Government & Politics

Real ‘resilience’ requires a City Hall unafraid of public participation and tough questions

Jeff Hebert

City of N.O.

Jeff Hebert

During a recent presentation delivered to neighborhood leaders, Jeff Hebert, New Orleans’ Chief Resilience Officer, defined resilience as “the capacity of individuals, communities and cities to survive, adapt and grow, no matter what acute shocks and chronic stresses they experience.” Institutions, businesses and systems, Hebert says, must also build the capacity to rebound from shocks and stresses if New Orleans truly seeks to become resilient.

Most of our acute shocks — severe storms and extreme rainfall, flooding, and infrastructure failure — are well known. Regrettably, it takes events like the BP oil spill or freight trains falling from the Huey P. Long Bridge to remind us we are also subject to the threat of a hazardous materials accident. Chronic stresses, such as the dwindling of affordable housing, homelessness, changing demographics; aging infrastructure, and crime and violence, are the overarching pressures that impact our daily lives.

According to a formula presented by Hebert, the resilience plan will focus on four areas: (1) leadership and strategy, (2) health and wellbeing, (3) economy and society, and (4) infrastructure and environment. What’s disturbing is that the only area of study that officially invites community participation is the third, the one dealing with economy and society. And within that area, community participation falls only within the one sub-category: “promoting cohesive and engaged communities.” This approach is flawed. Community participation needs to be an integral part of all areas of study leading to our resilience plan.

According to Judith Rodin, president of the Rockefeller Foundation, which has partnered with New Orleans in the 100 Resilient Cities program, resilience is a learned trait and a skill. It would serve the city well to undertake what the National League of Cities describes as “deliberative public engagement.” That process is characterized by:

  • Clearly framing issues
  • Bringing people of different perspectives to the table
  • Practicing active listening
  • Providing facilitative leadership
  • Conducting mediation and negotiation
  • Summarizing points of view
  • Hosting inclusive deliberations
  • Speaking in language that is free of jargon

Through its research, the league has found that authentic public engagement — the interactive partnership between a government and its citizens — can deliver a more prosperous, sustainable and equitable environment. Other positive outcomes of constructive collaboration include access to new ideas and information, behavioral changes, relationship building and conflict prevention – benefits that would reduce the city’s chronic stresses.

The leadership and strategy component of the city’s resilience formula seeks to “empower a broad range of stakeholders.” According to the formula, the city aspires to do this through “communication and knowledge transfer.” But its current behavior threatens that goal. As a result, the lack of transparency and scarcity of opportunities for in-depth and meaningful public engagement should be added to our list of chronic stresses.

We all know it can be difficult to get answers to tough questions from City Hall. For instance, the city’s lack of responses to questions regarding a spate of mishaps that have plagued the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission (NORDC) characterizes a city that refuses to participate in any type of discussion with its citizens.

When the public expressed concerns about incompetent management, inflated construction budgets, shoddy craftsmanship and the fitness of several NORDC facilities, city officials closed ranks.

Here’s a case in point:

This past March, patrons at Joe W. Brown pool were exposed to extremely high levels of chlorine, in highly alkaline water, over a five-day period. Their complaints about respiratory distress along with burning, peeling and spotting skin fell on deaf ears. The City’s aquatics director blamed the recreational water illnesses on laundry detergent and refused to close the pool, exposing many more to a dangerous environment.

The City was finally pushed to acknowledge the complaints when things reached a fever pitch and 26 angry swimmers surrounded Vic Richard, chief executive officer of NORDC, and Councilman James Gray in the natatorium. When administrators were asked which chemicals caused the illnesses, they chose not to answer.

What’s even more distressing is the city’s Director of Public Health, Charlotte Parent, has remained silent about the crisis even after citizens reached out to her. Not only does Parent’s silence contradict the city’s mission to “protect, promote and improve the health of all where we live, learn, work and play,” it contradicts the city’s newly recognized effort to drive community engagement as a critical component of public health. Moreover, it disregards the area of the resilience strategy that pledges to ensure public health.

Hebert, Richard and Parent did not respond to further inquiries about the issues raised in this column.

At POLITICO Magazine’s What Works conference, in New Orleans a few weeks ago, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said that resilience comes from knitted communities. On that, we can all agree. But that fabric must include an open and caring government that’s willing to offer citizens a seat at the table. The bottom-up approach that both Landrieu and Rodin claim to support must include honest conversation if we are to build a strong community capable of responding to threats. The business-as-usual approach, still widespread in New Orleans, must be set aside if we are to become the model, world-class city that our leadership aspires to create.

