This article is an excerpt from New Orleans: Structure, Community, City. Find it at the Greenbuild Bookstore or contact Jen Illescas at [email protected]/magazine.

Ellarose Gray never left for a hurricane.

The storms would come, usually between late summer and early fall, hurl themselves against New Orleans, and retreat again, but she remained. Gray had lived in Broadmoor, a neighborhood in the 12th and 13th Wards on the west side of the city, since 1978, when she moved into her home in time to see the New Year fireworks from her front yard. She and her neighbors always stayed, and when the storm was over, they descended onto the streets to clean it all up and set things right again.

When officials spent the last full week of August 2005 urging the city to evacuate, not everyone listened. The storm they were calling Katrina had swelled into a hurricane and shrank back to a tropical storm several times, all in the course of a few days. By Sunday morning, it was classified as a category-four hurricane. Gray heard the news and worried. What she’d endured in all her years in Broadmoor suddenly didn’t matter. She decided to leave that afternoon, after she went to church.

Ellarose Gray has been a resident of Broadmoor for forty years.

Ellarose Gray has been a resident of Broadmoor for forty years.

An hour before New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin would hold a press conference and order a mandatory evacuation, Gray and others from her church decided to cancel the service and leave the city. “We started hearing about how bad it was going to be,” she remembers. “We decided we weren’t going to have no service because nobody’s coming.”

They piled into several vans, leaving behind homes, possessions, and cars safely locked up in the church parking lot. Gray left her two-bedroom duplex on Louisiana Avenue Parkway, where a large tree in the front yard had endured even more storms than she had. The small fleet of borrowed vans headed for Robert, Louisiana, 55 miles away across Lake Pontchartrain to the north—the drive took them a little over an hour. The day was perfect: blue skies, a bright and hot August sun, and lower humidity than usual for the marshy city. A few hours later, after the mayor called Katrina “the storm most of us have feared” and the Superdome opened as a last-ditch shelter, that same trip took up to six hours.

“We were not here when it happened, and I thank God—it’s the first time,” she says, trailing off to take a moment to collect her thoughts. “I’ve never left because of a hurricane.”

By 9 a.m. the next day, the lowest parts of the city were under eight feet of water. Five hours later, officials confirmed breaches in three canal levees.

Those who had stayed in their houses or the Superdome were suddenly stranded, and reports of looting swelled as quickly as the floodwaters. On Tuesday, National Guard troops, helicopters, and state buses poured into New Orleans to evacuate civilians, but 85 percent of the city was already underwater. For the next several days, legislators would argue, pass relief packages, and demand to know how the levees failed. But finger-pointing wasn’t on the minds of those who had left the city.

Eight to ten feet of water surged through homes in Broadmoor, including Gray’s duplex. It swirled around the massive tree in her front yard and poured in through the doorways. Her house was more elevated than some of the ranch-style homes on her block. Those houses didn’t flood—they were knocked off of their foundations and wiped away with only concrete slabs left behind to mark their passing. Meanwhile, Gray was busy arranging for another shelter for herself and neighbors, this time in Baton Rouge, where they would remain for the next three months. As media descended on the drowning city, she heard the news filtering in. People were dying, not just in their homes, but also in the Superdome.

“God, a lot of people were killed,” she says softly, as if nearly 10 years later, she still can’t believe it. “A lot of people drowned. My Lord. That was bad. That was the worst.”

• • •

David Winkler-Schmit was a journalist on the ground when the hurricane surged into the city. For the next five years, every paragraph of every story he would write would include the word “Katrina.”

About four months after the storm hurled against the Big Easy, the Bring New Orleans Back Commission began releasing plans to rebuild the city. The map the commission created had six green dots scattered across it; these dots were areas that, if 50 percent of the residents didn’t return, would be turned into parks. Broadmoor was covered in green ink.

“I know how to repopulate a neighborhood,” a Broadmoor resident told Winkler-Schmit.

David Winkler-Schmit,  School Board President

David Winkler-Schmit,
School Board President


“Tell them they can’t.”

Within three days of the map’s release, Broadmoor began to rally. A few hundred people wielding handwritten signs gathered on public ground. One unified slogan emerged: “Broadmoor Lives.”

The protests didn’t stop there, and it echoed throughout the parish. On February 8, 2006, hundreds of Katrina survivors marched in front of the White House. They wielded white ruffled parasols, small umbrellas meant to remind legislators of New Orleans and its culture, and demanded funds to rebuild the city and the Gulf Coast. LaToya Cantrell, president of Broadmoor’s neighborhood association before the storm, was among them. Although she was a politically active community member, she found out about the commission’s plan to bulldoze Broadmoor by reading the front page of The Times-Picayune. “There was no involvement from the community in regard to the planning process that made this recommendation,” Cantrell says. “That’s what got us started.”

Gray had moved back into Broadmoor, though her home was uninhabitable, when the plans to demolish it were released. She worked in the radiology department of a local hospital, and the hospital offered to house employees in apartments built for patients undergoing care at the facility. She was in a second-floor apartment she describes as beautiful, with two bedrooms and a large glass door, and while in that apartment, she thought about how to save Broadmoor from the green dot.

