This week while John was in New Orleans he sat down with Robin Barnes, EVP and COO of Greater New Orleans Inc., to talk about large-scale resilience. Robin discussed her experience working with local communities to build radical resilience and her experiences in post-9/11 New York and post-Katrina New Orleans.
Links to subjects mentioned:
- Greater New Orleans Inc.
- TruFund Financial Services – Louisiana
- Louisiana Recovery Authority
- Louisiana Economic Development
- Coastal Community Consulting
- Tet Fest: Vietnamese New Year
- NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility
- LM Wind Power
- UNO’s Coastal Engineering and Science Certificate Program
- Coalition for Coastal Resilience and Economy
- Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority’s 2023 Coast Protection and Restoration Plan
- Sandy Nguyen, Executive Director of Coastal Community Consulting
- The Power Broker by Robert Caro
- Norfolk, Virginia’s Strategy for Coastal Resilience
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John Bwarie: Hello, this is John Bwarie, and welcome to another episode of Community Intelligence, where we explore how leaders engage and build community.
For this episode, I met with Robin Barnes, executive vice president and COO of Greater New Orleans, Inc., which has a mission to work with local communities in building a New Orleans that is more robust and economically viable than ever. We met in GNO Inc.’s high rise office in downtown New Orleans, and discussed the opportunities that disaster can bring, as well as Robin’s experience building radical resilience in post-9/11 New York, and post-Katrina New Orleans, through work with local communities and their leaders.
Thank you so much, Robin, for taking some time to talk with us today.
Robin Barnes: Thank you for talking with me.
John Bwarie: Absolutely. You have been working here for more than a decade.
Robin Barnes: Correct. I moved to New Orleans over 12 years ago.
John Bwarie: But you’re not from here.
Robin Barnes: I’m not from here.
John Bwarie: So, how did you get here in a moment or two? Tell us a story about how you get here.
Robin Barnes: Well, I’m one of these odd disaster recovery professionals, which has actually, since I started doing disaster recovery, which was after 9/11 in New York, disaster recovery has actually become a real field. I think in the early days, it was largely the American Red Cross and FEMA, and it was about emergency management, and now we have a much more expansive field of disaster recovery experts, who are also now focused on resilience, so I like to put those two together, and talk about it as disaster resilience.
John Bwarie: So, tell us your approach to resilience, after spending nearly two decades in this space.
Robin Barnes: One of the greatest things I’ve learned about approaching resilience is making sure that you have all the information that you need, and that information varies, depending on what problem you’re trying to solve, where you are, what form the disaster takes, who it’s impacted, and all of that. So, just to give you an example, after 9/11, where I didn’t really know a lot about this, and I had to really understand what had happened, how the terrorist attacks impacted Lower Manhattan. I had to go down and spend time there.
In New York City, I worked for an organization called Seedco, and Seedco was tasked by several foundations to first, develop a resource guide around the disaster, and this seemed like a very unusual project, because I thought, “Well, I’m sure others have a resource guide. I’m sure that there’s information abounding, in terms of what resources are available, whether someone who is impacted by the disaster, whether it be a small business, or an individual, financial information, legal information, that sort of thing.”
But really when we dug into it, there wasn’t information available, and we had to put it together, so there was information. American Red Cross had detailed information about their services. Various government agencies had detailed information about their services, and there were a lot of nonprofits that really jumped into action in Lower Manhattan, providing everything from a place to come and talk to people, to services for people that were providing the emergency response. Whether that be food, or shelter, places to take a break, that sort of thing, to really thinking about how they were going to tackle the long-term impacts.
But what didn’t exist was a resource guide that really had all that information together, and I raise this as an example because it’s actually become something very relevant in every disaster I’ve been in any kind of touch with, whether I’ve been directly working in it, or indirectly working in it. It’s always the first thing I say to people, is, “Put together the resource guide. Give people the place to go, whether it’s online, or whether it’s,” I think back in 9/11, it was actually a three ring binder that we put together.
John Bwarie: And so what’s the process for creating that resource guide?
Robin Barnes: Interviewing all sorts of agencies, and gathering their information, and then compiling it, so it’s not that hard. It’s not difficult thing to do, but you have to go out and do it. Now it’s a little bit easier, because there’s a lot of information online, but you have to help people understand where that information is, and point to it, and have one place where it’s all compiled together.
