Will The Big Easy Blow It?

Orleanians Need To Know Where They Can Rebuild

The federal billions are about to hit New Orleans.

The money could help build a better, more compact city on the abundant high ground next to the Mississippi River.

But it could also give individuals the means to make heroic but futile efforts to rebuild in low-lying neighborhoods that for many years at least will lack neighbors or city services.

Or it could prompt an exodus of Orleanians who take the cash and run to other parts of Louisiana or even leave the state.

As we approach the Aug. 29 anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, state government is starting to process more than 100,000 Louisiana homeowners' requests for "Road Home" grants of up to $150,000 each for uninsured damage from the storm. About half of the generous $7.5 billion from the federal government will go to individuals in New Orleans.

The city, however, will have no unified rebuilding plan to guide where the individuals put their money until early 2007 at the soonest, after many people have received their grants. This may endanger the very health of the rebuilding effort, unless planners and officials take quick steps to show they have a vision and can build a framework for individual investments.

New Orleans today is hopeful and gloomy.

Hope comes from the perception that safety has been achieved. The levee failures probably won't recur even if a similar storm surge attacks New Orleans from the Lake Pontchartrain flank. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - guilty of poor design, poor construction and poor maintenance of levees that were supposed to keep out the lake water - has corrected the principal flaw: Lake water will now be blocked, presumably, from entering the famous 17th Street Canal and other drainage channels so that it can't topple their vulnerable floodwalls. New Orleans actually feels secure to many residents: A friend there told me last month that the best thing for the city's low self-confidence, if a Katrina-like storm comes this season, would be a smooth evacuation and a return to an unflooded city where the levees have held.

With safety in hand, hope finds many places to take hold. The public schools opening now are operated by community groups with charters, by the state government and by the reformed remnants of the city's corrupt and dysfunctional school system. Dozens of schools are competing for scarce teachers and marketing themselves to students and families, who have the kind of merit-based options that school-choice reformers in other areas can only dream of.

And spirits are boosted by more ordinary things: The Superdome is repaired and the Saints are about to begin a pro football season there. Landmark restaurants are back and bustling, and new places are opening in the busy, unflooded Uptown neighborhoods. Tulane University has put itself back into action. Citizens are resourceful: If government lets the grass grow for a month on the park-like Mississippi River levee where you walk your dog, just bring a small power mower and cut a path yourself.

But the gloom is hard to escape. A mile or so back from the river, the flood zone begins and extends block after block, neighborhood after neighborhood, all the way to the lake, dead areas where the only difference between now and last September is that much of the trash is gone.

A sense of spiritual and historical isolation prevails. Orleanians realize America and the world are progressing to other things, while New Orleans seems frozen on the verge of rebuilding. The Mississippi Gulf Coast has already gotten a major boost from expanding the casino business, and the rest of Louisiana has plans in place and is rebuilding.

New Orleans politics rejected a fine plan that was on the table last November. Drafted by the Urban Land Institute for the mayor's Bring New Orleans Back Commission, it said the city needed to help citizens make distinctions between what could realistically and safely be rebuilt and what couldn't. Local government no longer had the resources to serve all of its old footprint, and much of what had been built since World War II would remain vulnerable to flooding. The report recommended that the rebuilding be concentrated on the high ground, with some low-lying areas best used for parkland or reserved for future development. It presented a vision of a smaller, denser, more sustainable city that solved many of its pre-Katrina pathologies by wisely using the rebuilding money.

But public officials, playing to dislocated constituents who might never come back, refused to suggest that any part of the city couldn't be rebuilt. Mayor Ray Nagin walked away from his commission's plan—including its call for neighborhood-by-neighborhood assessments of comeback potential—and has been welcoming people back to all of New Orleans. City leaders don't tell them that 911 calls might not be answered so quickly in some desolate sections, or that trash pickup and water pressure might not be what they remembered.

Since the beginning of 2006, conflicts with state government's more assertive and faster planning, confusion about whether the city could get federal funding for planning costs, and efforts by the city council to create its own plan all conspired to produce planning gridlock until now. Capable planners are actually being hired with Rockefeller Foundation money to produce community plans that will be rolled up into a "unified" city plan early next year. Will it be finished in time to make a difference?

One problem is that the mayor, who himself hasn't articulated a convincing vision for the city, doesn't yet appear committed to accepting the "unified" plan. He could walk away from this one too.

The failure to create a compelling and realistic vision for the future is apparent to the homeowners who will be receiving federal money over the next several months. New Orleans is risking the loss of citizens who may join others who have already found Baton Rouge or Atlanta to be places of action, leadership and safety. With a plan in place on this Katrina anniversary, New Orleans could be seizing the great opportunity to sell itself to potential new residents, as a spirited future boomtown that uses federal and private money wisely to attract a population of creative hard-workers.

Maybe it's not too late for these things to begin. Maybe Mayor Nagin can embrace the privately funded planning process and commit to following its recommendations. Maybe he can compel city hall to publicize realistic estimates of what the city cannot do and where it can't do it. Maybe he can set up an authority to help Orleanians with "Road Home" money to find ways to stay in the city, on the safer, higher ground. Maybe New Orleans can start acting decisively enough to retain the enormous goodwill and aid received from all around the nation. Maybe it can begin to connect to the regional plans by the state and other South Louisiana communities. Maybe New Orleans still can prove to Washington that it's making wise use of the money and deserves more in years to come. Maybe. 

Jack Davis, publisher of The Courant, has made six post-Katrina visits to New Orleans, where he and his wife plan to live when he leaves The Courant at the end of this year.

Copyright 2006, Hartford Courant

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