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Weathering the storm

August 31, 2008

This weekend marks the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's devastating foray through the Gulf Coast, and though residents of New Orleans need no reminder of how vulnerable they are, Mother Nature is providing one anyway in the form of Hurricane Gustav. With some portions of the city's extensive levee system still waiting for upgrades, a direct hit by Gustav could bring flood waters back to neighborhoods that haven't recovered from the last go-round.

Should that happen, some critics will no doubt argue that investing tax dollars in New Orleans is throwing good money after bad. The federal government has put up $126 billion for repairs to the region, including nearly $60 billion for New Orleans and surrounding areas. It would have to spend billions more to restore the region's natural defenses against flooding. Why not move everyone out of harm's way and be done with it?

The answer is that the city plays a vital role in the nation's economy, as a hub for oil and gas production as well as a transit point for billions of dollars in goods. Its musicians, artists, chefs and architects make distinctive contributions to American culture. Most important, with the help of taxpayer dollars, New Orleans is reshaping itself slowly and fitfully into a more resilient and equitable city.

The rebuilding process has been guided by a master plan developed with input from 10,000 residents -- an astonishing degree of community participation. It steers redevelopment away from low elevations, clustering homes and businesses on high ground around new elementary and middle schools. These schools, which will be within a half-mile walk of homes in every neighborhood, will double as community centers and emergency shelters. In addition to reducing the flood risk, the clustering should reduce traffic, fuel consumption and pollution. The city is also planning new high schools in inspired locales, such as a NASA facility and an art museum.

The transformation of the city's schools is emblematic of the opportunity Katrina presented, but also of the scale of the task. About 350 infrastructure projects -- water and sewer lines, libraries, fire stations -- are just starting to go to contractors. Work has begun on only two of the dozens of school projects in the master plan. Blighted properties remain far too common, as do vacant lots. Meanwhile, the population remains well below pre-Katrina levels, as does the number of jobs. Yet unemployment is at historic lows, sales revenue is strong and the demand for housing is high. Important reforms have been accomplished or started in local government and the criminal justice system. There's more than a glimmer of hope in New Orleans, regardless of the clouds above.

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