So, again, that’s sort of a fairly… I would say simple strategy, but where it creates resilience is that information then is now documented. It’s in one place. If there’s a subsequent disaster, and oftentimes that sort of resource guide is transferrable to other types of things that happen in communities, now you actually have sort of a mindset of having comprehensive resources all put together.
John Bwarie: And when you talk about recovery, this is oftentimes… We do a great job at response. We support our neighbors in the moment. But recovery is days, weeks, months, years. How long does recovery take for a community to bounce back in your experience?
Robin Barnes: It takes a long time, and this is where, after the immediate… the emergency has passed, and so that’s where the people have food, and shelter, they’re safe, you have potentially brought back certain infrastructure that may have been taken offline, whether that’s electricity, or plumbing, that sort of thing, where you really have at least some stability. Then you need to start looking at the future, and how you’re going to plan, and how you’re going to make investments. And that is one of the most challenging moments in any sort of recovery, because the emergency, as traumatic and difficult as it is, it’s very clear what the outcome is. The outcome is people’s safety. The outcome is that they have shelter, that they have food, that resources are distributed.
When you actually start looking to what do you do next, you have a lot of questions, and it’s not as obvious, and you have to make a lot of decisions. So, you have sort of this tension that happens at that point, where you have people that want to… and policymakers and such, that say, “We’re going to rebuild everything. We’re going to be back to normal before you know it. We’re going to do this quickly. We’re going to get the money that we need, and we’re just going to do it.” And then you have the reality set in, which is that money doesn’t always flow quickly, that there’s certain processes that need to happen, actually to even activate the federal dollars, but you do have, usually, a fair amount of philanthropy, and other resources that are activated, so you can sort of get started to some extent, but then you have to figure out what are your priorities? What are you going to do first?
John Bwarie: And you’ve been saying you, and thinking of, in abstract, the concept. When you think about a community, though, who are those decision makers? You just had indicated policymakers, you indicated philanthropy and other resources. Key players have to be at the table, but where do… Let’s pick apart that tension that you’ve experienced and observed. Where is the push and pull come from? Is it… With the community. Is it in the community? Is it with outsiders with expertise that have comments to give? How do you see that happening and unfolding?
Robin Barnes: Well, it’s very diverse. There are numerous, I would call them stakeholders, that are involved after a disaster, so that starts with those who have authority to make decisions, authority to allocate resources, authority to set policy.
John Bwarie: Pre-existing, designated authority.
Robin Barnes: Pre-existing, or you might have a situation where, like in Louisiana, where after Hurricane Katrina, Governor Blanco created an authority, the Louisiana Recovery Authority. It did not exist prior to Hurricane Katrina, but it quickly became very important new entity, that had to be created, that really created the policies around the recovery in Louisiana, and made determinations about how monies would be spent, and over what period of time, and who would be involved in that.
So, you have sort of that level of authority, but then you also have nonprofit organizations that simply get to work. And this is the wonderful thing about nonprofit organizations, and we talk about them all the time as having slack capacity, so nonprofit organizations are usually under resourced, and are always looking for more resources to be able to build out their programs, but they also have a incredible capacity during a trauma, during a disaster, to activate the resources that they have, and their constituents, around whatever it needs to be accomplished. So, you have that, and nonprofits also will range from the sort of big, national nonprofits, like the American Red Cross, which arrive on the scene and have multiple resources that they’re able to share with communities, to community-based nonprofits, if in fact they have not themselves been impacted.
Philanthropy always… We have a track record in this country of philanthropy really showing up quite early. And also corporations. You have corporations like Walmart, for example, that basically activate the distribution of resources very quickly. And so, you have a number of things that, now that we’ve been through this as a country so many times, that just start happening. At a local level and at a national level.
John Bwarie: But there’s tension you indicated, so you have all these stakeholders, some with authority, some with desire, and then you have those affected, that are in a position of vulnerability, perhaps, or confusion, or dismay, depending upon the circumstance that they’re experiencing. When do they get brought into this process? You started out our conversation talking about you go, and you talk to people, and you learn, that’s your approach to getting involved. Where do you see the best examples of the community, the affected being a part of that recovery?
Robin Barnes: Well, I’m going to give you an example of a community that I worked with really closely after Hurricane Katrina, and that was the fishermen. And so, I moved here from New York City, about six months after Hurricane Katrina, and at that point in time, New Orleans was just, I would say, coming back online, in terms of infrastructure, in terms of having a population that was starting to come back, and having a capacity to take on recovery. And I came here actually thinking that I’d be working in New Orleans proper, doing disaster recovery, working with small businesses.
