O, the Oprah Magazine, this month featured Melba Leggett-Barnes, the owner of our Special NO 9 House in New Orleans—part of an effort by Make It Right foundation to rebuild the city sustainably following Hurricane Katrina. Leggett-Barnes says her sustainable home has saved her money due to energy-efficiency features, and she credits the ventilation system with improving her asthma symptoms.
Rebuilding New Orleans—The Green Way
By Amanda Little
Five years ago, Hurricane Katrina wiped out the life she knew. Now Melba Leggett-Barnes has a place to call her own again—a home that's good for her and the planet.
Melba Leggett-Barnes stands in slippers on the roof of her house in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. It's a blazing August afternoon, yet this mother of five and grandmother of six is gripping an orange mop and wiping down 15 metallic solar panels, each about the size of a picnic table. "I like to make sure all the sun gets through," she says over the clamor of nearby construction work. "Every last drop is money in my pocket."
From her roof, Leggett-Barnes can see dozens of other new homes like hers. With their sharp angles and tropical-fruit hues (mango orange, papaya pink, banana yellow), these houses suggest giant origami sculptures more than traditional New Orleans architecture, known for its deep front porches and curvaceous woodwork. In the blighted Lower Ninth, this vibrant micro-neighborhood seems surreal—an architectural mirage.
On the western border of the two-square-mile area, the levees broke on August 29, 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The floodwaters left some 14,000 residents homeless, including Leggett-Barnes and her husband, Baxter. Yielding to the evacuation order, they had packed a few clothes and documents in their car and inched through traffic to her cousin's house in Baker, Louisiana, 100 miles north. They came home to an empty lot. "Scraps were the only thing left," she recalls. "Pieces of the fence, the porch my daddy built, the wheel of my granddaughter's bike."
Today whole city blocks of the Lower Ninth still stand vacant. The hurricane destroyed more than 4,000 homes in the area; fewer than 200 have been rebuilt. Roughly 75 percent of local families are still displaced, staying in FEMA trailers or with relatives across the southeast and beyond.
But Melba Leggett-Barnes is back. The 53-year-old school cafeteria worker, born and bred in New Orleans, is living on the same plot of land her family has owned for generations: one-tenth of an acre just two blocks east of the collapsed floodwall. And in returning to her neighborhood, Leggett-Barnes has also become part of a radical experiment to prove that a 21st-century house can be at once affordable and sustainable.