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Testing the waters in New Orleans

04 May 2018 James Dacey

In the years since Hurricane Katrina, the city of New Orleans has faced profound questions about its relationship with water. What became clear in the aftermath of the storm was that existing defences are no match for the increasing flood risk from storm waters and intense rainfall. Authorities at all levels are fundamentally rethinking their approach to protecting citizens and the urban infrastructure. Testing the Waters explores a new project in the city’s Gentilly district that sees local residents help make their neighbourhood more resilient to flooding.

iSeeChange is a citizen science initiative where the inhabitants of Gentilly monitor the impacts of water in their neighbourhood. Volunteers take rain gauge measurements and photographs to identify local flooding hotspots. To encourage community engagement, the project also includes exhibitions and block parties. In this Physics World video shot in New Orleans, iSeeChange founder Julia Kumari Drapkin explains her vision, while residents reveal why they got involved.

One aim is to use residents’ experiences of flooding to inform policy decisions, as detailed by City of New Orleans planner Jared Genova. The iSeeChange project sits alongside the city’s Resilient New Orleans strategy, which integrates flood defence with environmental, societal and wider infrastructure issues. Historically, New Orleans has focussed on keeping water out of neighbourhoods using levees and pumps. The new vision is more nature-based, including plans to restore wetlands and to construct a water garden to store water temporarily and keep it from the streets of Gentilly.

Testing the Waters is the second in our series of films about environmental challenges and the solutions to creating more sustainable futures. The first film looked at how Mexico City’s unique geology makes it difficult to provide a reliable source of fresh water to citizens. Within the next few weeks, we’ll publish the third in the series, which will explore the impacts of offshore wind farms on North Sea porpoises.

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