Happy Johnson was 20 years old when Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans in 2005.
Attending Georgetown University at the time, and distraught at the images of flooded homes and stranded residents, Happy traveled to the besieged city to help with disaster relief.
His experience driving an emergency response vehicle was life changing. He moved to New Orleans and, for the past 12 years, has been working to help the city’s most vulnerable people and neighborhoods recover.
Today, Happy works as chief resilience officer for the nonprofit Lower 9th Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development (CSED).
We spoke with him about his efforts to ensure urban residents have a voice in plans to rebuild wetlands and protect New Orleans against threats from sea level rise and future storms.
What impact did working in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina have on you?
It was a new chapter in my life. I fell in love with volunteering. I didn’t really understand the role that every day ordinary people play in helping a community recover and rebuild after an environmental emergency. Katrina was an opportunity to find purpose in my life. Twelve years later, I am still here helping rebuild a place that I love and call home.
What do you do as chief resilience officer?
CSED was founded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Our main focus is to help residents rebuild in a sustainable and eco-friendly way and become champions for environmental sustainability. Environmental emergencies tend to have a far greater impact on people of color and low-income communities. I always think about how to make this movement more accessible to people who are disproportionately impacted by environmental emergencies. My job is to make sure residents, children, business owners and clergy are aware of the state’s Coastal Master Plan, are engaged in coastal restoration policy and projects. It's rewarding because we make a difference every day.
What make New Orleans special to you?
I am a trumpet enthusiast. I love the role that Congo Square played in the birth of jazz. I have an amazing horn that I just love to play. Living in this area gives you a lot of creative energy. I like to sit on the banks of the Mississippi River, in a nice quiet chair with a glass of cold water, and listen to the sounds of the water. If you listen, you can hear the waves, you can hear the tugboats. Sometimes you can hear musicians all the way in the French quarter or even playing on the steamboats.
Why is coastal restoration so important to the city’s future?
We’re facing a land-loss crisis. Fifty years from now, if we don't enact comprehensive and large-scale coastal restoration projects, our culture may not exist. In many ways, we're in a fight for survival. Wetlands play a vital role in storm protection and mitigating the speed and strength of hurricanes. We need to have a sense of urgency and to advocate for the resources to help protect Louisiana's coast.
How can the Mississippi River help protect New Orleans and Louisiana?
We have to reconnect to the Mississippi River to the coastal wetlands, through diversions that let some of the freshwater and the nutrient-rich sediment back to the bayous and the marshlands. It should be deposited into areas that need restoration, that are dying.
We also must include the value of equity within our coastal engineering projects through an intentional and well-documented plan; greater contractual access and representation of black and brown people in the planning process will strengthen our state's capacity to be a resilience leader.
When people look at the river, they see it as an opportunity to build land. When I look at the river, I think of it as the one thing that can help save Louisiana.
What does ‘resilience’ mean to you?
It's just the way of life. It's part of our DNA. It's part of what people have done for generations in order to survive. All the way from Hurricane Betsy to now. I think, over time, people have learned how to adapt to emergencies without saying they're being resilient. They just do it. They know how to respond and how to recover. Can we solve our land loss crisis? Absolutely. I'm very optimistic about the future.
The Walton Family Foundation has provided support to the Lower 9th Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development in partnership with the National Wildlife Federation.