On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina blasted the Mississippi Gulf Coast with Category 4 winds and a storm surge that reached thirty-five feet in some areas. The damage in places like Waveland and Bay St. Louis, which bore the brunt of the storm's wrath, and Gulfport-Biloxi, farther east, caused Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, later that week, to compare the devastation to Hiroshima after the Japanese city had been atomic-bombed by the United States sixty years earlier.
Criticized by some for waiting too long to issue a mandatory evacuation order for the coast, Barbour moved quickly in the storm's wake to turn the disaster into an opportunity. Within weeks, he announced the formation of the Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal, tasked it with developing a long-term strategic plan for rebuilding south Mississippi, and named former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale to lead the effort. Shortly thereafter, the Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced a $1 million grant in support of the planning process.
In December, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Alberto Ibargüen, president of the Knight Foundation, about the foundation's response to Katrina, its involvement in the planning process initiated by Gov. Haley Barbour, the role of private foundations in rebuilding the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and the long-term prospects for the success of that effort.
Before joining the Knight Foundation as president in July 2005, Ibargüen was the publisher and chairman of the Miami Herald, which won three Pulitzer Prizes during his tenure, and publisher of El Nuevo Herald. A newspaper executive since 1984, first at the Hartford Courant, then at Newsday in New York, Ibargüen serves on the board of directors of PepsiCo, is chairman of the executive committee of the Newseum in Washington, D.C., and is a member of the Trustees' Council of the National Gallery of Art, the Advisory Council of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB), and the Council on Foreign Relations.
A graduate of Wesleyan University and the University of Pennsylvania law school, Ibargüen practiced law in Hartford, Connecticut, and served in the Peace Corps in Colombia and in Venezuela's Amazon territory.
Philanthropy News Digest: Two days after Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast, the Knight Foundation responded by awarding emergency grants of $500,000 each to the Salvation Army and the Red Cross. Were those grants authorized outside the foundation's normal approval process?
Alberto Ibargüen: Yes. But, remember, Knight is based in Miami, where hurricanes are a fact of life. We had talked with our trustees before Katrina hit about the possibility of emergency relief during hurricane season. So, while the initial grants we made after Katrina were not authorized through the usual process, there was a process in place for convening our Grants Review committee in an emergency situation. And that's what we did on Tuesday, the day after the storm hit. I happened to be in Akron, one of our Knight communities, that morning, and when I saw on CNN that the levees had been breached and New Orleans was flooding, I realized immediately that the attention of the country would shift, quite naturally, to New Orleans and away from Biloxi, which is our Knight community in the Gulf Coast region.
Your readers may not know that the foundation works in twenty-six communities where the Knight brothers had newspapers. Biloxi-Gulfport is one of those. So, I called my colleague Mike Maidenberg, the vice president of the Knight Foundation, and Mike set up a conference call with the grants committee. Later that afternoon we awarded a million dollars for emergency relief in Biloxi. The Salvation Army and the Red Cross were the recipients of those funds for all the obvious reasons, but also because my personal experience as a volunteer at the World Trade Center site after 9/11 confirmed that they are the two best deliverers of emergency relief in this kind of situation.
PND: As you watched coverage that morning of the unfolding disaster in New Orleans, did you already suspect that the recovery of the city and the region would be a long-term affair?
AI: For us, the only relevance of the flooding in New Orleans was that it made it clear that the nation's attention was going to be focused there. But I knew from my own experience with hurricanes here in south Florida that those initial grants were just the beginning. And our commitment to Biloxi-Gulfport is long term.
PND: A few weeks after the storm hit, Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi, tapped another Mississippian, Jim Barksdale, the former CEO of FedEx and Netscape, to chair a planning commission dedicated to long-term rebuilding issues in hard-hit Gulf Coast communities. Shortly after that announcement, your foundation announced a million-dollar grant to help underwrite the work of the commission and something called the Mississippi Renewal Forum. Can you walk us through the conversations that led to that grant?