The challenge for small businesses at that point in time, even though there was some infrastructure back, and things were coming back online, is that we didn’t really have the full population back, and small businesses didn’t really know who their customers were going to be. If a neighborhood had been destroyed or impacted, the restaurants or grocery stores in that neighborhood didn’t have customers and weren’t able to open. It was a bit of a chicken and egg, because in some cases you’d have some people coming back in the neighborhood, and they would need services, but the services were not yet able to be self-sufficient.
But anyway, the good news was that there actually were nonprofit organizations in New Orleans, and a number of them immediately started to get to work, and there was philanthropy that supported them, and I looked to see where our organization could really have some impact, and reach some populations that weren’t naturally connected to these organizations, and I actually… The head of Louisiana Economic Development at the time ran into me at a… I think it was a town hall meeting, and he said, “I want you to meet Sandy Nguyen. She works in the fishing community.” And so I was introduced to a Vietnamese American woman, and she started telling me about the fishermen, and she said, “The fishing season is approaching,” so this was the spring of 2006, and actually, sort of right this time of year where we are right now, so it’s March, I think that was March or April.
Anyway, the fishing season was about to open, and yet many of the fishermen didn’t have boats, because their boats were either completely destroyed, or damaged to some extent. They had lost their netting, they had lost the things that they needed, and they didn’t have the cashflow to actually invest.
John Bwarie: And can you describe, are these independent fishermen, one man, one boat?
Robin Barnes: Yeah, these are… That is literally what it is, so these are commercial fishermen, and a lot of them are shrimpers. We also worked at the time with oystermen, and it was really interesting, because a lot of these fishermen were actually Asian. There’s a large Asian community, largely Vietnamese, also Cambodian, who came to… Either they themselves, or their parents came from Vietnam in the 70s, and they have now set up a whole community, largely in New Orleans East, but also in other parts of the region, but they fish out of Plaquemines Parish, St. Bernard Parish, and such, and so they were actually ready to get back to work, anxious to get back to work, but in that community, normally you’d borrow from your uncle, or your aunt, or your cousin, and everyone helps each other out.
Well, because everyone was impacted, nobody had the resources to help. So, basically we were directed to that community, and we looked into it, we learned… You do a lot of quick and dirty learning during disaster recovery, because you need to know information, but you will never be able to know everything you wish you knew. So, you learn enough to get going, and then the best thing is to be able to modify as you move along, which is actually how, what we did with this population, so we learned several things. We learned that the fishermen are incredibly hard workers, and that’s a physical thing. They’re out on the water, sometimes for several days at a time, and they do all… They have deck hands, and you may have a handful of people that are on any given boat.
You have some larger boats that have more, and they have a business model, which is to fish, come back, sell what they have caught to the docks, and turn around and go back out again. And so that meant that you had to look at what was the complete supply chain of the fishermen, so it was the boats, it was the shops that sold the equipment to repair the boats, it was the docks that… Many of our docks were completely destroyed. The docks often had the fuel at the docks, that basically supplied the diesel to the boats. The docks often also had the capacity to make ice, which the boats… You have to put ice on the boats, so that when they are trawling, and they bring in their shrimp, they’re bringing it in on ice, and then the shrimp has to be stored at the dock on ice, as well.
We started learning about all these moving parts.
John Bwarie: And how did you come to… I mean, you’re not a fisher woman, right? This is not your industry. In fact, you probably didn’t even think, when you thought about small business recovery, you were going to think about the fishing industry.
Robin Barnes: Never occurred to me.
John Bwarie: How did you start to learn these things?
Robin Barnes: I actually just went down to the docks, and stood on those boats, and toured, and talked to people, and we had this wonderful person, Sandy Nguyen, who helped my colleagues and I understand what all these issues were, and really helped us come up with a solution. So, we needed to understand how much money did a fisherman need? What were the uses of those funds? How were we going to be able to understand what was the… What were their prospects going to be, in terms of generating revenue?
And so, we really did a crash course on commercial fishing in Louisiana.
John Bwarie: That’s amazing. And then, you had said that they had a community of themselves, that they’d have this familial relationships that sort of sustained them in standard times, before this disaster. Was there… Did they have organization that was structured, or was it very loose, and sort of familiar, but not structured? Was there an organization, or a mechanism to reach them, or was there capacity building that had to be done?
