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March 26, 2014

BYRON YORK: Hurricane victims and eco-agenda

I visited Lousiana recently to do some reporting on Sen. Mary Landrieu's bid to win a fourth term in a tough political year. But before heading to the key parishes that will determine Landrieu's fate this November, I stopped by New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward to see how rebuilding efforts are faring nearly nine years after Hurricane Katrina.

I visited one particular spot – the area where in August 2005 a flood wall holding the waters of the Industrial Canal broke, setting off a calamity that continues to this day. The destruction was total; the rebuilding is at best partial.

The first thing one notices today is that solar energy panels seem to outnumber people in this particular stretch of the Lower Ninth. The panels are perched in creative ways atop brand new, brightly colored, architecturally striking, ultra-modern houses. One critic said the landscape resembles "a field of pastel-colored UFOs."

The houses are the work of an organization called the Make It Right Foundation, created in 2007 by the actor Brad Pitt. The group has pledged to build 150 new homes in the area, and so far it has finished about 100. And the first thing to say about the project is: Good for them. Much praise should go to people who help others rebuild homes and lives after such a terrible disaster. Here's hoping they will continue.

Pitt enlisted a who's who of world architecture to design the houses. One, a pinkish-lavender duplex with a roof deck shaded by twin canopies of solar panels, is by legendary architect Frank Gehry.

The homes are what is known as LEED Platinum, meaning they meet the highest standards of "Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design" as determined by the U.S. Green Homebuilding Council.

They have metal roofs that absorb less heat than other styles. They have acres of solar panels. Concrete columns with recycled content. Decking with non-toxic coatings. Rainwater collectors. Eco-friendly fiberboard. Sustainable wood cabinets. Carpet made from recycled materials.

The problem is, the daringly designed, environmentally sophisticated houses don't seem to appeal to the people they were intended to help. Last year, the New Republic published a critique saying "Brad Pitt's beautiful houses are a drag on New Orleans." Writer Lydia DePillis – she's the one who called the buildings "pastel-colored UFOs" – reported that the redevelopment has failed to attract former Lower Ninth residents back to the area, which has in turn failed to attract businesses. Nearby commercial boulevards are "largely barren" and the neighborhood's few residents "are living in futuristic homes that most Americans would covet, and yet there's not a supermarket – or even a fast food restaurant – for miles."

That's another way of saying the Make It Right enterprise is really about eco-evangelism. It's not enough to house the homeless. The victims of Katrina – in this case, a very small number of them – must also be shown the benefits of photo-voltaic panels and special concrete and eco-decking. They may be trying to rebuild their lives, but they're living in someone else's agenda.

Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.

 

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