NEW ORLEANS – The city known more for French Quarter trash than recycling or renewable energy is going green. In rebuilding since Hurricane Katrina, homes are being fitted with solar panels, organic farming is catching on and the city’s got a new fleet of hybrid buses.
On the flanks of those buses, a catch phrase – Cleaner, Smarter – could be the anthem for the movement by institutions and individuals to slowly turn the city’s environmentally-unfriendly image around.
Maybe the filthy water that flooded 80 percent of the city after the catastrophe in August 2005 made residents rethink the way to rebuild. Or maybe it’s the tax credits or energy price spikes. Whatever the reason, the hurricane created a testing ground for ideas and initiatives.
Before Katrina, government officials rarely talked about renewable energy or “green building.” Solar technology powered little more than parking meters. Environmentalists were shut out of Louisiana politics for decades.
Now, they see a watershed era taking shape.
For example, in the Lower 9th Ward, hit particularly hard by Katrina, some 20 energy-saving homes are using solar panels.
“I never knew nothing about solar panels until after the storm,” said Mable Howard, an 80-year-old doll maker whose five-room home was flooded. The solar panels were donated and installed for free, and her electric bill has been cut at least in half during some months.
There is also renewed focus on restoring habitats that protected New Orleans from storm surge before the destruction of wetlands by the oil industry, timber companies and levee construction. Near the Lower 9th, for example, there are plans to plant hundreds of bald cypress in a bayou to help restore wetlands.
Urban organic farming also has gained momentum, new bicycle lanes are being planned and even the French Quarter is spiffier, thanks to an aggressive cleaning effort.
The greening could gain greater footing under President Barack Obama, who recently named Lower 9th Ward native Linda Jackson to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
Still, a distaste for environmentalism is reflected in the Louisiana congressional delegation. Even most Democrats are perennial bottom-feeders on a measure of pro-environment voting in Congress by the League of Conservation Voters.
“It takes a very brave person to get your head above the wall here,” said Oliver Houck, a Tulane University law professor and environmental advocate.
For decades, Louisiana’s state budget has been dependent on oil revenue. But some policymakers and investors say a more open attitude could have a big payoff. The state, they say, is rich in water, wind and sunshine – just the stuff for emerging cap-and-trade energy markets, which are aimed at reducing carbon emissions.