AI: We have an advisory committee in each of our twenty-six communities, including Biloxi-Gulfport. As I mentioned, we authorized grants to the Red Cross and the Salvation Army on August 30. But it took me until Saturday before I was able to make phone contact with Ricky Matthews, the chairman of our advisory committee in Biloxi. By the way, there were two other key people involved in these discussions. One was Alfredo Cruz, our program officer for Bradenton, Tallahassee, and Biloxi. And the other was Maidenburg, who, before he joined Knight, was the publisher of the Grand Forks Herald in Grand Forks, North Dakota, when that town was flooded by the Red River. You might not remember it — it was about seven years ago — but it was a terrible, terrible flood, and Mike's paper won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the flood and its aftermath.
Anyway, I finally was able to establish phone contact with Ricky on Saturday, and he said, "You can't believe what has happened here. You've got to see it." Having spent most of my professional life in newspapers, I knew that's what reporters do: You go and see it; you talk to people; you witness the event, if you possibly can.
In Biloxi, everything from the waterfront inland for ten blocks or so was gone. I mean, 100 percent flattened....
So on Monday, Mike and I flew to Mobile, rented an SUV, and drove to Biloxi. And, boy, did we get an eyeful. In Biloxi itself, everything from the waterfront inland for ten blocks or so was gone. I mean, 100 percent flattened. Where there had been houses, there were just slabs of cement. Trees completely stripped of their leaves were festooned with garbage and trash that had been deposited by the storm surge. The waterfront casinos — really, nothing more than barges with twenty feet of concrete and buildings on top of that — had been tossed, in some cases, four or five blocks inland. From Biloxi, we then drove through Gulfport — this was Labor Day weekend — and saw utter destruction. The streets had been torn up, exposing huge broken sewer pipes. We saw a church with its second floor and steeple intact, but nothing below that — just four corner posts holding the whole thing up. The police were going from house to house, drawing orange-colored Xs and numbers on doors and facades. A zero underneath the X meant that no bodies had been found inside; a number below the X meant that bodies were still inside.
After touring both communities, we began to talk with local people to get their sense of the scope of this thing — not just in Biloxi and Gulfport, but up and down the coast. Mike and I spent the night in a trailer in the parking lot of the newspaper. The next morning — I think it was Tuesday — Stan Tyner, the editor of the Biloxi Sun Herald, was walking toward the building and stopped to chat in the parking lot. He had a sheaf of papers under his arm, and when I asked him about them, he said, "I've got forty stories here. I can put any one of them in the paper, but my job is to make sense of this and craft a coherent narrative so that people understand what happened." And at that moment, I found myself thinking, "That's a perfect analogy for what needs to happen to get these communities back on their feet and moving forward. We need to have a plan."
Now, in a "normal" disaster-relief situation, most organizations in a position to help would proceed in a logical sequence: Step one would be about the delivery of emergency assistance; step two would involve helping the people you know and working with them so they can help their constituents; step three might be the development of a strategic plan; and step four would be about the implementation of the strategic plan. But in this case, because the devastation was so complete, we were presented with both an opportunity and a threat. An opportunity in the sense that the people of the region had been presented with a clean slate since the storm had cleared the land of much of the commercial and residential structures. But it was also a threat, in that all this fabulous beachfront property was suddenly up for grabs. In fact, I remember thinking on that first trip that it might already be too late, that commercial interests in the area were probably already starting to move. Obviously, the casinos were going to be rebuilt — they brought in too much money to the region and created too many jobs for them not to be — and just as obviously, FEMA would never allow them to be built offshore again; they were going to be rebuilt, and they were going to be rebuilt onshore, causing the displacement of whole neighborhoods. Not only was it going to happen, it was going to happen quickly. But I also thought that if we worked fast, we might be able to play a role in creating a strategic planning process that gave residents of the region a voice in what was going to happen in their communities. That was my reaction to what I saw on that first trip. And I can tell you that other people, from the governor on down, had similar reactions.
So I talked with Ricky Matthews, and I said, "You know, if this is the direction people want to go in, we'd like to be supportive. Let's be sure to stay in touch." I also talked with Alfredo Cruz, and I told him, "You can't do your job from Tallahassee; you've got to be there, on the scene. It's not that we want you to make grants tomorrow. But you've got to be there to support the people in the community with whom we work." In many cases, the very people in the nonprofit sector who were supposed to help others had also lost everything and were worried sick about their own relatives and friends. That was on the Tuesday after the storm hit, and Alfredo promptly drove from Tallahassee to Biloxi and spent the better part of the next two months there.
