How Best to Rebuild a Hurricane-Ravaged City? Listen to the Residents, Says This New Orleans Native

Khalil Shahyd had a hand in helping his hometown recover from Katrina, and now he advocates for climate resiliency on behalf of vulnerable communities nationwide.

NRDC's Khalil Shahyd works to create sustainable communities like this one.

Credit: iStockPhoto

There are 100-year storms and 400-year storms, and then there are those predicted not just by probability but also by premonition. New Orleans native Khalil Shahyd remembers Hurricane Katrina that way. “It was something that had been foretold for a long time,” he says. “There was a bogeyman story about the hurricane that would hit the city at the right angle and flood it. We always knew it.”

Shahyd, a project manager with NRDC’s Urban Solutions program, had left for India just a few days before Katrina hit New Orleans a dozen years ago. He couldn’t reach his family for weeks, and he watched in pain from across the world as his beloved city suffered. He returned the following year to a New Orleans still reeling from a storm that had exposed deep inequalities in the city’s treatment of people of color versus white residents. Recovery efforts had been “racialized in a very toxic way,” Shahyd says, and many “unscrupulous folks” came in to take advantage of the disaster.

Eager to help, Shahyd did some work with a local relief group before turning to community organizing for neighborhood recovery planning. “The formal post-Katrina planning was organized through neighborhood associations,” he says. “But the black communities in New Orleans, we didn’t have them, so I tried to use that as an opportunity for giving substance to the slogan ‘The people shall decide.’”

Amplifying the voices of residents in the communities most impacted by the storm led to a position with the Committee for a Better New Orleans, where Shahyd facilitated the kind of direct engagement he says is so critical for recovery and rebuilding after a disaster. “To me, it was the largest―albeit imperfect―experiment in direct democracy this country has ever had,” he says of the widespread and enthusiastic participation of residents in decisions regarding the future of their neighborhoods and their city. Ultimately, this community-level feedback helped shape some of New Orleans’s key urban planning tools, including the city’s first-ever Master Plan and its accompanying Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance. Critically, these documents took environmental factors into account in a new set of renovation guidelines for existing structures, as well as the placement, construction, and design of new developments.

Shahyd points out that the participation of local residents in New Orleans’s rebuilding efforts serve as a good model for Houston, Jacksonville, San Juan, and other hard-hit urban areas still reeling in the aftermath of this fall’s string of catastrophic hurricanes. New Orleans’s mayor-elect, Latoya Cantrell, came to political prominence as the head of one of the city’s many neighborhood associations that helped facilitate resident participation in the city’s recovery. One difference, Shahyd says, is that unlike with Katrina, climate change has become more central to those cities’ conversations on their future.

Canal street, New Orleans, during Hurricane Katrina
Credit: Dave Martin/AP Photo

“There really wasn’t any linking of [Katrina] and climate change,” says Shahyd. In fact, “a lot of people [in New Orleans] are just now starting to come to terms with some of that reality.” In a way, he says, the recent storms have given those impacted by Katrina a new opportunity to confront climate change head-on.

Part of Shahyd’s role on NRDC’s Urban Solutions team is persuading cities to address their future in a warming world by lowering their carbon emissions through increased energy efficiency in affordable housing. In particular, he focuses on improving energy efficiency for vulnerable communities—those who bear the brunt of environmental injustice—through the Energy Efficiency for All initiative, a partnership of NRDC and the Energy Foundation, Elevate Energy, and the National Housing Trust. Low-income households typically spend 7.2 percent of their budget on energy costs, and sometimes more than 10 percent, whereas the national median is 3.5 percent. And of the more than $12 billion a year that utilities across the country devote to energy efficiency programs and services, only a small fraction of that aid actually reaches the low-income multifamily housing sector.

“So essentially these low-income families, who are paying their bills just like everyone else, are subsidizing energy efficiency services for middle- and upper-income families,” Shahyd explains. “They’re not getting their fair share out of these services, and we want to change that dynamic.”

Shahyd also has worked to incorporate energy efficiency benefits into the Clean Power Plan, the nation’s first-ever limits on carbon pollution from power plants. The plan would reduce carbon pollution to roughly 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, thereby preventing up to 3,600 premature deaths, 90,000 asthma attacks, and 300,000 missed work and school days. The added Clean Energy Incentive Program that Shahyd helped secure would focus on low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, whose residents bear a disproportionate burden of the health effects of coal-fired power plant pollution, by matching funds for states that make early investments in energy efficiency and renewable-energy programs in those communities. Low-income neighborhoods and communities of color would be hardest hit if President Trump’s misguided plan to repeal the Clean Power Plan succeeds.

Khalil Shahyd
Credit: Rebecca Greenfield

Shahyd’s mission is persuading policymakers across all levels of government to implement progressive energy policies, but he’s also taken that message to a more intimate audience: his family. As is common for residents of southern Louisiana, he notes, many of his relatives make a living in the oil and gas industry. “From every stage of the process—drilling, refinery, gas stations, corporate office—we are, across the board, oil and gas, for generations. So I’m a bit of an oddity in that regard,” Shahyd says. “I characterize myself as an oil and gas refugee.”

Nevertheless, he’s often managed to change minds when it comes to acknowledging the realities of climate change. He remembers calling his father one night several years ago to tease the diehard Saints football fan about a recent team loss. Shahyd was on his way to a lecture on international climate policy, and for the first time, his father, who worked offshore on an oil production platform, challenged him on global warming. They ended up not speaking for an entire year but later made amends. “He told me about the pecan trees not producing,” Shahyd remembers. “And he said that it must be climate change. That was his way of apologizing. And after that, we just set it aside.”

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