Understanding urban resilience, part III: New Orleans

A few weeks ago we introduced the new City Resilience Framework, a tool developed by our International Development group and The Rockefeller Foundation to help demystify urban resilience.

Here’s a third case study to emerge from the project: a look at how strong ommunity ties helped a New Orleans neighborhood recover from natural disasters and social challenges.

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Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 BP oil spill devastated many New Orleans neighborhoods. The response of the Vietnamese community in the city’s Versailles neighborhood highlights the importance of strong, unified social networks.

Katrina destroyed homes and businesses (including fishing boats) across Versailles, displacing almost the entire population and forcing the permanent closure of schools and the nearest hospital. However, within a few weeks after the storm, strong community leaders (in particular, Father Vien Nguyen, a priest at the local Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic church) worked to bring residents back to the neighborhood.

Realizing that the government was unable to provide the necessary resources for recovery as fast as they were needed, the community rebuilt its physical and social infrastructure on its own. By resuming masses at the church, Nguyen helped restore a sense of normalcy and remind residents of their cultural and historic ties. Residents bartered with one another to make repairs; local electricians and roofers traded services to help restore one another’s homes, for example.

The community rebuilt its physical and social infrastructure on its own

In 2006, residents founded the Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development Corporation (MQVN CDC), which is still operating today. By providing social services and care in the continued absence of local health facilities and offering alternative job training for people whose livelihoods were destroyed, it helped them rebuild their homes and lives.

These community networks became even more critical after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill polluted many of the fishing waters that locals relied on. The MQVN CDC now retrains those affected in market gardening and aquaponics.

“A lot of residents feel a strong sense of belonging here,” the organization’s deputy director told the resilience framework team. “They had a chance to evacuate and start a life somewhere else, but most of them chose to come back here because it reminded them of a little Vietnam. This really feels like a community — you can’t keep a secret here, people are so close.”

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