[Jim Barksdale] was exactly the right kind of person to head up such a commission....
Anyway, that Friday, barely a week and a half after the storm hit, I got a call from Governor Barbour, who told me he had been talking with people and had heard we wanted to help. He also said he was thinking of forming a group to develop a strategic plan for the rebuilding of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. He was going to call it the Governor's Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal, and he was going to get Jim Barksdale to head it up. I used to be chairman of PBS, and Barksdale and former FCC chair Reed Hundt had done extraordinary work for us as co-chairs of something called the Digital Futures Initiative. So I was acquainted with Jim and knew him to be a brilliant, no-nonsense guy with a very organized mind. I also happened to know that he's a very generous man — you probably know that he's given something like $150 million for early childhood literacy initiatives in Mississippi. In other words, he was exactly the right kind of person to head up such a commission.
In that same conversation, the governor mentioned that he'd heard about the urban planner Andres Duany, who had founded, with his partner, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, a movement called New Urbanism, and whose work in south Florida the Knight Foundation supported after Hurricane Andrew leveled a good bit of the region in 1992. We've also supported projects of theirs in other Knight communities like Duluth, Minnesota, San Jose, California, and Macon, Georgia, where the Beall's Hills neighborhood significantly benefited from a charrette process led by Duany. So I was delighted to hear that Governor Barbour had heard of him. In fact, my reaction — I was in a cab on my way to LaGuardia, having just had lunch with Susan Berresford [president of the Ford Foundation] and some of her colleagues to discuss all this — was to say, "Well, Governor, if you get Barksdale and you get Duany, we'll pay for it. I believe it's the kind of process you need to put in place, and it sounds to me like you're getting the right people. So we'll pay for it."
As I mentioned, I had already talked with our trustees about additional funding for recovery and rebuilding efforts in Mississippi, so while I didn't commit to a number, I was dead serious about our intention to pay for it. Then Barksdale volunteered a million dollars of his own. So between his million and our million — separate from the first million we had given the week before for emergency relief — funding for this process was never an issue, which meant that the people involved could really focus on the work that needed to be done and not have to worry about money or the politics.
PND: Can I jump in for a moment? You mentioned that the Beall's Hills project in Macon benefited from a "charrette" process led by Andres Duany. I'd bet most of our readers are unfamiliar with that term. Could you define it for us?
AI: I'm embarrassed to say I didn't know myself until I went to Mississippi. It's a French word — charrette means "little wagon" — and I gather it's a technique architecture students used to use when they were trying to solve a problem. A group of them would get together to brainstorm and they'd have this little wagon that everyone would sort of toss their ideas into. And from those, they'd try to come up with a single solution to whatever problem they were trying to solve. The idea is that if you get all the stakeholders in a room and say, "Okay, you're not coming out until you come up with a solution," you force people to compromise and develop a concrete solution. It's a process designed to get things done — and, from what I've seen, a very effective one.
In Mississippi, the Governor's Commission, chaired by Barksdale and led by Duany, organized a week-long charrette that met for the first time on October 11 in the Isle of Capri Hotel in Biloxi. It was one of the most exciting experiences in which I've ever been involved. Duany had invited a hundred and twenty architects, engineers, lawyers, and regional planners from all over, and there was another group of maybe eighty or ninety local leaders and volunteers from Mississippi. And for seven days they did nothing but plan the rebuilding — really, the re-invention — of eleven Mississippi Gulf Coast communities. Let me tell you, it was an intense process — not to mention a largely pro bono process, our contribution and Barksdale's contribution aside. And at the end of the process, the leaders from those eleven communities had actual plans and drawings they could show people in their respective communities.
PND: How did the process unfold?
