Summer/Fall 2006

David Hart, right, discusses map data with Wintford Thornton, a graduate student in land resources and a student in Hart's course "Rethinking New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina." Photo: Jeff Miller
UW Sea Grant Research

Long Distance Assistance
Ties to New Orleans help professor chart new UW course

By Kathleen Schmitt

Like many others, David Hart watched the destruction caused by hurricane Katrina and wondered how he could help.

Hart is a coastal outreach specialist in geographic information systems (GIS) at UW Sea Grant, but he’s never lost touch with his bayou roots. His grandmother grew up in New Orleans, and he lived there for 10 years.

“The first thing you do is write a check to the Red Cross,” he says. “So I did that, and then you kind of sit back and wait. I knew I couldn’t just hop in a car and go down there because you’re just going to be a problem, not an answer for anything.”

But Hart had valuable experience to offer. Before moving to Madison to earn his Ph.D., he worked as a city planner in New Orleans, managing its GIS (geographic information system) program.

GIS uses computer software to link maps and databases. Information in the databases can be presented as layers on the map that can be turned on and off. Linking geographic information with data about property taxes, crime statistics, power outages, and health hazards make GIS a powerful tool for analyzing urban and environmental problems.

In fact, GIS proved to be a critical tool in the days immediately following Hurricane Katrina. With many street signs underwater or washed away, rescue teams had difficulty finding locations of people in trouble until they gained access to GIS databases that linked street addresses to specific latitude and longitude coordinates. GIS maps were used by the local, state and federal governments, as well as the media, to understand the extent of damage and loss of life.

But Hart, who has close friends and relatives living in the area, was still 1,000 miles away wondering what he could do. When he was offered the chance to teach a UW-Madison course in urban planning last semester, he decided to design one that used the tools provided by GIS to explore ideas and recommendations of how to rebuild New Orleans in a sustainable and more socially equitable manner. Seventeen graduate students rose to the challenge.

Experts in coastal hazards, disaster response and recovery, sustainable development, public participation and GIS dropped in on the class to share their perspectives. The students also began collaborating with planners in Louisiana, including Hart’s colleague John Davis at Louisiana Sea Grant. Using WisLine Web, UW-Extension software that hosts live, interactive meetings, they discussed the current and future GIS needs in the area and how they could be addressed by two class projects.

The first project was developing a GIS template to help neighborhoods in New Orleans plan for their futures. The students looked for ideas from Web-mapping sites around the country and developed a list of GIS data sets needed to support planning on the neighborhood level. As an example of how such a template might work, they assembled GIS information for the Pontilly neighborhood, located just south of Lake Pontchartrain. They produced a few initial maps to identify the neighborhood’s assets, such as cultural landmarks, and rebuilding challenges, such as low elevations and damaged infrastructure.

The other project examined subsidence (or sinking land) and elevation data in Orleans Parish to get an idea of what the elevation of New Orleans will be in the future. Hart notes that this project is very exploratory, but it could be a good starting point for other studies to determine where and where not to rebuild.

As the semester ended, students used the Web to present their results to planners working on the front line of reconstruction in Louisiana. Hart posted the class projects and a wide variety of resources at, and he hopes that they might serve as a starting point as the city rebuilds. He also hopes that his students enjoyed exploring the cultural and historical significance of the city, as well as having a chance to help envision its future.

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