When David L. Gladstone, Marla K. Nelson, and John L. Renne were studying urban planning at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy in New Brunswick, they had a big surprise awaiting them down the road: responding to, and making sense of, one of the worst urban disasters in American history, Hurricane Katrina and its devastation of New Orleans. For a city that had already known its share of woe, such as the poverty and crime lurking behind the charms of the French Quarter and the Garden District, the August 2005 storm was like kicking somebody who was already down. Arriving to assume positions in the Department of Planning and Urban Studies at the University of New Orleans (UNO), the three professors, eager to put theory into practice, viewed the city as a test case for stubborn problems that plague most cities in the United States. Katrina, however, was a different order of magnitude.
Gladstone RC’90, GSNB’94, ’01 knew something about the Upper Ninth Ward long before the nightly news was bringing America numbing scenes of devastation. When he arrived in New Orleans in 2000, he headed up a community development effort in the district, enlisting residents, churches, and graduate students to find a way out of the Bermuda Triangle of despair: unemployment, crime, and drug abuse. In the aftermath of Katrina (during which he was threatened at gunpoint on one occasion), Gladstone has been researching tourism, gentrification, and neighborhood resilience in New Orleans. He is also applying his know-how to the relief effort in Haiti.
As Katrina unfolded, Renne GSNB’05, a transportation planner who had just moved to the city to serve at UNO, was shocked to discover that New Orleans had no evacuation plans for people who didn’t have cars, constituting a third of the city’s population, most of them poor and elderly residents; many of them were herded into the Louisiana Superdome and convention center. Renne’s subsequent research revealed that the majority of America’s largest cities didn’t have evacuation plans, or had inadequate ones, for those without cars. His findings have spawned numerous national studies and a call to action.
As New Orleans and the nation were coming to grips with the severity of the damage, Nelson EJB’97, GSNB’03, a professor who also coordinates the master of urban and regional planning degree program (the only accredited planning program in the state), examined the difficulty the city was having in devising a blueprint for post-Katrina recovery. Her insights, appearing in a 2007 article in Cityscape, have served as object lessons for other communities trying to come up with their own disaster recovery plans. More recently, Nelson, who arrived at UNO in 2002, has been investigating how cities counter population decline and its attendant problems, and why the “creative class,” or socially motivated professionals, choose to move to a location like New Orleans. Now, after decades of suffering brain drain, the city is attracting young professionals to N’awlins, motivated in large part to assist in the recovery and rebuilding.
And having the Super Bowl champion Saints, Mardi Gras, and that Cajun culture doesn’t hurt, either.
— David W. Major