Jeff Hebert Credit: City of N.O.

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.

When administrators were asked which chemicals caused the illnesses, they chose not to answer.

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.