Robin Barnes: Well, there are some associations in Louisiana, but I would say in this… In the early days, it was really about going to the docks, and the fishermen were basically hanging out at the docks, because that’s where they gathered their information, and understanding about what was going to happen. Sometimes we went to coffee shops. Sometimes we went to gas stations, because people would sort of be hanging out, and we went to where they were, and when we were able to access over time the considerable funds that came down the line from the federal government for small business recovery in Louisiana, and we actually started doing intake for these programs, we never had to market them.
We basically… Marketing was putting the word out, and but also, we had to go to where the fishermen were. So, it’s kind of funny, because I originally had an office at Seedco, that was over at Xavier University, and so the president of Xavier University then was Norman Francis, who also was the chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, so he had given my organization, who’s a community development organization, some free space there, and we started doing intake at Xavier, so at one point Dr. Francis called me, and he said, “I’ve heard from a lot of people that there are fishermen wandering around campus.” And they were looking for our office. He said, “I think we need to give you a very visible place on campus, where you can do the intake, so that they won’t have… They won’t be looking for your office,” which was sort of in a building with other activities going on.
So, it was amazing. He gave us a space that we could use, but also we found that we needed again, go to where the fishermen were, so we set up shop one weekend at a restaurant down in Venice, in Plaquemines Parish, which is really at the tip of the boot of Louisiana, if you think about it, and we opened that restaurant to intake for our grant program that was funded by the federal government, but went through the state of Louisiana, and the wives of the fishermen basically helped us get people through the process, in terms of making sure there was a line going. They were… We set up a copy machine there, and they were photocopying the information that we were gathering from the fishermen-
John Bwarie: Was the restaurant actually operating as a restaurant, as well? Or was it-
Robin Barnes: It was operating in a limited basis as a restaurant, but that day it was closed to everything, and we had volunteers, and our staff, set up at long tables, and we just started working with the fishermen, getting them through the application process, and oftentimes when you’re working with the fishermen, in the Vietnamese community, you’re actually working potentially with one of their children, who’s translating, because they don’t always speak English, so you really had sort of families that came in and got through this process, and we had a really special moment, I thought, when we would make an announcement in English, and then somebody would translate it into Vietnamese, and then somebody else would translate it into Cambodian.
And so we really were working in that community in a way that was accessible to that community. And one last story, just about the fishermen, just in terms of how we were able to modify programs, based… As we went along, and we were very lucky in that the state was very flexible, and when I would call them up and say, “What’s challenging about the guidelines of the program that you’ve laid out for small businesses, for fishermen, is that the fishermen have seasonal businesses,” so the analysis that we were doing for other small businesses didn’t really work with fishermen. Fishermen also do a lot of cash transactions, so the receipts that they have are a little bit different, but we worked through this process with the legislative auditors of the state of Louisiana, and with those that were running the programs.
Actually, one of the programs, the small business recovery program, was run by Michael Hecht, at Louisiana Economic Development, and Michael is now the president, CEO of Greater New Orleans, Inc.
John Bwarie: Wow. All comes together. When you talk about these fishermen, how many are we talking about?
Robin Barnes: Well, it’s a really good question, because it is not a known quantity, exactly, how many fishermen there are, but we’re talking about thousands of fishermen in Louisiana, however, we worked with several hundred of them.
John Bwarie: Several hundred.
Robin Barnes: Yeah.
John Bwarie: And this example of one community, where you’re not Vietnamese, you’re not a fisherperson, you’re not even from Louisiana, originally, you became… I don’t want to say part of the community, but you got to know the community well enough that… Did you have to earn their trust in this process?
Robin Barnes: Absolutely.
John Bwarie: Did they trust you, or were there other people that were your agents to-
Robin Barnes: They trusted the people who introduced me to them.
John Bwarie: Got you.
Robin Barnes: And so, basically I connected with leaders in that community, and there were a number of them, and asked them to introduce me to those who might be able to take advantage of the programs that we were running.
John Bwarie: And so, now you’re over 10 years later. What’s your relationship with that community? Is it a fun memory, and a great success, or is there a continued relationship with some of those leaders, or some of that community with you?
Robin Barnes: There’s continued relationship directly and indirectly, so directly I’m… The woman I had talked about previously, Sandy Nguyen, has now formed her own nonprofit. She worked for a different organization at the time, and we partnered with her, but now she’s formed a nonprofit called Coastal Communities Consulting, and I’m on the board of that nonprofit, and so that is a way for me to stay connected to that community, but also to be able to bring resources into that community through the philanthropy that this organization attracts, and the programming that they run.
