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January 13, 2006

The Rebuilding of New Orleans

SCO's Head Stone (hmm, perhaps I need to give him a better title), Rick Brady, has been putting in a lot of long weeks helping to manage the FEMA effort in New Orleans. (See here for a post from the "front" with pictures.) His initial thought was that he'd be there at least 3 months. Well, those 3 months are up and there's probably another 6 months or so left.

Some of the rebuilding effort is caught up in red tape. While the term "red tape" is typically a disparaging term, some of these obstacles have a good reason behind them. The upside is that rebuilding without knowing future flooding potential is being kept down. The downside is that folks have been waiting for some time to get their homes and businesses back.

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 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?

Some of this red tape actually makes the rebuilding more difficult, of course, especially when you get into a hurry-up-and-wait situation, followed by a give-me-an-answer-now situation. Making things worse is what may be a rather unrealistically high bar set by the City Council.
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.

It's the competing plans that seem to be the crux of the issue. Some folks, however, have given up on the whole thing.
That's cold comfort to Angela and Keith Jackson, who are surveying the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood for the first time since the storm.
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."

If a city is built on the coast, but no one's there to live in it, does it really exist? I don't really think that NO would be vacant when it comes back, but it's quite possible that it'll be a shadow of its former self by the time all the signatures are affixed to the right paperwork. Stay tuned.

Posted by Doug at January 13, 2006 02:41 PM

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Is he rebuilding it in Chocolate?

Posted by: bruce at January 17, 2006 09:11 AM