HARVARD – Professional planner and housing consultant Bonnie Heudorfer has worked on a variety of projects in her career, but none like her most recent one.
This winter she left Harvard for three months for Baton Rouge, La. There she was part of a small army of professionals working for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to outline a conceptual blueprint for rebuilding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Though the agency is perhaps best known for coordinating disaster responses, it also has a long-term planning arm, which Heudorfer was essentially a subcontractor for. FEMA regulations prohibited her from divulging specifics about the trip, but she was able to relate a basic idea of the experience.
As one of 350 planners, architects and engineers, Heudorfer said she was focused on how the 18 parishes – the Louisiana equivalent of counties – most effected by the storm should be rebuilt. While the opportunity was historic, she downplayed her own contribution.
“I worked entirely on long-term planning,” she said. “I was a very small cog in just one part, an important but modest part, of a much larger organization.”
The process involved sending out representatives to meet with residents, agencies and officials, both state and local, who articulated rebuilding ideas and goals. Heudorfer’s task was to evaluate that information and integrate it into reports for state agencies to use for rebuilding over the next 20 years.
“Ours was sort of the beginning of a long-term plan,” she said. “What we were doing feeds into what the Louisiana Recovery Authority is planning.”
The author of multiple town master plans, Heudorfer said the process had similar elements. It began with a needs assessment, which in this case included gauging the damage done and what was needed to correct it. Also involved was identifying possible funding sources and tools for implementation.
Heudorfer was assigned to work specifically with four parishes, which included Orleans – where New Orleans is – and neighboring Saint Bernard, which had approximately 67,000 residents prior to being underwater for three weeks after Katrina.
In all cases, she said the work involved organizing local priorities and weighing options such as housing and economic development as planning tools to meet those ends.
As an example, she said the disaster caused a great deal of temporary migration, which caused tension. Explaining why, she said communities with major assets, such as hospitals, wanted to see what was lost replaced. However, that could be pitted against areas that had an influx of population that felt they should be receiving such amenities.
A more tangible obstacle was the sheer scope of the project. She said enough debris had been gathered from New Orleans to fill a football stadium four miles high.
A self-employed consultant by trade, Heudorfer said the FEMA schedule was rigorous, involving six-hour-days, six days a week, plus four hours on Sundays. She said people with FEMA were extremely mission-driven, and the locals were good sports in general.
“The most rewarding part was meeting the extraordinary people, both Louisianans and the people who were coming in to lend a hand,” she said. “The people from Louisiana were so gracious and appreciative of the people who were coming to help.”
For Heudorfer, the journey was an unexpected first, which came “when the stars were aligned.” Basically, an offer came when she had no prior obligations, and she took it for a window of time that was available.
Though the trip involved a lot of hard work, she said the Cajun food was unbelievable, and everyone did take some time off for Mardi Gras. There wasn’t much choice in the matter, she said, since everything in the city shuts down during the festival.
“It would have been like trying to work in Boston on Patriot’s Day,” she said.