I live in New Orleans, a city back in the news this week due to the 10th commemoration of Hurricane Katrina. I first came here in the months after the storm, to join AmeriCorps and support the relief and recovery efforts.

I was sickened by my government’s failure to take action after the horrible natural disaster I saw on the news. President George W Bush later called the Katrina response “one of the most disgusting moments in my presidency”. Bush admitted that the pictures of him in Air Force One flying over the city that was 80% submerged made him look “detached and uncaring”.

After a few weeks on the ground, I began questioning my assumptions about Katrina and its aftermath. Despite the prevailing reporting, was it a natural disaster? Was my government at fault only for what happened after the storm?

I came to make a difference. I also had a lot to learn. The truth is, the levee breach was a man-made disaster, and it was anticipated. Leaders at all levels ignored the threats, and they failed to act until it was too late.

In 2002, a five-part series in the local newspaper called “Washing Away” warned of the risks of a storm like Katrina. The author explained that “the problem for south Louisiana is that the natural protections are rapidly deteriorating, and that in turn is weakening man-made defences, mainly because the entire delta region is sinking into the Gulf of Mexico”. In fact, every single year Louisiana loses more land than the entire island of Manhattan.

As numerous scientists later confirmed, the levees failed without being over-topped by the storm surge. The American Society of Civil Engineers reported: “What is unique about the devastation that befell the New Orleans area from Hurricane Katrina – compared to other natural disasters – is that much of the destruction was the result of engineering and engineering-related policy failures.”

By working hands-on in the community, I learned the lessons of a lifetime about sustainable development. In the middle of so much loss, here’s what I found out:

  1. You have to listen. Show up, shut up and stay put. Flyover approaches guarantee failure.
  2. Be humble. No matter what is on your CV, those in a community with deep roots will have deep insights. Pay close attention to those who know more than you do.
  3. Dig deep. Question your assumptions, and always seek to understand other perspectives. When building trust, don’t get distracted by stereotypes or generalizations.
  4. Avoid shortcuts. There are no shortcuts in seeking common ground for the hard-won but long-term solutions. The easy answers will always fail; the right answers require tough choices.
  5. Think ahead … far ahead. Sustainable development requires upfront investment and thinking in decades, not weeks or months. To create change that lasts, prepare for the long haul, far beyond normal planning horizons.

These lessons are at the forefront of our minds now, at the time of Katrina’s commemoration, but I’m also thinking ahead to next month. From 25 to 27 September, world leaders will meet in Manhattan to decide on funding priorities for global development, set the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, and develop a new global framework to deal with climate change.

Our leaders should avoid flyover approaches that are detached and uncaring. Sustainability requires hands-on leadership that puts people first.

That’s how we deal with things in post-Katrina New Orleans. A decade later, we know that rebuilding isn’t about the buildings at all; just as a house is not a loving home, investments won’t yield economic revitalization unless you begin and end with the people who give communities vitality in the first place.

Broadmoor, the historic neighbourhood where my wife and I recently purchased our first home, was originally designated as uninhabitable by the Urban Land Institute (ULI) in Washington, DC. In the weeks after Katrina, these outside consultants marked Broadmoor with a green dot, which indicated that houses should never be rebuilt and the land should become a public park. They told the national media that “nature is trying to tell us something about this area of the city”. They recommended evicting any residents who had already come back, then bulldozing all of the homes.

If ULI consultants had listened to residents first, they would have known better. The neighbourhood association president remembers: “All hell broke loose when we saw that green dot over Broadmoor.” It only deepened my neighbours’ commitment to rebuilding. From impassioned community gatherings, lengthy strategic planning meetings, and even painting sessions to create handmade street signs, the community began to unite under a single slogan: “Broadmoor Lives.”

In the Katrina commemoration coverage, Broadmoor is now being celebrated in local, national and international media outlets for our successful (almost miraculous) rebirth. With time, Broadmoor has become a powerful symbol of community resilience. It’s a spirit that we won’t let wane; when the public library was rebuilt, we named the coffee shop inside the Green Dot Cafe. Broadmoor lives, and we boldly, gratefully measure out our lives in coffee spoons.

We’ve gone from images that evoked reactions of “How could a disaster like this happen in America?” to stories that inspire calls for “How can development like this happen elsewhere?” But it was not a miracle at all. It’s a 10-year overnight success that was only achieved through the dignity of hard work and countless conversations around kitchen tables, conference tables and, yes, bar-room tables.

One great example of sustainable development done right can be found at Propeller: A Force for Social Innovation. In what was once an old tyre and rim shop, this Broadmoor building was flooded by 10 feet of standing water during Katrina. It is now home to a co-working space and social enterprise incubator with a central focus on water management and coastal restoration.

Propeller encourages long-term thinking to find the real solutions to social and environmental issues. Listen in, and you’ll hear mentors advising entrepreneurs to question assumptions as they create market-based solutions to the region’s toughest problems. You’ll also find entrepreneurs who are great presenters but even better listeners. They’ve learned to dig deep and think ahead, as they build trust with customer after customer.

At the UN next month, the world’s leading politicians, business people and civil-society activists should learn from this perspective.

In the back of your mind today, I hope that you’ll reflect on the lives of the 1,833 people who died in the hurricane and its aftermath. And I hope that when our world leaders are in New York next month, they will consider the 1,883 square miles of coastal wetlands that have disappeared from Louisiana between 1932 and 2010.

I encourage our leaders to ask: what are my unsustainable practices and where can we invest now, to save more later? To whom should I listen more, and what community viewpoints are being marginalized? Where has inaction gone on too long? What risks can we mitigate? What is in our collective long-term interest, and where have we left undone the things that we ought to do?

In other words: where are there cracks in our levees?

Have you read?
How citizen activists will help us meet the SDGs
3 reforms the United Nations needs as it turns 70
How cities are adapting to climate change

Author: Rob Lalka is a member of the World Economic Forum’s United Nations Sustainable Development Council, through the Global Shapers Community. He lives in New Orleans.

Image: Sunset is seen over in New Orleans, September 12, 2005. REUTERS/Carlos Barria