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This architect has an idea of how communities can assess rebuilding after floods


The challenges of rebuilding in the wake of Hurricane Ian are enormous, and scientists say those challenges are only going to grow. And that's because we expect to see an increase in destructive storms in the coming years, which means we will likely have some tough decisions to face about where development can take place in the future. Should people be living in areas known to be in the path of storms that are likely to get worse? And this invites even thornier questions of how, where and, yes, whether to rebuild in some areas.

It's a painful question in the aftermath of a tremendous personal and community tragedy like Hurricane Ian. But eventually, it may come down to this - which communities will be deemed worth saving and which ones won't. Our next guest, Steven Bingler, has been dealing with these issues for more than 15 years. Bingler is an architect and the founder and CEO of Concordia. That's a design firm in New Orleans. In 2006, Bingler's firm helped lead the recovery plan for Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, and he's with us now. Mr. Bingler, thanks so much for joining us.

STEVEN BINGLER: Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

MARTIN: So one solution that you recommended for south Louisiana and other flood-prone areas is something called managed retreat. What is that? What does that mean?

BINGLER: Well, managed retreat is what happens after you can't mitigate anymore. And the first line of defense, of course, is building levees and doing other, you know, stormwater management and other mechanisms to make the place where you are more safe to live. Once you've exhausted those mechanisms, then pretty much the only option left is to move to higher ground.

MARTIN: It's my understanding that there's no large-scale cross-state or federal initiative for managed retreat. So I was just wondering, you know, why is it there doesn't seem to be any larger federal initiative in this area.

BINGLER: Well, I'm not so sure that we, as a larger community, as a national community, have fully addressed or prepared to fully address the kinds of changes that we're going to be facing and the kind of planning that it's going to take for us to address these changes. And a lot of times, people talk about storms, hurricanes, and - but then we have to be reminded of just a couple of months ago, Kentucky was experiencing riverine flooding. And then we have wildfires in the West, and then we have drought, actually. I think that we are of a mindset that if we just look at these things individually, then maybe we can solve them individually. But they're all connected to this larger conversation or this larger event, which has to do with changing climates. And everybody is pretty much going to be impacted. Nobody is going to be left out.

MARTIN: But that invites the other question, which is - I think which leads people to wonder, why are cities and communities still developing areas that face heightened risks of experiencing climate disasters in the near future?

BINGLER: Well, I think the reason is because real estate developers are trying to sell real estate and trying to build homes, and I'm not sure that the public is aware of what they're moving into.

MARTIN: And of course, the other question also speaks to communities that have been long developed, that have been there for a long time, in some cases, you know, for generations or maybe hundreds of years. And after Katrina, there was discussion around ceasing development in the Ninth Ward. This is a predominantly Black neighborhood. It was one of the hardest-hit parts of the city. Talk to me a little bit about that. I mean, on the one hand, a lot of people would say, well, that's reasonable, isn't it, that this was an area that was devastated? And so...

BINGLER: Yes. And...

MARTIN: ...It's reasonable to have that conversation. So talk to me a little bit more about that.

BINGLER: People want to be in the place where their families are. They want to be in a place, you know, where they grew up. And that's a cultural thing, and that's a social thing. So we can't just do physical planning. We also have to realize that we have to be understanding the social and psychological consequences of people uprooting their whole lives.

MARTIN: So what are some of the questions that you would hope that leaders and citizens would be asking themselves as they figure out what to do next, based on your experience?

BINGLER: Right. Well, I mean, the first thing I think that we all need to ask ourselves is, are we prepared yet? Are we really prepared to plan ahead for this, for these conditions? Politically, it's not an easy thing for a mayor of a community to break the news to the people in that community that, you know, we're all going to have to move to higher ground. I don't think that we've addressed yet the magnitude of the cost.

Our current thinking about budget deficits is just minor compared to the cost of rebuilding these communities. In New Orleans, it was $186 billion, and Houston was - it was somewhere around $130 billion. And who knows what Fort Myers is going to be. But when you start adding those numbers up over time, you start - and then you add in drought. You add in what's it going to take, you know, when Phoenix gets to the point where it's, you know, people can't live there anymore?

MARTIN: And how do you have those conversations in ways that don't just replicate the inequities that have - that we've seen all throughout history - right? - where the most vulnerable people get the least desirable of everything? I mean, maybe that sounds like a ridiculous sort of question, but part of the reason that people live in these low-lying areas to begin with is because they had no power, right? And so...

BINGLER: Not only is that not a ridiculous question - that's the fundamental question, right? Because the fact of the matter is that the people who are living on the lowest ground are the people who have the least means and the highest needs. The most important lesson that I learned and I think we in New Orleans learned after Hurricane Katrina, is that these changes, these plans cannot be developed by some outside entity. It can't be done by planners. It can't be done by politicians. The planning for the level of change that we're facing has to come from the community, and the community has to be engaged authentically in that process because it's literally life and death.

MARTIN: That was Steven Bingler, CEO and founder of Concordia. That's a design firm, a community-based design firm in New Orleans. Steven Bingler, thanks so much for talking with us today and sharing this history with us.

BINGLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.