Tuesday, May 27, 2008

New Orleans: Disaster -- and Opportunity

I recently spoke at the APDF conference in New Orleans and had the opportunity to see the Katrina devastation up close and personal.  It's still a real mess.  Entire neighborhoods wrecked, and worse, government regulations, corruption scandals, massive neglect, and general disincentives that are preventing people from rebuilding or investing. The most eerie thing was seeing the fronts of houses marked with spray paint.  When the national guard searched for bodies they made coded markings indicating how many dead were inside each house.  As I rolled by in a bus I saw people sitting on their porches in front of these marks.

As an American I am frankly ashamed at how we have let down the people and the city of New Orleans. Last night I watched the news and saw our module land successfully on Mars -- a great achievement -- and I despair that our priorities are not aligned properly. Surely a country with the technology we have can build a system to protect New Orleans.  Surely the people of America have more love in their hearts than is being shown in New Orleans.    

Is it worth rebuilding and protecting? New Orleans is the Venice of the USA, it's as American as jazz.  If we let New Orleans sink we are washing our cultural heritage into the Gulf of Mexico.

It was not all bleakness and despair, there were some young Americans showing a lot of heart and soul in the continuing recovery effort.  I spent an afternoon volunteering with Hands On New Orleans, and listened to a bright young woman from Minnesota named Marlo Grabner give us our painting and building tasks at a newly reopened day care center.  All the Hands On folks were under thirty as were the additional volunteers from AmeriCorps NCCC.  Most of them were from the Midwest or the northeast.  I thank these young people for the work they do.  If only there were about 5000 more of them...

This is a blog about creativity and innovation and I'll make those points more directly now. In any disaster there is a creative opportunity. Founder of the H Agency, a strategic design agency, Winnie Hart, also spoke at APDF.  She says that Katrina was the best thing that happened to her company and herself personally.  Wow!  She talked about how they have diversified, become more value oriented towards their clients, and became more focused in their target markets.  Probably best of all she says she lost the fear of losing her business and now she operates it without fear.  Her story is a powerful one we can all learn from.  

Not everyone has the resources to do what Winnie did, some people need help.  The scope of the problem in New Orleans is such that it requires much more hands on creativity, much more deliberate innovation.  We need government and business aligned in order to create opportunities from this disaster. Write your congressman, call your candidate, get your church or organization involved.  It's not too late to make Katrina a success story.

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