Hurricane Katrina is 10 years behind us. But many are still grappling with its ills. Given the scope of Katrina’s damage — both physical and psychological — it’s only natural for the people of New Orleans to want significant input during the resilience planning process. So here’s my message to City Hall:

Dear Mayor Landrieu,

I urge you to invite us to the table. Listen, and be willing to have the tough conversations. It’s the only way to become one team, achieve one voice, and win the fight to build one great city. It’s the only way to become the best, most resilient place in the world.

Very sincerely,

Amy Stelly

Amy Stelly is an artist, designer and urban planner. She is a native of New Orleans who lives and works in Treme.

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  • Keith Twitchell

    This is right on point. The only thing I would add is that we simply must have a permanent, formal structure for civic engagement. This seemingly endless series of ad hoc input meetings is inefficient, ineffective, frequently not accessible to many residents, and completely contrary to best practices. New Orleans cannot be a resilient city without meaningful community participation, and the only way to have truly open and inclusive community participation is through a structure that everyone can access.

  • TimGNO

    Whenever I see another one of Mayor Landrieu’s cronies appointed to the umpteenth public post, spewing pollyannish rhetoric and corporate-speak, my stomach turns. If words could solve problems, New Orleans might be in great shape by now! Instead, the suits continue to bide their time while taking home paychecks the size of the World Trade Center.

  • KC King

    High Performance TEAMING is THE proven best practice at world class institution in both the private and public sector. Introducing a city-wide (and beyond) culture and capability that expects teaming to be be employed in addressing any and every problem. Ensuring the teams include representatives of every class of stakeholder is where effective citizen participation must start. Best teaming practices will ensure that teams and team members are empowered to solve the problem and that their expected results of value are adequately represented. It also ensures that inevitable clashes of stakeholder interests are identified and openly resolved by the empowered team.

    World class companies such as Boeing incorporate teaming into their culture to produce world class products. The benefits can be realized by public institutions to the extent that leadership is committed to mission success. The International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) incorporates teaming as critical to the success of multi-discipline endeavors. Ineffective and suboptimal teaming was a key fault identified by the Katrina IPET when it found our flood protection works to be a “system in name only”.

  • How can we “achieve one voice” when leadership believes the solution to poverty is displacing poor people?

  • Hoodoonola

    New Orleans is world renown for what is referred to as our ‘improvisational impulse’ embodied in our creative culture. local knowledge and social ways… unfortunately, following Katrina that was severely inhibited as a result of the Structural Adjustment Program imposed before the winds even died down & privatizing everything – giving the owning class and their business interests the only seats at the table and unprecedented access to resources, especially through the Public Private Partnership model, which was very poorly implemented here. Since, our economic and workforce development system has been the exclusive province of the well-healed usual suspects, during which time labor abuse, discrimination, poverty and inequality has soared, as if it wasn’t already bad enough before. If the City truly wants community involvement, maybe these private interests can begin by opening seats at the table of their secret boards and genuinely address the most pressing problems citizens of New Orleans face in their day to day lives. Thank you Amy Stelly for saying what needed to be said ….

  • Mr. King,
    Please excuse the rudeness, but I’m with Stelly and Twithchell and find your “High Performance TEAMING” rant- and Boeing blah blah so removed from my 10k experiences that i’m insulted- feel the need to speak out and up for those voices ignored by the highly paid experts who lectured- rather than listened and did what’s best.
    INCOSE? What about meeting fatigue? – the round tables- the highlighter pens- to “grow comUUUnity”- and “sustain sustainable growth sustainability”…
    IPET? WT(letter deleted)?
    So we pet the wrong dog and got no say in CDBG funds on Freret Street “improvements”?….

    Did the 70% of riders who stopped ridding the # 15 Bus Line (formally the Freret Jet) have a say in the the forced transfer?

    NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! They got the shaft…

    And I’m sorry to take my anger out on your “high performance teaming” that i’m sure works in Seattle and Chicago, but this is NOLA- where tourists come 1st and the middle class gets screwed…

    Best from 5110 Freret St.

    Andy Brott

  • I was wrong- the Freret Bus line lost 67,000 riders- a 43% not 70% drop in riders because of the forced transfer at Union Station.