And then also, I was introduced through my work in that community to some of the traditions. So for example, there’s a Tet festival every year, just happened this year, and that is always, to me, a great time to go out to New Orleans East, and I usually bring friends and family, who possibly have not been out there, so that I can expose them to it, and there’s all kinds of wonderful rituals that happen as a part of that festival, and then of course, fantastic food, and music and such, so it’s super fun, and I just make sure that I make the time to visit the community, and eat in the restaurants, and sort of keep that connection going.
John Bwarie: I’m going to pivot just a little bit, to talk about something that I know that you guys have been promoting, and that is radical resilience. So, tell me what your concept of radical resilience is, and did you coin the phrase, or how did that come to be?
Robin Barnes: Michael Hecht, who runs GNO Inc., coined the phrase, and so when we think about radical resilience, I think about it as… That the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. How I think about it in terms of disaster recovery, and where we are, is that there were lots and lots of investments that were made post-Katrina, so it’s everything from the $140 billion that was spent on flood protection, the levies, the pump systems, and such, to the $2 billion that was spent on the medical corridor, building new facilities, to now the billions that we’re spending on restoring the coast. Also investing in green infrastructure in Louisiana, and so you have a number of these discreet investments that are managed by many different entities, and we think about radical resilience is sort of how do we add that up and build on it?
So, how do we look at these investments, and take it a step further, so I’ll use the example of coastal restoration and green infrastructure, where we had developed, since Katrina, a coastal master plan, and also we now have… My organization, we developed a urban water plan. The Great New Orleans Urban Water Plan. So, the state developed the coastal master plan, we developed the urban water plan, but what that gives us are two basically road maps for how we can help with managing sea level rise and subsidence, by investing in river diversions, marsh building and such, and also managing storm water, and groundwater in the more urban settings.
Those are investments in the environment and infrastructure, right? What GNO Inc. looked at was how do we turn that into outcomes for the economy? The outcomes that the agencies that are implementing those plans are talking about are land building, flood reduction, things like that. The outcomes we’re interested in, in terms of being an economic development organization, is industry and sector growth, job growth, improved quality of life, additional people that are investing and entities investing in the region, moving to the region, staying in the region and such, and so we sort of take it a step further than the initial recovery investment.
And so what we’ve done, for example, around the environmental piece, is we have named a sector called Environmental Management, and Environmental Management primarily is looking at water, and how we can create jobs by managing our water issues, but also we are expanding that to look at waste. How do we deal with some of the contaminated waste that we’re producing? But actually turn that into opportunities for companies, and for innovation, and job creation. And the same thing with energy, renewable energy. So, it’s kind of exciting, so we have these outcomes that have happened over time, for example at Michoud, which is the NASA facility in New Orleans East, we now have between a company called LM Wind Power, and a company called Blade Dynamics, we actually are working on this supply chain for wind turbines in New Orleans East, which is kind of interesting. And so that’s jobs, it’s innovation, it’s industry growth.
In terms of water, we now have thousands of job that are associated with water, and so we needed to ensure that we could get people into those jobs, and they would have the skills, so we started working with the schools of higher ed, and they’ve now started creating programming, everything from UNO, who has a coastal engineering and science certificate program, which was industry driven, so we actually talked to companies that were hiring, and we said, “What do you need the schools to be educating students about, so that they are actually ready to be employed by you?” And they told us, we went to the schools, the schools created curriculum around that.
We’ve been working with Dillard University on creating a urban water management certificate program, and that really came out of data that we had looked at, that said if you looked at people of color in jobs, middle skill jobs, there was very good parity with people of color and white people, but if you looked at the higher skill jobs, very little parity at all. So, it meant that people of color really were not advancing in water management, but could if they had educators that were basically saying “Here are the opportunities in those fields.” So, Dillard is not a school that is training engineers. However, their students have the potential to go on, and get additional graduate degrees, engineering, architecture, urban design, hydrology, whatever it is, because now they’re going to be educated through the certificate program.
John Bwarie: So, when you look at this concept of radical resilience, you’re taking… What I’m hearing you say is you’re taking the investments in infrastructure, which is oftentimes sort of where people focus first, and those systems, and saying, “How do we make this benefit for the community?”
Robin Barnes: Exactly.
