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New Orleans in the forefront of a green building revolution

Hurricane Katrina provided New Orleans with the opportunity to be part of an environmental revolution and rebuild its houses, schools, and neighborhoods in a green, sustainable way.

By Husna HaqContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / November 4, 2009

Global Green’s solar home project in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward features a solar-paneled flat roof for maximum sun exposure.

Photos by Judi Bottoni/AP/file

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When hurricane Katrina blew into New Orleans four years ago, Matt Petersen watched in shock as the floodwaters retreated, revealing one of the most devastating natural disasters in US history: billions of dollars in damages, 80 percent of the city flooded with filthy water, and a government response that provoked a firestorm of criticism.

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“I watched everything play out in horror,” says Mr. Petersen. “And, like everyone else, I went through the process of thinking, ‘What can I do?’ ”

Petersen donated money and considered volunteering, but that wasn’t enough. “I kept feeling this well up inside me, I felt compelled to act,” he says.

As the city’s cleanup began, Petersen, the president and CEO of Global Green, an environmental nonprofit that promotes green building, saw a silver – or green – lining in Katrina’s catastrophic wake.

“I began to think, ‘Maybe I can do more.’ I run an organization with big thinking behind it; it’s a Red Cross for the environment. We have the greatest assemblage of green building expertise. How can we deploy that?” he says. “Certainly the city was going to be rebuilt. And this great city presented us with an opportunity to create the first truly green city in our nation.”

So Petersen opened Global Green’s first New Orleans office in March 2006.

Now, four years after hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans, he and a bevy of green-minded government employees, nonprofit organizations, volunteers, and celebrities (such as Brad Pitt) have helped transform the city into the frontier of a new green revolution.

“Now more people are interested in what we do,” says Wynecta Fisher, director of the Mayor’s Office of Environmental Affairs. “That’s what the storm did. I have had access to some of the best and brightest minds and techniques.”

As a result, the city currently operates 49 biodiesel buses and several LED stoplights, with plans to purchase LED streetlamps soon. Green, energy-efficient schools are in the works, and the city is eager to do more.

“We serve as a model,” says Charles Allen, chairman of the board of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association in the Lower Ninth Ward. “This is how a community can recover from a major disaster. I say, look, we’re going to prove to the world that you can live in an improved, better way.”

As part of that “improved ... way,” Global Green came up with an ambitious three-pronged plan: rebuild 10,000 homes to be green, adopt a sustainable neighborhood model, and upgrade area schools to be more ecofriendly. Petersen also resolved to create local expertise in green building in order to create jobs and ensure that the effort endures.

In partnership with the city and using money from the Bush-Clinton Katrina fund, Global Green plans to improve energy efficiency and air quality of existing schools and open two new schools that will be certified Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) silver. The schools will also help promote environmental awareness.

Global Green’s landmark initiative is the Holy Cross project, a sustainable neighborhood in the Lower Ninth Ward that will serve as a model for other communities. To generate ideas for the project, Global Green sponsored an international design competition, challenging architects to design an energy-efficient and affordable neighborhood model.