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A not-so-Big Easy

January 16, 2006

A COMPREHENSIVE PLAN for rebuilding New Orleans was released last week by a city advisory panel called the Bring New Orleans Back Commission. Despite the group's name, its ambitious and tough-minded proposal seems geared less toward bringing back the sprawling Crescent City of yore than replacing it with a more compact, livable and durable version.

The recommendations were so bold that it took little time for Mayor C. Ray Nagin to start distancing himself from them, even though he formed the commission. For starters, the commission urged the city to stop issuing building permits for vast stretches of recently flooded ground until the communities involved agree on plans for the future and basic city services are restored. After all, why let people rebuild gutted homes in a neighborhood that could be turned into a park in a year? But Nagin said he wasn't likely to impose a moratorium, and city offices were crowded with homeowners last week trying to get permits before the mayor could change his mind.

It is understandable that longtime residents would want to return to their homes. The problem for many is that there is nothing to return to. And even if their homes are salvageable, they could be among the few in their neighborhood willing to live on flood-prone land again.

That is why Nagin's commission called for about half of the city not to be rebuilt unless a sufficient number of residents in those communities pledged to return. If a community was left with too few people to warrant restoring utilities, schools and other public investments, property owners would be bought out for the pre-Katrina market value -- a step that would cost an estimated $12 billion in federal block grant funds and up to $30 billion in recoupable federal loans. The residents and businesses wanting to return would be moved into more concentrated developments on higher ground, with large portions of the low-lying areas turned into parks. The shift, when combined with the construction of a better transit system, would make the city more resilient during major storms and easier to evacuate.

The areas targeted by the commission included the low-lying northern and eastern portions of the city, much of which was occupied by African Americans and lower-income families. The idea of shrinking New Orleans and resettling residents in other neighborhoods is unpopular with many of these residents, as well as with some homeowners in predominantly white enclaves. But other factors make some shrinkage inevitable; for example, residents in many of these areas could face expensive requirements to elevate their houses in order to rebuild. Besides, it is cruel to steer people back into the neighborhoods most vulnerable to flooding when the federal government will not commit to building a levee system capable of protecting against a storm stronger than Katrina.

One problem in the commission's proposal is that residents are supposed to be active participants in a four-month planning process that would seal the fate of their communities, yet many have no place to stay in New Orleans. It also left open the question of how many residents had to return in each area to hold off condemnation, or how to resolve disputes between factions within a community. Nevertheless, the proposal lays out a vision of a better New Orleans than the one swamped by Katrina, and it would put much of the city's fate in the hands of local residents. Rather than backing away, Nagin needs to start rallying the city behind the commission's vision and persuading Washington to help pay for it.

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