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Posted by on Jan 4, 2007 in Politics | 29 comments

Rebuilding New Orleans the best they can

One week shy of a year ago, the Bring New Orleans Back commission unveiled their recommendations for recovery and rebuilding NOLA. The response was underwhelming, as the Washington Post wrote in January 2006:

Hundreds of residents packed into a hotel ballroom interrupted the presentation of the long-awaited proposal with shouts and taunts, booed its main architect and unrolled a litany of complaints. One by one, homeowners stepped to a microphone to lampoon the plan — which contemplates a much smaller city and relies on persuading the federal government to spend billions on new housing and a light-rail system — as “audacious,” “an academic exercise,” “garbage,” “a no-good, rotten scheme.”


Some activists have long accused the commission — which was appointed by Nagin — of trying to find ways to abandon predominantly black neighborhoods, such as the Lower Ninth Ward. Wednesday’s unveiling did nothing to assuage their fears, even though commission members promised to give all neighborhoods an opportunity to prove that they should be rebuilt by convening planning groups in coming months. The proposed moratorium would be in the city’s most damaged neighborhoods, and officials would use the four-month period to gauge whether enough residents will come back to make the areas viable.

I wrote about it then, also — and I was furious.

In a sense this plan is a punt, because the commission has effectively said, “We can’t figure this out by ourselves.� Get organized and step up to the plate, people – or all the decision-making power will move elsewhere… and I don’t believe for a minute that New Orleans should be planned by Washington. Do you?

The parts of the plan that seemed fantastical (light rail, for instance) weren’t the problem; those were pie-in-the-sky dreams — a someday wish list. The worries about which neighborhoods could rebuild, and fears of cutting out parts of the population — specifically, African Americans — shot those brutal, impersonal NOLA blueprints down, and not long thereafter, the ULI packed up its plans and went away.

Neither the city’s residents, nor the City Council, ever gave that plan a chance, and as the mayoral election approached, Nagin backed away also.

And here we are, almost exactly one year later:

After Katrina, teams of planners recommended that broad swaths of vulnerable neighborhoods be abandoned. Yet all areas of the city have at least some residents beginning to rebuild. With billions of dollars in federal relief for homeowners trickling in, more people are expected to follow.

Moreover, while new federal guidelines call for raising houses to reduce the damage of future floods, most returning homeowners do not have to comply or are finding ways around the costly requirement, according to city officials.

“It’s terrifying: We’re doing the same things we have in the past but expecting different results,” said Robert G. Bea, a professor of civil engineering at the University of California at Berkeley and a former New Orleans resident who served as a member of the National Science Foundation panel that studied the city’s levees.

“There are areas where it doesn’t make any sense to rebuild — they got 20 feet of water in Katrina,” said Tom Murphy, a former Pittsburgh mayor who served on an Urban Land Institute panel for post-Katrina planning. “In those places, nature is talking to us, and we ought to be listening. I don’t think we are.”

How can anyone possibly be surprised? The plans were tossed out with the smelly refrigerators, and in New Orleans, cold, hard logic and external analysis never had a chance in the face of the anger, desperation, and determination of its residents.

They’re angry because it didn’t have to happen — it wouldn’t have happened, in fact, if the levees had been built correctly, and as residents had been told they were. They’re furious that the government, in the form of the Army Corps of Engineers, set them up for this disaster.

They’re desperate because the “Road Home” has turned out to be a pothole-riddled cul-de-sac — a sucking morass of bureaucratic red tape; a Road to Nowhere:

More than 15 months after the flood, the Road Home program has doled out rebuilding grants to fewer than 100 people out of more than 87,000 applicants, though officials said they have calculated more than 10,700 awards.

While people around the country have lost patience, suggesting that New Orleanians are simply waiting for hand-outs or can’t take care of themselves, they’ve been beating their heads bloody against an impenetrable, impersonal wall.

Unfortunately, one can only blame so much of this on the state or federal authorities — because the one thing New Orleans needed, but didn’t have, was a leader who could make decisions — who didn’t waffle in the face of every and any dissenting voice. Instead, they have Ray Nagin, and here we are, a year later:

The chairman of the federal Gulf Coast rebuilding office, Donald E. Powell, said recently that “tough decisions” about where to repopulate this half-empty city are necessary.

“The President and I believe planning decisions should not be made in Washington, but rather at the local level,” he said in a statement. “However at some point, there needs to be strong local leadership, and that includes making tough decisions about the city’s size and the safety of her citizens. Federal tax dollars should not be used to rebuild in places that repeatedly flood or are damaged due to Mother Nature — in New Orleans or elsewhere.”

Full circle.

What else, though, were they going to do? The country wanted to see New Orleanians pick themselves up and move on, and they have been. They’re doing the best they can, with no plan, no leadership, no money… and after well over a year, there’s no more time.

Were they supposed to wait in limbo forever? Maybe it’s time to unfurl those long-abandoned BNOB blueprints and make some decisions.