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Archive for Tuesday, August 29, 2006

New Orleans’ future remains uncertain

August 29, 2006

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— The city was barely dry when Terrie Guerin made the decision to rebuild her home, wrecked by Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters.

It was a decision she made with her heart: "I wanted to keep a part of what I had before. I was trying to hold on to family, memories of family."

And she was inspired by what her native city might become if given a chance to start anew.

But "now, well ..." Guerin's voice trails off.

A long year has passed since Katrina struck, and despite multiple planning efforts, it remains unclear what will become of this woeful city.

Will the Big Easy become what the optimists hope: a well-functioning metropolis that retains its beloved 300-year history of wrought iron balconies and quirky traditions?

Or will it suffer the fate Guerin fears, one of neglect and unfulfilled promises? Will "the city that care forgot" decompose into a gutted, boarded-up eyesore while public officials and residents bicker over vision and money?

The stakes, for residents and anyone who loves this unique place, couldn't be higher.

"If we don't pull it off, we will have lost one of the most important opportunities an American city has ever had," says Norman Francis, president of Xavier University and the man tapped to lead the state board overseeing the distribution of $11.9 billion in federal aid.

Opportunities squandered?

A year after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, windows on buildings are still patched and the sign on the front of City Hall has not been repaired. Many residents fear that the slow pace of planning and rebuilding threaten the city's recovery.

A year after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, windows on buildings are still patched and the sign on the front of City Hall has not been repaired. Many residents fear that the slow pace of planning and rebuilding threaten the city's recovery.

No one expected the recovery to go quickly. Eighty percent of the city was swamped when the levees broke after Katrina blew ashore on Aug. 29, 2005. Virtually all 465,000 residents of the city and roughly 1 million more in surrounding areas were forced to flee; much of the housing was heavily damaged or destroyed.

Still, civic leaders and others were optimistic once the water receded. The city could be reinvented - less vulnerable to devastating flooding and without the violent crime and poor schools that had plagued New Orleans, they said.

But in the year since the storm, planning has become a stutter-step process, with no master plan yet complete. The failure has held up federal infrastructure aid, and for residents like Guerin, it has contributed to a sense of idleness and a creeping fear that a great opportunity is being squandered.

New Orleans "could outdo Atlanta. It could bypass New York, but it will only be on paper," says Guerin, 46, who moved back into her home in heavily damaged eastern New Orleans just days before today's one-year anniversary. "A lot of plans will come out of this. They'll come up with some great infrastructure, but it will never materialize."

The reminders of how far the city still has to go are everywhere. New Orleans has only about half its pre-Katrina population. White trailers line streets in many of the most heavily damaged neighborhoods, where the sidewalks are still littered with debris and abandoned homes are overgrown with weeds. Only half the number of pre-Katrina customers are getting electricity. Six of nine New Orleans hospitals remain shuttered. Only 54 of 128 public schools are opening this fall.

A huge plan put together by Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission was scuttled after residents decried proposals for a four-month building moratorium and green spaces in low-lying areas.

The City Council started more planning by hiring a consultant to work with the most heavily flooded neighborhoods. But when the work is complete, it will represent only the plans of separate communities, not the city as a whole.

Yet another planning process, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Greater New Orleans Foundation, began just last month. GNO Foundation President Ben Johnson says the new plan will incorporate some of the neighborhood plans.

The new proposal will not be done until December, Johnson says. It will probably take months longer to be adopted by the City Council.

"We're falling behind," says Reed Kroloff, dean of architecture at Tulane University and one of the experts tapped by Nagin to work on the first plan. "The real problem here is there is a lack of leadership."

Nagin says he has done his part. He complains that the city, which has received $117 million in federal infrastructure assistance, is waiting for billions more in aid that was promised. "I'm quite frankly a little tired of planning," he says.

Others argue that delays are to be expected.

"Given the scale and scope of this disaster, this is not something you rush into," Johnson says. "Do we wish it was done? Absolutely. But we're working as hard as we can to move ahead."

Keeping its identity

Over the years, benign neglect has become part of the city's Old World charm. Plaster peeling from brick walls, the musky smell of old wood, the outdated furnishings at mom-and-pop restaurants help cast New Orleans' spell.

Some neighborhood leaders fear all this talk of master planning will snuff out the city's distinctive neighborhoods.

"People are fearful we're going to be turned into something we're not. We're such a unique city," says Virginia Saussy Bairnsfather, a board member of the neighborhood association in Broadmoor, one of the sections proposed for green space in the original Nagin plan. Besides, she says, "We do have sort of a planless plan to just rebuild."

Proponents of master planning say that won't do.

"The citizens of New Orleans need to know what the plans are, so the citizens can make their plans on whether they should rebuild, repair or sell their homes," says Francis, chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, which oversees federal aid given to Louisiana.

Kroloff says the city should offer incentives to people to trade flooded-out homes for ones in higher neighborhoods.

"Any rational, sane person would have to agree we should encourage people to live in the highest, driest places," he says. "I mean, what madman would say, 'Wahoo, here we go into the swamps!'?"

If New Orleans fails to get a workable plan together, investors will be hesitant to put money into the city, planners say.

"A lot of people are holding their money back pending an affirmation that the city really has a broader idea of where it's going in the future. What kind of a city is it going to be?" says Ken Topping, a California planning consultant hired to help.

Francis says it is also important for the city and the state to show Congress that it intends to spend the federal aid on well-devised plans. Otherwise, the risk is "the rest of the country turns its back on New Orleans."

Topping says the real danger is that New Orleans will lose faith its ability to rebuild.

"The worst thing I think could happen is that belief is lost," he says. "And as a result, a long-term decay process sets in so that New Orleans becomes a shadow of itself, the urban equivalent of a wasteland."

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