  • Kelly M. Haggar

    No clue why you’re taking anything out on KC, the retired Boeing guy. He wrote this for The Lens, and it has a LOT to say about “resilience:”
    Sitting ducks: FEMA elevation standards leave us vulnerable to the next big flood
    Opinion By K.C. King, Contributing opinion writer April 17, 2015 12:13pm

  • nickelndime

    Screw “resilience.” It is re-warmed SILENCE, and I am “mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore.” When “government” barricades people in for years (not months) on local streets, diverts traffic, puts up roadblocks…) and tells them nothing, then yes, WE have a (expletive-deleted, and I am not lookin at deleting one effin letter) problem. 05/22/2015 10:56 PM DST USA

  • KC King

    This notion that citizen participation is an end in itself or some idealistic expression to true democracy is not going to get us anywhere. I believe what happened to us after Katrina was the city and civic groups (including the Rockefeller Foundation engaged a gaggle of professional urban planning consultants. The results we got were eye candy for overwhelmed local governments. What sold them on this urban planning approach was the promise that the consultants would go through the collaboration “dance” and throw the proceedings away.

    Its about time to recognize that urban planning has given post-Katrina some lovely rain gardens, forced sarge scale developers to tidy up their site drainage and not much else.

    I agree with Judith Rodin about the need to be focused on our extreme shocks and stresses but I stongly believe that they require two distinct approaches and that co-mingling them will get us more of the same confusion. The persistent stresses are best addressed by Deming’s Continuous Process Improvement mechanism which institutionalizes a team-based process of on-going incremental improvement cycles.

    Extreme shocks are another matter all together in that they demand revolutionary leaps, usually including cultural shocks. Our lack of large scale resilience to inevitable extreme storms is just such a threat. Efforts to promote heightened flood risk awareness a viewed by the building/real estate industry as a direct threat the the certainty they believe the community owes them and the income stream they derive from continuously rebuilding the city.

    The proven method for dealing with extreme shocks, unintended is, for complex, uncertain and high consequence type events, Resilient Systems Engineering. This is exactly the type of systems engineering that the Corps’ IPET found completely absent in the pre-Katrina flood protection “system in name only”. Since the Corps views itself as a construction project completer rather than a population or ecosystem protector, they are clueless. Equally clueless are the State and City governments who have been seduced away from human safety to ecosystem safety. Because systems engineers recogize that the success of a system means meeting all negotiated stakeholder expectations, they support kind of broad and deep stakeholder engagement that comes from formal teaming best practices.

    My recommendations?

    Abandon Urban planning where it is weak, if not in its entirety

    Try out some of the Baldridge Quality Management practices for bench marking best practices focusing on critial shock scenarios

    Adopt the disciplines that are expressly intended to address our shocl issue (system in name only” which remain untouched

    Afterthought: Brass Band and second line dancing reflect one of the ultimate applications of high performance teaming. If you think that stuff just happens, you don’t know the rigor and discipline that strengthens and underlies our culture.

    I welcome responses and discussion of this existentially critical topic.

  • Kelly-
    Thank you.
    More importantly my apologies to Mr. King.
    I ignorantly misunderstood the content and context to read that you were somehow in defense of the dysfunction and our lack of public input.
    + after reading your work here-
    I feel doubly foolish- as it’s spot on- and i’m very much in agreement.
    “Ignorance is not an excuse”- I was here- please don’t stop witting and commenting because of it.
    Best from Freret St.
    Andy Brott

  • K.C.
    Please see my apology to you above-
    I’m a full time visual Artist and by happenstance mixed with circumstance- my wife and I have been involved neighborhood revitalization since we moved here 24 years ago.
    Never intended to- it just happened- and may sound bad for some- i.e. did not go to school for it, and or or have the corporate or management experience, has worked for us to get thing done.
    Yet with the more I research, read, and learn (please keep up your writing and comments, they are appreciated), the more I strongly believe in the Jane Jacobs 101 basics in Urban Planning and see the “experts” as the enemy.