AI: Well, the first day was devoted to organization — getting people into different groups, beginning to talk about the extent of the damage, and so on. I believe on the second day, the eleven community teams toured their respective communities. On the third day all the teams reconvened at the Isle of Capri and launched into their initial planning discussions. The fourth day was devoted to drawing up plans, and so on. By the seventh day, each of the eleven work groups had detailed plans and drawings that they could share with the residents of their communities. In my experience, most of us are really challenged when confronted with a blank slate, but the charrette process tends to be a very effective way of flushing out and refining ideas. Instead of a blank slate, it gives people the chance to react to something concrete, to react to a drawing that puts the library "here" and the elementary school "there" and the retail district "over there." It gives them something tangible to react and respond to, and because it does, it's much easier for people to offer input and contribute in practical and significant ways.
So, after the charrette concluded, the commission basically took the whole show on the road for the next month and a half, holding meetings throughout the region in which the different proposals were presented to groups of people in those communities. I actually have in my hand two of the reports — one is a summary report that was presented to the governor and the other is what they call a pattern book for Gulf Coast neighborhoods — and both are important to understanding what actually happened during those seven days of meetings at the Isle of Capri hotel.
By taking the fundraising aspect out of it, we allowed the people in those meetings to focus on the work at hand and not get bogged down in politics....
Of course, I'm very proud of our participation in the process. By taking the fundraising aspect out of it, number one, we allowed the people in those meetings to focus on the work at hand and not get bogged down in the politics of who was going to pay for what or who had to be placed on the commission because of the votes or money they might control. Number two, it guaranteed, in my view, that there was going to be citizen participation in the decision-making process. That was one of our primary interests in all of this, and the month and a half of community meetings fulfilled that hope and expectation to a large degree. As a result, what they now have in Mississippi is a blueprint for how to go forward. Will it all get put together exactly as planned? I seriously doubt it. These things don't happen that way. Is it a perfect plan? It almost certainly can't be. It was put together by well-intentioned people doing the best they could under a lot of stress and in difficult circumstances. That said, I do think the plan allows for the redevelopment of these communities in a way that is rational and that, because of the effort to make the process inclusive, works for each of the eleven communities involved.
I'm pleased we were involved. The million dollars we gave for immediate relief efforts was what it was: it got aid to people as quickly as possible in an emergency. But the second million dollars was money especially well spent because it helped create the plan for the orderly expenditure and public auditing of billions of dollars more — all done in full view of the public and with citizen participation.
Let me just add that for us to continue to be effective in Biloxi, we're going to have to give multiples of that million dollars. A minute ago I outlined a four-step process. In this particular case, we did step one, then skipped to step three, then went back to step two and made some additional small grants to local organizations that needed support to allow them to continue the important social service support work they were doing. Now we're looking at number four, trying to figure out what our ongoing participation is going to be. We're there for the long haul. Biloxi is one of our communities. So we're looking at a range of possibilities. What we end up doing will depend on what happens with the plans developed by the commission and who the other funders, beyond the public sector, are going to be. It's conceivable we could end up doing some funding for job training. We might end up doing some funding for affordable housing. We're also looking at ways that we can further facilitate the implementation phase. But through it all, I will continue to be proud of our ability to respond quickly in support of local leadership and our role, however modest, in taking a lot of the politics out of the equation and giving hope to people in communities that were so severely damaged.
PND: One of the things I've come to appreciate post-Katrina is just how diverse — racially, ethnically, and economically — the Gulf Coast region is. Earlier, you indicated that one of the important components of the charrette process was the inclusion of feedback loops. Are you satisfied that the plans developed through that process reflect the full spectrum of opinion in the region's communities?
AI: First of all, let me just say that the feedback loops are not just a feature of the process, they're an essential element of the process. If you don't have the participation of the whole community, you haven't done the job. In Biloxi and Gulfport there are important African American, Hispanic and Vietnamese communities, and having all these folks participate in the process was essential. Katrina was an incredibly democratic storm. It affected everybody. So giving everybody a say in the process was critical. Could more have been done? Sure. More can always be done. But there also has to be a balance. At some point you have to say, "Okay, we've got lots of feedback from lots of different groups in the community. Let's put it all together, give the governor our recommendations, and get on with the job of rebuilding"?
As a funder of the process, our job is to help pick the best people — people who can generate ideas and make them happen — and then support them. That's what we've done. Vartan Gregorian at Carnegie has a wonderful way of thinking about this that I've heard him use in a different context: "Everybody has needs, but it's ideas that get funded." The idea the Knight Foundation funded in Mississippi was to move quickly to organize an approach to rebuilding — convening leadership, creating a blueprint, and making a bet on that leadership actually being able to implement the blueprint â€“ before the pressures of commerce and competing interests came fully into play.
