Before Hurricane Katrina struck, New Orleans was far from a model of environmental sustainability. The centuries-old houses with 10-foot ceilings that lend the city its charm were horribly energy inefficient, nearly every building in the city was vulnerable to heavy flooding, and the city had no LEED-certified buildings or an energy code before the storm.
Soon after Katrina and the inadequate government response to the disaster, environmental non-profit Global Green capitalized on the opportunity to rebuild the city as an international example of sustainability. Through green affordable housing projects, education initiatives to teach residents about global warming and sustainability, and efforts to green local schools, Global Green hopes to achieve the greatest impact possible on New Orleans while inspiring national and international governments to follow suit.
"The response has been pretty phenomenal," said Matt Petersen, President and CEO of Global Green. "We came here with this vision for New Orleans to have another thing it's known for, besides great food, music, culture. We wanted architects and contractors to get educated on how to do green buildings, and we want firms there to be able to compete for jobs in other places with their green expertise. And I feel really good about what we've been able to accomplish in five years."
Today, Global Green's impact can be felt all over New Orleans. Following a high-profile collaboration with Brad Pitt, there are now more green single-family affordable housing units being built in New Orleans than in any other U.S. city. Louisiana currently has the most progressive solar tax credit in the country, hundreds of green building products are now available there that weren't before, and tons of green building projects are underway in New Orleans--including 73 LEED projects and an estimated 500 LEED-certified homes. (http://tinyurl.com/2dt67q5).
Petersen says the organization's greatest success has been the greening of schools in the area, which had significantly reduced energy costs and provided cleaner air and a healthier overall environment for New Orleans students.
"The highest-impact, although the least known of our successes has been our schools project," Petersen told HuffPost. "We have impacted six schools directly and created a policy to impact eight more. We've created some curriculum for environmental education programs, gotten parents more involved in fundraising, helped the district negotiate with FEMA to get full cost reimbursement, and updated energy efficiency for four schools, saving a total of $25,000 per school."
Shannon Jones, the executive director of Tulane University's Scott S. Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives, said Global Green's impact on the quality of New Orleans schools has been immeasurable.
"Before Katrina, schools in this area required about a billion dollars in maintenance," she said. "Now we're building schools that also are more environmentally sound, and it's saving them a lot of money on electricity."
Global Green has also had a number of policy successes: They influenced the state government to offer a 50 percent solar tax credit and to consider green criteria in allocating low-income housing tax credits, the staff co-chaired Mayor Landrieu's new transition team on sustainable energy and the environment, and they have been invited to submit a bid to run the city's weatherization program for the next three years.
Despite New Orleans' progress in becoming a greener city, Petersen said the recent Gulf oil spill was a sobering reminder of the need for stronger environmental initiatives and policies across the world.
"With global warming, flooding is going to be part of New Orleans' future, whether by levee break or sea water rise," he said, "but in light of the Gulf Oil Spill, we realize that rebuilding a more energy-efficient New Orleans isn't enough. We must invest in a green energy future for the Gulf and the nation. We must embark on a national campaign to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Because the reality is that if we don't do something about global warming, New Orleans is going to be lost."