    Gotta run and best from 5110 Freret,
    Andy Brott

  • Kelly M. Haggar

    No sweat, GI, can do easy.
    Now for the hard part. My candidates for the two words most in need of removal from the dictionary are “resilience” and “sustainability.”
    The operational effect of them both is “drown the poorest people first.” The English translation of them both is “We keep living in the same place regardless of rising risk until we run out of other people’s money.”
    Ever wonder why the Road Home was (a) originally called the “Gov Kath Bab Blanco Road Home Program” and (b) why it was so devilishly hard to do anything but rebuild where you were pre-Katrina? Because “If I don’t get 50,000 votes out of Orleans Parish any Republican can beat me.”
    I have no idea if KC ever worked on the B-52 but even if he didn’t he may still know about the structural break-ups in the early 1960s. The jet was intended to drone along at high altitude, drop 1 or 2 bombs, make a steepish turn to get away from the shock wave after each release, and then drone back home (if there was one). But defenses got WAY better so low level became the thing. TOTALLY different world! Gusts, much thicker air, lots of turbulence, running up hillsides and pushing over down the back side, larger and different loads. Wings broke in half and a few tails were shed. Only 1 bird survived those kinds of failures; the “H” model in “Flight Without a Fin.” (It’s on YouTube if you care to dig it out.)
    A fortune was spent on beefier bulkheads for the fin, thicker skin, long strips of railroad iron along most of the two lower longerons, plus a “T” strap under the wing joint. The jet got about 20,000 lbs heavier.
    QED, operating in a new environment takes a boatload of money and a lot of changes. At some point it’s just more cost-effective to stop pumping money into an old bird and get a new design.
    As Tulane Envi Conf was told in Feb 2014, “coastal restoration is denial of climate change.” The more you believe we have a meter (or more) of already locked in sea level rise, the less reason there is try diversions, ESPECIALLY the ones aimed into geologic hot spots (20 mm/yr sink rates) of intense faulting activity. At some point, people have to choose between Boesch and Kusky. At some point between Morton and Dokka. The river is either abandoning Frazier Delta 16 (Bird’s Foot) and switching to 17 (Wax Lake Outlet and Lower Atch) or it isn’t. The CORS stations are showing not only a steep descent, but also a heading about 110 degrees away from the northern 3/4 of La. The SE corner of La isn’t just subsiding, but it’s also peeling off towards Cuba.
    Must we relocate people next week? No. We probably have several decades. BUT – – we’re already unable to carry our 35% share of the levee O & M now, and that will only get worse as seas rise, soils compress, and faults/ transforms do what they do.
    There are some tough choices heading for Plaquemines, St Bernard, Orleans, Jefferson, and west over to at least Terrebonne. (St Tammany below I-10/I-12 as well.) Only a few thousand years ago Orleans Parish did not even exist. That will happen again, but not with a human lifetime.
    I dunno – – maybe the “resilience” crowd can think of some delaying tactics fighting a rear guard action against the “drowning is inevitable” seen by Blum & Roberts as far back as 2009? In any event, my 2 cents is that La has huge and largely unappreciated geo-hazards which are not getting the attention they deserve. It’s NOT time to panic, but IMHO it IS time to weigh risks and get geo-hazards into the mix.

  • nickelndime

    Oh look, I have fallen over on Freret Street trying to get to Dat Dawg. I ain’t apologizing for nothing, cuz it sure as hell ain’t teamwork dat got me here and teamwork sure as hell ain’t gonna get me out of here. I ain’t married. I am an artist, but I aint’s no Visual Artist, unless dat means I IS AN ARTIST WHO CANNOT SEE, which I can. To be continued…”I got to laugh to keep from cryin’…ain’t nobody gonna catch me now. I am the Midnight Rider…” 05/23/2015 12:46 AM DST USA

  • Kelly M. Haggar

    Unless and until structural geology is part of the mix, then I believe . . .

    “Clearly framing issues”

    “Bringing people of different perspectives to the table”
    . . . are incomplete. Moreover, without a full awareness of the natural history of the last 6,000 years or so – – which ought to result in an appreciation of the next few hundred – – I highly doubt the New Orleans metro area has much chance of finding a worthwhile solution to its natural hazards.
    QED, if the city can’t resolve its existential threats, who cares about its petty zoning fights around the Quarter or on Magazine St?

  • nickelndime

    Now that’s what I expected from you, Kelly M. Haggar. Don’t make me “pull teeth” to get a “reality check.” Thank you! 05/24/2015 11:26 PM DST USA

  • Kelly M. Haggar

    I ought not to be surprised when people who have no idea geology exists other than it – – somehow – – helps those oil fiends rape Mother Earth start screaming “Shill!” at me once I’ve tried to get some of it taken into account. I am a little surprised this thread has not been hijacked already. Maybe we’ll stay lucky and it won’t be?
    S. La. and the Gulf along it is one of the most studied subsurfaces on the planet. Mere mortal man knows and understands more about the first 20-30 miles down from the grass and parking lots south of I-10/I-12 than just about any other place there is. Geology is real and it’s huge and it works in largely predictable ways. The most we can do about it is adapt to what the Earth does on its own. We are NOT in charge of this place!
    IMHO, there’s simply no two ways about it. Any plan which does not take structural (deep) geology into account snows the virgins and fools the complacent. A Green at a planning lunch a few months back raised what he thought was a great point; “What’s different about Arabi versus the Lower Ninth?” My answer was, “I don’t care what color the bodies in the bags are – – I’m trying to have FEWER of them.”

