Big Easy: Who can rebuild?

A report issued by the city this week would make it tougher for some homeowners to start over.

Ever since hurricane Katrina washed much of New Orleans away, where to allow rebuilding has been Question No. 1. After months of emotionally exhaustive waiting and wondering, homeowners in the most devastated parts of the city now know the answer: They'll have to wait until late June to rebuild - and, even then, it's not certain their property will be safe from public seizure.

The controversial guidelines in the land-use report issued this week by the mayor's Bring New Orleans Back Commission are putting new strain on residents who bore the brunt of the storm. And it's raising again the sensitive question of whether the city's poor are getting short shrift in post-Katrina recovery efforts.

Congress, which has earmarked $29 billion in Gulf Coast rebuilding, is watching the debate closely. So, too, is the White House and the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) the agency that allocates federal funds.

"There are some very positive aspects of the plan," says Sean Reilly, a member of the LRA. He admits that denying building permits is controversial, but adds, "I would not feel good knowing that someone was applying for a building permit in order to try to beat the clock. We should not ignore safety."

The insurance factor

The clock he is referring to is the release of new Federal Emergency Management Agency flood plain maps, which are due out in the next few months. They will show which parts of the city face the most danger from flooding, thus making those areas very costly for flood insurance. The maps could complicate city planning, leaving market forces to determine where building occurs.

The land-use report, meanwhile, gives some residents just four months to prove that their neighborhoods are fit to be rebuilt. It's not yet clear just what standard of proof they must meet, but "neighborhood planning teams" will be created to help residents consider the future of their communities and let city officials know by June 20 what their neighborhoods need and, ultimately, whether they can survive. Some observers say the decision could come down to population: Will enough people return to sustain a neighborhood?

Making the process even more difficult, members of the New Orleans City Council have said they will not back any plan that does not allow immediate rebuilding everywhere in the city.

Mayor Ray Nagin can accept or reject any part of the subcommittee's recommendations, a process that could take weeks. He did not indicate whether he supported the plan when it was presented Wednesday, though he did say that people's property rights should be the ultimate guide in rebuilding the city.

"The reality is that this report is controversial," Nagin said. "It pushes the envelope, and it says some things to some people that they might misinterpret."

Other proposals include improving the wetlands and creating strategically placed parks within each neighborhood that would not only be a gathering place, but a protection from storm waters as well. It also calls for a transit system that would connect neighborhoods and cities between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

But the fear is that not all former neighborhoods are sustainable, and eminent domain will be used to seize some property. To that end, the land-use plan also calls for the creation of a new public agency, the Crescent City Redevelopment Corp., which would use that option as a last resort.

Residents have been stirred over the prospect of eminent domain. "A whole community has been uprooted and huge parts of it destroyed," says Janet Howard, president and CEO of the Bureau of Governmental Research in New Orleans. "Add on top of that the disproportionate impact on the African-American population. So there is a tremendous amount of emotion about the issue."

Officials insist that the plan for the rebirth of New Orleans will be directed by the city, but the majority of the resources to make it happen are coming from Washington, and lawmakers simply won't fund a plan that they say is likely to fail.

"It's not our job to dream for New Orleans. It's our job to give voice to that dream and help fund it," says Mr. Reilly, of the LRA. He says the state agency walks a fine line because, while not a planning commission, it will not sign off on any "unsafe, irrational plans. We are going to be faithful stewards of this federal money."

View from the Lower Ninth Ward

That's cold comfort to Angela and Keith Jackson, who are surveying the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood for the first time since the storm.

They stop at what used to be the home of Mr. Jackson's aunt, but it's not there anymore. Not just fallen into a pile of rubble like many others here, but nowhere to be seen. He recognizes a tall pecan tree, stares for a while, and then snaps a few photos on a disposable camera. Four feet of water flooded his own home in East New Orleans and he has been waiting to hear what the rebuilding plan will be before proceeding.

But he and his wife have finally run out of patience. They are planning to move to Dallas. "Why would you put money into your house if there's not enough people [returning to the neighborhood]?" he asks. "They just need to make a solid plan."

Stacy Teicher contributed to this report from New Orleans.

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