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 Phillip Rollfing  

Disaster Rebuilding

New Orleans and gulf coast should
be rebuilt, architect Clayton says


Texas A&M University architecture professor Mark Clayton is emphatic in his belief that New Orleans should be rebuilt-and he has credentials to back up his contention.

"New Orleans and the stretch of river from Baton Rouge to the Gulf of Mexico constitute the world's fourth-largest port, and the foremost port in terms of bulk cargo handling," says Clayton, who is also executive associate dean of the College of Architecture. "It just doesn't make good economic sense not to restore it.

"But more than that, some authors have called the city a work of art," he continued. "You wouldn't discard a Rembrandt just because it got water damaged, would you?"

Clayton, who was born in New Orleans, points out that the city shares its vulnerability to hurricane damage with others along the Gulf Coast from Brownsville to Houston to Miami.

"The Gulf Coast is the import-export engine of the entire United States," Clayton says. "You can't close these cities just because they may be vulnerable to future hurricanes. Our challenge is to figure out how we can co-exist with the environment in that region. Our successful response to that challenge is vital to the health of the country as a whole."

Texas A&M University's College of Architecture already has played an important part in responding to damage from Hurricane Katrina, mobilizing resources to produce coherent strategies and response plans soon after the waters receded from New Orleans. The college hosts the Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center (HRRC), which is one of the premier disaster relief research centers in the world. During the aftermath of Katrina, HRRC staff provided extensive commentary and analysis to relief agencies as well as to the press. Many of the warnings provided by HRRC researchers in past years were proven all too prescient, Clayton adds.

Clayton is adamant that New Orleans should be rebuilt, but he agrees the question of how to do so requires expertise combined with creative thinking. He points out that some of the nearly 300-year-old parts of the city, such as the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, originally were situated on higher ground, so they did not flood during Hurricane Katrina. But other areas, like the Ninth Ward Lakeview, and New Orleans East, were constructed at lower elevations when the city expanded into the Mississippi River flood plain during the 20th century.

"Experts are asking how or to what extent buildings in such low, flood-prone areas should be rebuilt," Clayton says. "The Ninth Ward was home to many original, indigenous architectural forms such as shotgun, double-shotgun and camel-back houses and Creole cottages. The very simplicity of construction of these types of dwellings may make their restoration feasible. Originally made of wood and plaster, reconstruction can begin with drying out, which is less possible for houses comprising more modern materials like sheetrock or insulation.

"Newer homes with these materials can hold moisture, fostering mold and necessitating their demolition," he continued. "Of course, I am speculating, but given the energy and determination of many New Orleans natives, I think they may opt to invest the time and hard work necessary to restore large areas of the city."

Clayton believes that such restoration could be aided by photographs and historical drawings of the city.

"Many of the oldest parts of New Orleans are well documented, because in the 19th century, artists were hired to make watercolor drawings of buildings for tax purposes," he says. "New technologies such as GIS could help us construct 3-D maps to facilitate restoration. There are precedents for such massive restoration and rebuilding efforts, such as in Munich after World War II. Faced with destruction of most of the city, the German people decided to use photographs and historical documents to rebuild many of its prominent buildings."

Clayton said he also believes that those who take on the project of restoring New Orleans could learn valuable lessons from construction designs favored by the early settlers of the area.

"Many of the 19th century buildings along the Mississippi were raised above flood level, with living quarters located on the second floor," Clayton says. "The large hipped roofs of many of these structure also have been found to be the least likely to lift off in high winds."

"I am convinced New Orleans can be put back together," he adds, "but we will have to make some hard judgments as to what buildings can be saved."

A collection of white papers produced on the Hurricane Katrina disaster and restoration solutions can be accessed at

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Mark Clayton

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