In new Big Easy plan, little clarity

Mayor's plan avoids the most controversial issue: Where can city residents safely rebuild?

Many New Orleans residents threw up their hands this week after hearing the mayor's urban-development plans, saying they will now look to the soon-to-be-released federal flood-plain maps in determining whether to rebuild.

While many of the mayor's recommendations are considered groundbreaking - including changes in the way city schools and government are run - it offered little clarity on the most crucial question facing residents: Where can they safely rebuild in the wake of hurricane Katrina?

By dodging that issue, the mayor has left many to wonder how much his plans will effect the transformation he has called for.

"I don't think people really walked away with any better idea of what to do," says Bryan Moore, an urban poverty expert whose own home was inundated with more than seven feet of water. "Here we are almost seven months later and we still have no definitive answer from the city."

Specifically, Mayor Nagin rejected a proposal from his own Bring New Orleans Back Commission that would not allow residents in several areas of the city to rebuild until they could prove the viability of their neighborhoods - meaning that 50 percent or more of its residents would return.

He also threw out a commission recommendation to condemn private property to create strategically placed parks within each neighborhood that would not only be a gathering place, but a protection from storm waters as well.

Instead, he said anyone could rebuild anywhere in the city but "at their own risk." In the neighborhoods most devastated, residents wishing to return would be warned that city services could be limited, although he offered little detail on what that meant. Nagin faces a primary election next month.

Taking out the most radical and controversial portions of the urban- development plan may please many residents who jeered such ideas in public meetings, but it also leaves them in limbo.

"I don't think the urban-development side has been addressed at all. There was just a big punt on that issue," says Janet Howard, president and CEO of the Bureau of Governmental Research in New Orleans.

She believes the mayor's plan will not be well received given the high level of frustration among residents - "and rightfully so, when you think about people putting their lives on hold and then not getting the direction they need to plan. It looks like it will be up to FEMA to put us out of our misery when it comes out with the maps."

Those maps, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will establish officially where New Orleans' flood plains lie given the new information from last year's flooding. These new maps, expected to be released soon, could make it prohibitively expensive for many residents to rebuild in the flood plain because of tougher building standards and the exorbitant cost of flood insurance.

Nagin did propose some dramatic changes in the way New Orleans is run: a new city-run school system led by a seven-member appointed board, the consolidation of the city's seven assessor's offices into one, the merging of the civil and criminal sheriffs' offices into one, and the consolidation of some police districts. Overseeing the city's elaborate redevelopment would be a new public agency, the Crescent City Redevelopment Corp.

Nagin's plan also includes physical improvements: the creation of a light-rail transit system connecting the airport to eastern New Orleans, the installation of temporary locks, pumps, and floodgates to relieve pressure on the levees, and restoration of coastal wetlands.

The plan won praise from some, including members of the redevelopment commission. "I think it's very important that we move forward in a unified way, but it's very difficult to do that in the midst of a campaign," says Una Anderson, a member of the school board and government effectiveness subcommittee. "It may be that some of the more radical ideas have to wait until after the campaign."

The city's primary election for 20 offices, including mayor and city council, is scheduled for April 22.

It's possible that Nagin's plan could be scrapped altogether if he does not win reelection. But such a plan is critical in garnering support from Congress, which has earmarked $29 billion in hurricane recovery and reconstruction for the Gulf Coast region, and the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA), the state agency charged with allocating the federal funds.

LRA member Sean Reilly says the state agency walks a fine line because, while not a planning commission, it will not sign off on unsafe plans. "We are going to be faithful stewards of this federal money."

He would not say whether he considers the mayor's urban-redevelopment plan unsafe, but says the most important thing he heard was that the neighborhood planning process was going to proceed.

Groups of residents from each community are being brought together to let city officials know what their neighborhoods need and, ultimately, whether they can survive.

Because they had trouble securing funding, the neighborhood groups got a slow start and will hopefully make their presentations to the city at the end of June.

"At the end of the day, the hard decisions should be made at the neighborhood level," says Mr. Reilly.

Big Easy's comeback plan

• No moratorium on building permits.

• Build a light-rail transit system connecting the airport to eastern New Orleans.

• Fortify the city in the short term by installing temporary locks, pumps, and floodgates and, in the long term, by restoring coastal wetlands.

• Create a new city-run school system led by a seven-member board appointed by the mayor and state officials.

• Consolidate the city's seven assessor's offices into one.

• Merge the civil and criminal sheriffs' offices into one.

• Consolidate some police districts.

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