Rebuilding in a Post-Katrina World with Sherry-Lea Botop

Rebuilding in a Post-Katrina World with Sherry-Lea Botop

By Kelsey Keith
New Orleans native Sherry-Lea Botop found herself in a unique position in 2005: The non-profit activist was, like many of her community members, housed in a shelter with her family while Hurricane Katrina was bearing down overhead. So how did she come to lead Architecture for Humanity's rebuilding effort in the besieged city? Read on.

Sherry-Lea Botop will be joining us at Dwell on Design, along with Architecture for Humanity co-founder Kate Stohr, to talk about rebuilding after an unexpected natural disaster and how the effort can help spur innovation in design.

Homes completed in the Biloxi Model Home program include work by (clockwise from top left): Huff & Gooden Architects, Gulf Coast Community Design Studio, Marlon Blackwell Architect, and Brett Zamore Design.

Botop credits her interest in architecture to her father, whose "incredible passion" for design was rooted in their hometown of New Orleans. As for the philanthropy, Sherry-Lea's first fundraising effort took place in her backyard at age five, collecting money for kids with disabilities. Flash forward to the New Orleans of 2005: "I had already been in the non-profit world for a few years and had done some work with different government agencies," says Botop. Her family—including two children and both of her parents—were in a shelter when Katrina hit. Botop took a church bus to scout the hard-hit areas, and "as soon as we crossed the state line into Mississippi, it was mayhem." She lassoed four more buses and several doctors and nurses, and helped get 1,000 people back to triage. A few days later, when she was coordinating a passenger transport to Georgia and Alabama, she ran into Architecture for Humanity co-founder Kate Stohr, a fortuitous meeting.

"I knew that we needed a plan," says Botop, "and that the next step was to rebuild. I was already looking outward. And I told Kate, 'I'm your girl.'" She went right to the governor Mississippi—"He literally sent a helicopter the next day"—and pitched Architecture for Humanity to the state and FEMA representatives. Red tape ensued, so Architecture for Humanity worked with the community to develop its own plan on the ground, which turned into the Biloxi Model Homes project, as well as several other affordable housing initiatives in New Orleans proper. As for FEMA support, Botop adds, "By the way, they did come back around a year later!"

One of the design studios Botop helped develop the Biloxi Model Homes program, one of the most successful rebuilding projects centered in the devastated Gulf region affected by Katrina. The area, which Botop says is "very similar to the Lower Ninth Ward in terms of demographics, with the addition of a Vietnamese fishing community," had to be rethought and reconstructed with affordable community housing in mind. One signpost of Botop's success? Three years into her project, Architecture for Humanity received $40 million from HUD to channel through design studios and jumpstart the building effort.

Of course, rebuilding in New Orleans is far from finished. On June 22, join Sherry-Lea and Kate onstage at Dwell on Design as they discuss the long tail effects of post-disaster, philanthropic rebuilding, and how even the worst natural calamity can spur design innovation.

This article was originally published on May 14, 2013 on our sister site, Dwell on Design.


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