Later this month, it will be the six year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina that devastated the city of New Orleans and its surrounding parishes. Like many of us on August 29 2005, Matt Petersen was gripped with the horrible images on CNN. More than the failure of the levees, it is the failure of the Government to respond to the needs of its citizens that horrified him during the following days.
“What can I do?” he asked himself. Matt Petersen had been the CEO of Global Green USA for a decade, raising awareness on the dangers of climate change part of Green Cross International, and working primarily on green building initiatives with schools and cities in the US. “Well, we can get money. And we did.” Matt explains me as he remembers his thought process in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “We thought maybe we could adopt a family and give them a place to rest…”
Global Green USA ultimately decided to adopt a neighborhood of New Orleans with the goal to assist with the reconstruction of 10,000 homes following sustainable guidelines. This was not without the support and also the resistance of some his staff who thought that it was too early to go there without a formal request for help. “How can they ask? They need help!” He did not make sense to Matt who was convinced they could make a difference and led his group to be present on the ground quickly.
Global Green USA first raised $1,000 from its staff of 15 people at the same time. They also raised $30,000 from the Board and major donors. They hired a first person from New Orleans who was displaced after the flood and became the local liaison to coordinate assistance. With existing funding provided by Starbucks originally to work on climate change, they were able to visit New Orleans at the beginning of October 2005. With additional funding from the Home Depot Foundation, they hired a second person and opened a local office in January 2006.
As time went on, Matt Petersen continued to face resistance with his plan to help rebuild New Orleans better and greener. He notes: “When you have a big idea, people will think you are crazy. You have to pursue it and surely learn along the way.” Even his wife remarked: “How can you help a city when you cannot even fix your house?” Leila Petersen later directed a documentary (The 11th Hour) on climate change with Leonardo DiCaprio who was an early supporter of Global Green USA. Matt concludes that “persistence is key to make a difference.”
Matt and his staff made visits to New Orleans every month to pursue their goals on three fronts: schools, housing and community center. Remarkably they were making progress on all fronts. They received a $2M grant from the Bush Clinton Katrina Fund to green New Orleans schools. Yet, Matt’s team had not made progress on the idea to adopt a neighborhood until a Hollywood star stood up.
In March 2006, Brad Pitt contacted back Matt with an idea to organize a design competition. They talked back and forth for a month, matched the two ideas and launched in April 2006 the design competition. Global Green USA selected Holly Cross neighborhood in Lower Ninth Ward, a low income area in New Orleans particularly ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Brad Pitt and other major donors from Global Green USA put together $300,000 to finance the competition.
“We did not know what to expect” explains Matt Petersen. “Most of the time design competition winners are not implemented because they are thought-provoking.” After a first round with six finalists, the Sustainable Design Competition selected in August 2006 a young firm out of New York City. Pam Dashiell, President of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association served as one of the design jury members: "These green building designs breathe new life into our communities; the amount of community input was incredible". The winning design team was featured on the Today Show with Brad Pitt.
Fast forwarding to today, Matt looks at the overall impact of the initiative. It was a journey that came out of a crazy idea but it made a difference. Overall, Global Green worked with 5,000 homeowners and impacted the life of thousands of students. Five homes were built and four schools upgraded. They also initiated City and State level policies to create incentives for energy efficiency in schools and affordable green housing. Their permanent green center should continue to inform thousands of local visitors. Matt continues to work tirelessly to raise awareness on the risks of industrialization, especially after the BP Oil Spill last year.
“The original idea of Mikhail Gorbachev when he founded the Green Cross International was to be the Red Cross for the environment. The vision was not attainable at first because it was too ambitious.” But Matt kept its spirit and he realized that in the case of New Orleans they could do it. Mr. Gorbachev visited the Holy Cross Project when Green Cross International decided to held its biannual gathering in New Orleans in October 2007.
Matt Petersen is also happy to see innovation taking place in Southern States to adapt to the realities of Global Warming. When they started their project in New Orleans, it was the first sub-tropical solar roof in the Southeast. There was only manufacturer at the time that could deal with the weight constraints for low income housing (Evergreen Solar). A new solar manufacturing facility opened recently in Mississippi by Stion Solar with aid from the local Government, just 90 minutes away from New Orleans that offers now more affordable single-homes than anywhere else in the United States.