It would take more than an informal effort to bring the neighborhood back this time, especially on a time limit before bulldozers rolled in. Many residents who wanted to return had no place to go and couldn’t afford to come back, and 50 percent of the original residents suddenly seemed hardly any more obtainable than 80 or 100 or 120. The hurricane was bad enough, but the levee failures seemed to doom Broadmoor, whose streets were now filled with muck and debris and a noticeable lack of traffic or any signs of life. The neighborhood sits in a bowl, geographically speaking, and had no way to protect itself from filling up after solid concrete failed.

“You say ‘Katrina and the levee failures,’ and it sounds like a band name,” Winkler-Schmit says, “but both pieces contributed to what happened.”

The neighborhood residents were not deterred. Gray partnered with Cantrell and many other long-time Broadmoor residents to form the Broadmoor Improvement Association (BIA). They worked with local and state governments and private organizations to bring funding, planning, and construction back to the neighborhood. They wrote grants, called former residents to ask what it would take to come home, staged protests, and outlined what they wanted to emphasize in Broadmoor’s new structure. They formed several committees to work on what needed to be done, such as the Repopulation and Revitalization committees.

“We drew this flower that symbolized our plan,” Cantrell says. “The center was the community, the citizens, and each petal of the flower had a different meaning. One was government, another was faith-based communities, another was private organizations. All of them played a role in how we were going to find resources and rebuild.”

It was a journey that would be measured in years, not months. Their first priority was the construction of an educational corridor, anchored by a public library and school. Once the corridor was completed, organizers would look to places that provide access to technology, health care, social services, and art in a centralized location. Broadmoor worked with the Harvard Kennedy School, Carnegie Corporation, the City of San Francisco, the Clinton Global Initiative, and many other organizations to rebuild the neighborhood. They had to start somewhere, and that place was the library.

“It’s not just about books,” Cantrell says. “It was a neutral place to galvanize people. Everyone in the community could see themselves in that library.”

It took several years for the community to receive FEMA funding, especially because numerous government property-value assessments were dismally low. The library, for example, was initially valued at $350,000. Cantrell helped organize disputes, and three assessments later, the library was valued at $4 million.

The Repopulation Committee continued to call former Broadmoor residents after the library’s construction began, and a pattern emerged. A major obstacle to many homeowners’ returns was the lack of public education within the neighborhood. The BIA’s next priority was to build the Andrew H. Wilson Charter School to address that issue. But residents didn’t want to just rebuild what had stood before Katrina and been wiped away. They wanted to build a better Broadmoor. They sought advice on green and sustainable building and designed a library and school that could survive the next disaster, ultimately constructing a LEED Gold facility.

“As the years passed, resources started to dwindle,” Cantrell says. “But we weren’t done. We had to figure out how to invest in ourselves, not off the backs of other people.”

• • •

Many problems that existed in Broadmoor and other parts of the city before the hurricane haven’t been solved yet, such as crime rates and income disparity. Winkler-Schmit remembers a conversation with a young man when he worked at the New Orleans Public Library. He was interviewing him, asking a series of general questions.

“What’s your most significant achievement up until now?” he asked.

The man didn’t blink. “Being alive.”

LaToya Cantrell,  City Council Member

LaToya Cantrell,
City Council Member

If Katrina taught Broadmoor anything, says Winkler-Schmit, who is now president of the Broadmoor Charter School Board, it’s that the power of a community can overcome these problems, just as it did to a map that blotted it out. Leadership like Cantrell’s made that happen. She now serves on the New Orleans City Council after Gray encouraged her to run in 2012. The library and school define the educational corridor and are built to LEED standards. A fine arts and wellness center, just across the street from the library and school, is under construction, and a health clinic is in the works. Many houses are still being rebuilt or refitted, but numerous LEED-certified homes, some Platinum, have been added in the process.

“We still have over 250 homes that are being rebuilt, with families that need to come back,” Cantrell says. “We still have a ways to go to make sure Broadmoor is better than it was before.”

The Broadmoor of today looks much different than the Broadmoor of 2005, but some things remain the same. Gray is back in her duplex. She’s proud of an archway she designed between her dining room and living room. She couldn’t describe what she wanted perfectly, so she sketched it out on a sheet of paper to show to the FEMA contractor. The tree that stood with 10 feet of water swirled around it is still standing in her front yard, and she likes to sit near it on her new porch.

“I was so satisfied being home,” she says. “Nothing else really mattered. Everything is perfectly completed.”

After cleanup crews swept through her duplex and the block, Gray was amazed at the change. She walked through her yard, devoid of weeds or even a speck of debris, and spotted a little twig that had fallen off of her tree. She took it between her fingers, and it sparked an idea. For nearly a year, Gray picked up twigs she found scattered around Broadmoor and glued them to the twig from her front yard. They were little pieces, cast aside, symbols of death that had been snapped off and tossed away, but once she glued them all together, she called her creation “the tree of life.”

“It’s us,” she says. “It’s what we were going through. We came from death to life.”

Now, when Gray sits on her front porch, she doesn’t just see slabs of concrete up and down Louisiana Avenue Parkway, signifying what used to be. She doesn’t see streets full of muck and debris. There are cars going down Broad Street, like veins pumping blood once more. It’s finally busy again, because Broadmoor lives.

This article is an excerpt from New Orleans: Structure, Community, City. Find it at the Greenbuild Bookstore or contact Jen Illescas at [email protected]/magazine.