MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up: music and conversation with one of New Orleans' musical gems, Grammy winner Irma Thomas will be next.
But first, in the past, environmental groups considered New Orleans one of the most environmentally degraded cities in the country. After Hurricane Katrina hit two years ago, conditions only got worse.
Now, some community members and organizations are using the post-Katrina clean-up to push for a cleaner, greener approach for the city. And many are bringing their green ideas to the Lower Ninth Ward, among the areas hardest hit by the hurricane.
Joining us to talk about the next big thing in green rebuilding is Charles Allen III. He is the president of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association in the Lower Ninth Ward, and he joins us from New Orleans.
Also with us is Matt Peterson, the president of Global Green. It's a nonprofit organization that's building green homes in Holy Cross. He joins us by phone from his home in Santa Monica.
Thank you both for joining me.
Mr. MATT PETERSON (President, Global Green): Thank you for having us.
Mr. CHARLES ALLEN III (President, Holy Cross Neighborhood Association) Thank you.
MARTIN: Mr. Allen, before Katrina hit, what were some of the environmental concerns considered most pressing for the area?
Mr. ALLEN: I think the number of us have heard of the infamous Cancer Alley corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, in which it's just lying with various petrochemical plants that, for long time, have just spewed all sorts of toxicants into the air.
We have a degraded cypress tupelo swamp area in the Lower Ninth Ward. It's been a litany and a list of areas environmental concerns. But more than anything, we see this as a good post-Katrina opportunity to rewrite a lot of these wrongs and make our overall situation a lot better here.
MARTIN: Matt, Global Green held a sustainable design contest last year to find an architectural team to build a housing complex in the Ninth Ward. Talk to me about the contest, and how did you select the Holy Cross neighborhood as the area to start rebuilding in a green way?
Mr. PETERSON: Well, we had embarked upon trying to reach out and help other cities of New Orleans fairly early on, and we looked around and asked for different suggestions for neighborhoods to work with. And one of the neighborhoods that popped up immediately was Holy Cross. We had determined quickly that this was a neighborhood that really decided that sustainability, green building and changing the course of how they rebuilt and how they see their community in the Lower Ninth being part of a different kind of future was something we wanted to be part of and help with.
So we picked a site for our competition in the Holy Cross neighborhood and then made the determination we should actually go ahead and build the winning design.
MARTIN: The winner of the competition, GREEN.O.L.A., created a design to build a handful of a single-family homes and an apartment building with about a dozen units, and there's a community center and a complex. Can you just talk - and I understand it's a very complicated sort of thing - but can you talk a bit about some of the techniques or the ideas that make these structures environmentally friendly?
Mr. PETERSON: In the design as it stands today, we have several features that are going to make the homes healthier. And asthma rates are astronomically high, and their air quality is often, it's not the cause and the trigger for asthma attacks.
And energy bills are often the second highest cost a family faces any month. So we're cutting energy bills by 75 percent by having 100 percent electricity needs made, created by the solar panels, creating much more energy efficient air conditioning, reducing water use and reducing that water bill.
And some of those technologies are pretty simple. They're just carpets and interior materials that don't create indoor air pollution. Some cases are a little more expensive than you normally put in affordable house. But we're going to see if we can lower those costs further so they can be applied in the other houses.
MARTIN: Well, that raises a question for me, which I'd like to ask Mr. Allen about, which is it often entities that are cheaper to run are little more environmentally efficient or more economically efficient to run cost more upfront. Sometimes the more energy efficient, say, appliances cost more up front, even though the operating costs are less.
But doesn't that raise a question, Mr. Allen, that so much to deal with in trying to get New Orleans back on its feet? I just wonder if there's any feeling about the time and energy that is spent to do something like this, as laudatory as that may be, perhaps that time and energy and resource could be used just to getting more people back into homes, building more quickly as opposed to trying to be innovative.
Mr. ALLEN: That's true. But, you know, we're starting at ground zero here, post-Katrina. And as much as possible, we still try to communicate, educate and inform our people that while we're starting from ground zero, rebuilding from the bottom up, if you can take those extra steps and measures and make those larger investments early on, in the long term, you will save.
And so, you know, we realize we were up against. You know, we realize what the price of short-term pleasures - immediately get in, move in - versus long term. But we still see this is a good opportunity early on to just hit home the message that going an extra mile will pay off in the end.
MARTIN: Mr. Peterson, did you ever have a concern - and I guess, Mr. Allen, I'd ask you this question, too - that if another category five hurricane hits, that all these efforts will be for naught?
Mr. PETERSON: There's a good chance that New Orleans could be hit or other parts of the Gulf Coast hit again, of course, by a hurricane. The other fact is that global warming is causing sea levels to rise. So we can't slow down. We have to see New Orleans as sort of the front line in the fight against global warming here that we have to wake up and start getting about the business to protect our people from the future of what climate change can mean to our society.
MARTIN: All right. Mr. Allen, very briefly.
Mr. ALLEN: All I can say is amen…
Mr. ALLEN: …to everything that - to Matt, that Matt said. We're still living in a vulnerable area down here. There will be, in the future, cousins of Katrina and Rita to knock at our door. If we choose to live down here, let's rebuild smart. Let's be sustainable. Let's be ready for when those disasters come.
MARTIN: Charles Allen III is the president of Holy Cross Neighborhood Association in the Ninth Ward. He spoke with us from New Orleans. Matt Petersen is the president of Global Green, a nonprofit environmental organization. He joined us by phone from Santa Monica. Thank you both so much.
Mr. PETERSEN: Thank you.
Mr. ALLEN: Thank you, Michel.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.