, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.

Investing in higher-cost appliances, materials that will reduce air loss, and the capital cost of solar are usually seen as an obstacle. “Up front costs are the biggest roadblocks,” says Anisa Baldwin Metzger, the New Orleans coordinator for the U.S. Green Building Council. “But green building does not have to cost more. Groups in New Orleans found out how to do it without paying more.”

In 2008, NOLA 100, a project backed by the Clinton Climate Initiative, rebuilt 42 homes in 100 days with energy-efficient features. NOLA100 found ways to streamline construction and, in some cases, cut costs in half.  And the energy savings were significant. It was estimated that NOLA 100 homes would cut resident utility bills in half.  Global Green’s homes are estimated to be 70-90 percent more energy efficient, and Make It Right estimates that its homes are 70 percent more efficient.

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