  • nickelndime

    Great work, Kelly M. Haggar! This site hasn’t been hijacked yet, probably for some of the same reasons and flaws that you wrote about. A lot of people just don’t appreciate the “basics” in anything – including Geology 101. Seems that too many of “us” want to move onto the advanced studies instead of paying attention to what is right in front of us. We “humans” may not be around as long as we think. We are all “renters” of sorts on this planet. And, as Denzel recently said in his commencement address to graduates, “I have never seen a U-Haul following a hearse.” 05/25/2015 7:07 PM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    I just had an ephiphany (not THE Ephiphany, just AN ephiphany) – call it what you like. But, it seems like the first humans (I use that term un-scientifically), seemed to disregard the geological significance of “The Garden of Eden,” and we have been spiraling downward ever since. I mean, these two “had it all,” but it wasn’t enough. Overlooking the basics – the truth right in front of them – they blamed each other and they began to propagate (sound familiar?) and they multiplied and went forth. And here we are today! Did we expect this to turn out differently? Well, that is total insanity, and we humans appear to carry a gene for that too. Honestly, I think the snakes and the pigeons are going to watch “us” go under. 05/25/2015 10:10 PM DST USA

  • This is exactly what I’ve been saying in my petition objecting to some plans for the National Slave Ship Museum — a $170 million project. The planning has been insular as far as varying perspectives and public dialogue goes. Call in more people, throw more light on it, and be willing to toss out an idea that doesn’t make sense to most people no matter how much it may be somebody’s baby. And now that that museum’s board is dissembling while a council woman sits next to them smiling – no – make that sits next to them smiling while they’re blatantly lying about what anyone can prove with a council video, I’m even more concerned. — Nordette N. Adams

  • nickelndime

    Hear! Hear! VParlant! A petition means that somebody is actually doing something other than just “talking.” I think other people’s babies are cute, but not that cute – not $170 million dollar public money cute – !
    The New Orleans City Council has too many public “babies.” Somebody should put them on contraceptives OR maybe WE ALL better learn how to just tell them NO! 05/26/2015 10:17 PM DST USA

  • Armando Muspench

    Re that recent presentation: I was there, and every person at the table with me (five in all) reported continuing and escalating threats to neighborhood resilience.

    For Uptown, Broadmoor, and Irish Channel, problems identified included rapid overdevelopment, traffic and poorly planned drainage work, spiraling property taxes, and loss of neighborhood stability due to transient ownership (mostly sequential flipping).

    New Orleans East reported a lack of needed development, especially commercial. All those factors undermining resilience are affecting quality of life, and they all ran contrary to the narrative the city proposed.

    That narrative (“New Orleans has recovered from a devastating storm, presenting a shining example of resilience among cities worldwide”) was put forth to serve at least three purposes.

    First, Jeff Hebert (a very likable guy) is now being paid with Rockefeller Foundation money, which is where the whole resilience theme arises ( That presentation provided some work for the money, and that’s fine as long as we’re not picking up the tab.

    Second, Landrieu wanted positive PR for the ten-year anniversary of Katrina (follow-up e-mails from the city requested personal resilience stories for that purpose).

    Third, and this is just a guess, I’d expect Landrieu to use the recovery/resilience narrative in 2018, when he’s planning to spend lots of city resources on the tricentennial and promote a probable bid for future statewide office. 🙂 [5/31/2015 8:38 AM]

  • nickelndime

    “Chief Resilience Officer”??? Really!!! This is just as bad as the “Recovery” School District. If New Orleans is everything that the great PR machine says it is – a national model of resilience and recovery – then how is it that we are on the tail end of all the good lists. If I am being asked for ten words to express my summative evaluation of the last ten years post-Katrina, it would be a list of ten (expletive!) expletives. Even though Jeff Hebert is being paid with Rockefeller Foundation money, I still find it insulting. New Orleans is being undone and dismantled as we speak. In a heavy rain, there are parts of the city that now flood, that didn’t flood eleven years ago. The projects (not public housing) never end. Street closures run for months – make that years. Landrieu and the entire City Council should be run out of town. The New Orleans delegation is a travesty. They appear to be interested in sex education for minors and smoking bans. Despite the national hype, public education in New Orleans is costly – not free. Our governor is a bad boy, and I don’t mean “bad” in a good way. 05/31/2015 6:49 PM DST USA

  • nickelndime

    Speaking of RESILIENCE, you all might want to check out the U.S. Attorney’s Office. It appears that Kenny Polite tripped and hit his head on one ot the federale’ concrete steps and is confusing (co-mingling) Christian (we ain’t all Christian, Baby) values and government. 05/31/2015 11:27 PM DST USA