John Bwarie: And that community is the economic community, the people who live here, improved quality of life… I mean, that’s a fundamental that if we could get more folks to think about when they think about their recovery… We see disasters happen every month in this country. In California, our fire season is all year round now, and we see neighborhoods and communities almost wiped out, and so when they build back, if they build back the same way, how do they model that activity? I think that’s what we’re looking for, so-
Robin Barnes: Another example of radical resilience is really looking at how we’ve been able to diversify the economy, post-Katrina. And so, we have industries that we call our legacy industries. Energy, advanced manufacturing, trade, that historically have created the jobs in the region, in addition to in New Orleans, the hospitality sector. And all of these sectors are still creating jobs. That hasn’t changed, but what we knew would be healthy for the economy is to have more diversity, more options for jobs, and so post-Katrina, we started looking at additional sectors to really focus on.
So again, building on the investment in the medical corridor, we now have a sector that’s bioscience, and that’s really looking at technology innovations, everything from entrepreneurship and startups in that sector, to really creating more destination health care, where people come to New Orleans for health care, and starting to specialize in things that would bring them here. So, that’s one example. Another example is, and I talked about environmental management, which was one, but the other one is digital media and technology.
So, we did not have a large digital media and technology sector prior to Katrina, but post-Katrina, it became evident, and it started a little bit prior to Katrina. There was some work on tax incentives and such. But that really, post-Katrina, that really became more of a mandate, that we were going to develop that sector, and one of the reasons that that sector really works here, is that one, we have the quality of life that attracts the people who are in that sector, and two, that sector doesn’t require a lot of infrastructure, so that when and if there are disasters, it is going… That kind of sector is going to have more business continuity than other sectors. And that’s just a really smart approach to thinking about if you’re in a vulnerable community, you want to make sure that you have a diversified economy, and different kinds of jobs, so that if any of those sectors are taken offline for a short period of time, others are going and continue to contribute to the economy.
John Bwarie: You said something here that made me think. Are you… Is this resilience building towards what, in the next 10, 15, 50, 100 years, you may have the potential for a storm, or a natural event the size and scope of Katrina that comes back to this community, or is it… Is that in your mind as you’re doing these programs, that this resilience is geared towards that?
Robin Barnes: Well, I think it’s broader. So, there’s the part of us that is always working towards the, “What if there’s another catastrophic event?” And being prepared for it, and doing everything that we can to kind of build… Doing everything we can to be able to provide more buffers, so coastal restoration is actually about providing more buffers to the storm, so they don’t come inland the extent that they are, and flood protection and such. But part of it is just smart economic development, which, if we were somewhere else in the country, we would be doing, which is you want to have a diversified economy, you want to have a good quality of life, you want to make sure that if people come to your city for a job, that they stay, because they have the housing that they need, they have the schools that they need for their kids, they have quality of life.
We have a lot of people who come for music, who come for food. We want them to stay. We don’t want them to spend the weekend and just leave.
John Bwarie: You helped form the Coalition for Coastal Resilience and Economy, and I want to… And coalitions are really powerful tools. Could you tell me the process by which you go about building coalitions for resilience, essentially, and then how do you keep them going? How do you keep them moving forward and maintaining relevance?
Robin Barnes: That’s a really good question. So, the Coalition for Coastal Resilience and Economy, we also refer to that, too, as CCRE, is a group of business leaders in the region, who decided that they wanted to be very vocal about the need for coastal restoration, and these are not companies that are getting contracts with the state to implement coastal restoration. They don’t have personal interest in coastal restoration happening, but they are banks, law firms, developers, advanced manufacturing CEOs, technology companies, that have a vested interest in the region being here.
So, if you sort of think about it from a business continuity perspective, you want to make sure that the place in which you do your business, and where your supply chain is, is going to be here. So, they need to know that that’s going to happen, right? They also… The other thing was that the business community was actually the missing voice, in terms of the advocates for coastal restoration, so you have lots of wonderful advocates for coastal restoration. We have tremendous environmental partners, for example, that we work with, that we count on to help us understand the science, and understand the policy behind everything, and they’re great advocates and very articulate.
You have community leaders and such, you have elected officials, you have a number of advocates, but oftentimes the business community is missing, in terms of advocating for environmental endeavors. So, we basically came, approached our board, and we said, “Let’s think about what we have to lose if we’re not investing in the coast.” That’s everything from economic assets related to commerce, we have ports that are dependent on the environment being there, which has everything to do with commerce, and trade, and a huge part of our economy. We have tax bases along the coast, that we would like to preserve as long as possible, because as long as you have a tax base, and people living on the coast, you have stewards of the coast, and you have investment, and if everyone sort of picks up and leaves, you lose all of that.