PND: At the outset of the charrette process, Jim Barksdale predicted that the effort would be controversial. In December, the New York Times published a couple of articles that were somewhat critical of the approach favored by Duany and his colleagues. The crux of that criticism is that the New Urbanist aesthetic is elitist, too narrow in its stylistic choices, and infused with nostalgia. Does that kind of criticism make you angry?
AI: I've spent most of my adult life in journalism, where freedom of speech and freedom of the press are of paramount importance. How could it possibly make me angry? No, that's one writer's opinion. It's a perfectly reasonable thing for somebody to feel and write. But it makes me wonder how people might have reacted if the plans had only included modernist architecture and styles — they'd probably be howling and complaining that the plans didn't fit with the region's architectural heritage.
The key point to remember is that, in order to move quickly and cost-effectively, the people of Mississippi needed to have something tangible to react to....
The key point to remember is that, in order to move quickly and cost-effectively, we felt the people of Mississippi needed to have something tangible to react to. And I know for a fact that Duany and the architects and planners he invited to participate in the charrette were careful to solicit a range of views and opinion from people in the different communities. I would also tell you that some of the stories in the New York Times were not particularly well received in Biloxi, that people in that community felt they were being talked down to. But that's beside the point. My interest is in making sure that there's a reasonable, logical way to move forward, and that it's transparent and incorporates a significant amount of local participation. If an architecture critic doesn't like the result, that's fine; that person is entitled to his or her opinion.
PND: Where is the money for this massive rebuilding effort going to come from?
AI: That's a great question, but I'm not the expert here. I assume that some of it will have to come from the federal government — although, interestingly, Governor Barbour, who was chairman of the Republican National Committee during the '90s and certainly has connections to the federal government that are as good as anybody's, has consistently told people not to count on the federal government. Surely, a significant amount will have to come from the state of Mississippi. And I'd imagine that a great deal of money will come from casino interests that are interested in getting back into those communities where they had a good thing going before the hurricane hit. Finally, some of the money will have to come from foundations and nonprofit organizations. [Editor's note: Since this interview, the federal government has committed billions of dollars to the recovery effort in south Mississippi, and the construction of several new casinos has been announced.]
In fact, I think those of us in the nonprofit sector, whether it's Habitat for Humanity or a foundation like ours, can contribute on several different levels. The first has to do with the issue of inclusiveness. By that I mean we need to ensure that the people who actually live in the communities are consulted and that a broad range of views and opinions are heard. Nobody, nobody can promise that everybody is going to get exactly what they want — there are just too many competing interests in play. But at a minimum, we have to make sure that people in these communities are given the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process.
Number two, there are probably lots of opportunities for us to be involved in the implementation of strategic plans or in the training and re-training of the region's workforce. There are probably lots of opportunities for the nonprofit sector to be involved in rebuilding and strengthening public education and the region's arts and social service infrastructure. And there are probably opportunities for foundations that specialize in the area of public health, including mental health. I've mentioned this to others, but this disaster was so big, it was so devastating, that you cannot ask somebody in Biloxi or any of the communities in south Mississippi "How are you doing?" unless you've got some time to listen.
So there's a lot of work to be done, and a lot of ways in which foundations and nonprofits can help. Our method of operation, as I've mentioned, is to find local people that we respect and trust, and support their work. At the end of the day, they're the ones, not those of us from outside, who are most invested in rebuilding those communities.
PND: I don't want to set you up as a spokesperson for the field, but I've read and have a sense that a lot of foundation money that has been set aside for Gulf Coast recovery is sitting on the sidelines. What, in your view, is that money waiting for?
I think it's perfectly natural that...people are still considering their options and looking for ways to participate in the rebuilding effort....