So, preserving an economy on the coast is actually smart. We have jobs on the coast. We don’t have people in Louisiana that elect to live on the coast because they want to live on the water, as much as we have people whose jobs are dependent on it. So, whether you’re in the oil industry, and you’re working on the coast, if you’re working out on the rigs, or if you’re working at the refineries that are in that area, you need the coast to be there. We can’t… It’s not going to work if the coast keeps eroding, and if we keep sinking and subsiding. Fishermen rely on the coast to be there, so that they can fish. There’s just numerous businesses along the coast, and that goes back generations.
So it’s not an easy solution to just pick up and leave, and it’s not a smart solution to do that. So basically, our business leaders started learning about coastal restoration. We took them up in sea planes, we took them out in boats. Briefings from scientists. Briefings from the state. Our Coastal Protection Restoration Authority.
John Bwarie: And this is all to get them engaged in the issue.
Robin Barnes: All to get them engaged in the issue, and start thinking about the role that they can play. So initially, the role that they have played has been around communicating to other business leaders, testifying, so every year we have the annual plan of our Coastal Protection Restoration Authority goes to the state legislature, so we generally have business leaders that testify about the importance of that. We also have gone to DC, and spent time with OMB, with CEQ, the White House and such, to Department of Commerce, to advocate for investments in coastal restoration as being investments in the economy.
That sort of has been the work up until now. That’s transitioning a little bit, because we now have a Coastal Master Plan in place. We have pretty good track record every year for having that plan be approved with very little pushback, and we now have some moneys from the BP oil spill that are coming down the pike, some already being spent, and some other resources, but we don’t have enough money for our $50 billion plan, and so what’s really kind of interesting is that our business leaders are now taking a business approach to thinking about how do we finance the Coastal Master Plan in the long run, so there’s two things we need to accomplish. One is we just are always going to need more money. Not only do we need money to construct projects, we need money to maintain the projects. Operate them and maintain them.
But the second thing that we need is we need to do the projects more quickly than the money is available, and so the BP oil spill money, just as an example, is spread out over several years. So, now we’re looking at can we bond out some of that money? Is that possibility? We don’t know the answer to that yet, but these are the kinds of things we’re exploring, and this is, again, where business leaders can come into action, so I think from our perspective in forming this coalition is we actually brought the business community along on the value to them of implementation of the Coastal Master Plan.
John Bwarie: And why do they stay involved?
Robin Barnes: They stay involved because this is an ongoing process. We’re going to be doing this for the next few decades, and we’re just going to need that engagement and investment, and they know that.
John Bwarie: And so once they’re in, they’re in.
Robin Barnes: They’re absolutely in, and now we actually have more and more people that want to be involved, and so that’s great, so that coalition is starting to really grow.
John Bwarie: That’s terrific. I want to talk about the opportunity of disaster. We know that disasters can be tragedies, but the work you’ve been doing, the work we’ve been talking about really relates to how do you come from the disaster, and move into something, not just to get back to where you were, but better than you were. How can a community… Let’s talk about generic community somewhere in America. How can they position themselves before something happens, to say, “Here’s where we could think about being after the fact.” What’s that opportunity look like?
Robin Barnes: Well, there are many ways to look at that, so one is that I believe that all communities now need to anticipate disaster, and that is not something that I think people thought about 10 years ago, 20 years ago. Before we started experiencing these catastrophic events, disasters were largely limited to discreet flooding events, fires, tornadoes, but those generally had a boundary to them, in that you could really say, “Well, this disaster impacted this very specific area,” and you could measure it, and you could sort of understand how to recover.
Now, we have these more ongoing, and more catastrophic events, and our weather looks completely different, and that’s not going to change. Now we have fires that are taking on a… the impact that we’ve never experienced before. And we also have the situation where the places that never expected that they were going to experience a disaster, are experiencing a disaster.
So, one is that we need to, and as a country, we need to be better at planning, and about making really smart investments, so whenever you have the opportunity to make an investment, it should be a smart investment, and you should be thinking about managing storm water. You should be thinking about seismic shocks. You should have the policies and regulations that support different types of building. That’s sort of one way of looking at it.