AI: Well, I guess I'd challenge the premise of your question. It's only been four months since Katrina hit. And in some ways, it's unusual for a foundation like ours — or any foundation, for that matter — to act as quickly as we did. I think the reason we were able to move quickly is that, while we're a national foundation, we're also local, in a unique way, in twenty-six places, and one of them is Biloxi, Mississippi. If this had happened in Seattle, Washington, you wouldn't be talking to me. So I think it's perfectly natural that, in the relatively short time since Katrina hit, people are still considering their options and looking for ways to participate in the rebuilding effort.
Number two, the plans and drawings that came out of the charrette process in Mississippi were literally just presented to the governor. In fact, as I understand it, Jim Barksdale hand-delivered the information to Governor Barbour last Thursday. So if the governor is only just now getting the report, it's probably not fair to say that others are sitting on the sidelines. Other people need to see and digest the report; they need to see where they fit in.
And number three, people aren't sitting on the sidelines. Just yesterday, I got a call from Reese Fayde, the CEO of Living Cities, a collaborative of foundations, government agencies, and financial institutions, and she was in the region exploring ways in which her organization could support local leadership and be not just a participant but a catalyst in the redevelopment of the Gulf Coast. So, at least as far as Mississippi is concerned, a blueprint for redevelopment has been created, and the time is now for other foundations to take a hard look at what they might do.
Obviously, I don't know nearly as much about what is happening in New Orleans and Louisiana, but I get the feeling they're some months behind Mississippi in terms of planning. And if I were looking at it from the perspective of a foundation that didn't have local ties, I would be even more confounded in Louisiana about what to do than I might be in Mississippi, which has created a relatively straightforward road map to get from here to there.
PND: One of your Knight communities is Akron, Ohio, which I happen to know because I grew up in that area. Do you think the charrette process you've described could be adapted to cities and regions like Akron and the industrial Midwest that are facing slow-motion disasters of their own as their manufacturing-based economies are hollowed out by globalization?
AI: The "disaster" of de-industrialization in communities like Akron is missing an essential element that would prevent the kind of process we helped put in place in Mississippi from working. And that is, Katrina not only knocked down houses and trees, it knocked down all sorts of barriers between people. A disaster like Katrina or Hurricane Andrew is a great leveler, literally and figuratively, in that it tends to bring people together in extraordinary ways. Drop a frog into hot water and it jumps out; drop it into tepid water and slowly bring the water to a boil and the frog is cooked. Disasters like a hurricane tend to act like boiling water.
That said, the charrette process is an effective tool. We've supported it in Duluth and in Macon. It works because it's visual, it's concrete, and it allows people to imagine something better than they know. And it allows local leaders to move things forward by building consensus. Is it the magic bullet? Absolutely not. Any kind of rebuilding or re-invention of a community on a large scale requires strong leadership. There also needs to be the will, with a capital W, to change. And finally, people need to have the courage to accept the fact that whatever change comes out of the process isn't going to be everything they wanted or hoped for. But when those things come together in a community, well, then you really have something, and foundations could do far worse than to fund it. I say that as someone who's new to this, because the Knight Foundation's support after Hurricane Andrew and in Duluth and Macon had nothing to do with me. But I admire what was done in those places, and I think, like any other tool, the charrette process, when applied at the right time and under the right circumstances, can do a lot to move a major redevelopment initiative forward.
PND: I'd like to close by reading you a quote from Jim Barksdale: "None of us wants to look back twenty years from now and realize we allowed ourselves to get locked into a rebuilding process that failed to take advantage of the clean slate, the clear opportunity that we have right now." Are you optimistic that Americans will look back in twenty years and say that we came together in the face of this calamity and rebuilt the Gulf Coast in an equitable and responsible manner?
AI: I already know that we came together, in Mississippi, with the right kind of spirit and the will to do the right thing. Whether it results in something that lasts, only time will tell. I recall the mayor of Gulfport saying that he didn't want to see something built that would look dated five, ten, fifteen years from now. We all want something that fits in with our sense of the place and that passes the test of time. I know we tried to be inclusive. And I firmly believe that the leadership on the ground is interested in not just rebuilding their communities, but in building better communities. I'm just delighted we had the opportunity to support them.
PND: Well, thank you for speaking with us today.
AI: My pleasure.
Mitch Nauffts, PND's editorial director, spoke with Alberto Ibargüen in December. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch at email@example.com.