But the other way is when you think about the people, and who’s involved, how does that… From a regulatory piece, that’s something that people talk about, and are… That’s sort of happening. But when you think about people, it’s how do we start communicating this to people so that, for example, everybody purchases flood insurance? So, if everybody purchased flood insurance, even if they are not in a flood zone, even if they have not had a history of flooding, the National Flood Insurance Program is going to be a healthier program, so there’s certain things that we can just simply start doing as a country, that will be incredibly helpful.
But also how we plan, so we talk a lot about for small businesses, recovery planning, and business interruption planning. Again, something that every business should do. Doesn’t matter where you are, you should do it. You should be prepared that something’s going to happen in your community that’s going to take you offline for 10 days, and are you going to be able to manage that? But I think the bigger issue is the long-term resilience, and something that we don’t do because… Often because our elected officials have terms, so what we have is a history of planning within a term, and then a new term starts, a new administration comes in, and then we basically have a different plan, and I think what we’re starting to see here, we’ve definitely seen it here in New Orleans, is more smart transitioning of investing in resilience, and not kicking the can.
And I think that’s probably the most important thing for all of us to do, wherever we sit, whatever office, whether we’re a public official, whether we work for a nonprofit, whether we’re business leadership, is to not kick the can. It’s not about the next shareholder meeting. It’s not about the next administration. It’s not about the next election. It is really taking the long view, and having your vision go beyond you, and to the next generations, and how are we making investments now, so that those next generations can thrive?
John Bwarie: Awesome. Okay, we have our lightning round now, Robin. What leader has influenced you in your work?
Robin Barnes: I’m going to… Because I talked about her earlier, I’m going to say Sandy Nguyen, as a local leader, because she really taught me how to move into communities that I had no experience with in the past, and have impact.
John Bwarie: Okay. What book has changed the way you think about your work in communities?
Robin Barnes: For me, it was a book I read a long time ago in grad school, The Power Broker, and I think that was… helped me understand sometimes how not to do things.
John Bwarie: What city, other than those you worked with, is doing great things regarding resilience? Who do you look to as like, “Oh, that’s interesting. I’m learning from them?”
Robin Barnes: Right now, I’m looking to Norfolk, and… I mean, so I just want to preface by saying there are a lot of great cities-
John Bwarie: Right, absolutely.
Robin Barnes: … right now, that are doing a lot of interesting work, but Norfolk has captured my attention, because they’re managing a challenge that they face in surge, but they haven’t had a disaster that is providing them with the resources to be able to manage it, so they have to be really creative, and they also have the Navy there, and so, Norfolk is such a critical city to the United States, so I’ve been spending a lot of time looking to them.
John Bwarie: Cool. What’s the first place you turn to for information, when working to understand an issue?
Robin Barnes: It’s not a place as much as picking up the phone and calling people.
John Bwarie: Great. What’s something great about the Greater New Orleans area, that the rest of the country might not know?
Robin Barnes: What’s really great about Greater New Orleans is the diversity of neighborhoods and experiences that you can have here. I think sometimes the rest of the country thinks about New Orleans, and visualizes perhaps a stretch of Bourbon Street, which actually doesn’t represent the entire region, which is an incredibly scenic region, with lots of different options for quality of life, and food, and music, and it’s just great to explore.
John Bwarie: What advice would you give a 25-year-old you?
Robin Barnes: Wow, that’s interesting. The advice I give 25-year-olds all the time is to be opportunistic. So, I would just… I think someone else gave me that advice when I was 25, but I go with that every time.
John Bwarie: What’s an unexpected thing a city can do to attract new businesses?
Robin Barnes: Gosh, that’s a really interesting question. I think that the unexpected answer there is to talk about quality of life.
John Bwarie: What’s the best career decision you ever made?
Robin Barnes: Moving to New Orleans.
John Bwarie: Okay, and so far, what has been your proudest professional moment?
Robin Barnes: I have to say I was asked to be on President Obama’s Hurricane Sandy rebuilding task force, and that was a pretty exciting moment.
John Bwarie: Yeah. Great. Well, Robin, thanks so much for sharing your insights on community, and this community, especially, and as it relates to recovery, and resilience. I appreciate the time.
Robin Barnes: Thank you. It was fun.
John Bwarie: Thanks for listening to Community Intelligence, and for more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at stratiscope.com. At Stratiscope, we provide community intelligence services to businesses, nonprofits and government agencies. Let us know how we can help you.