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In New Orleans, fearing further loss

Many worry that the city will abandon its most damaged areas. The issue has taken on a racial dimension.

May 31, 2009|Richard Fausset

NEW ORLEANS — Nearly four years after Hurricane Katrina, it is the worry that will not fade, complicating the rebuilding of New Orleans and defining and reflecting this fragile city's racial divisions.

Call it the fear of a shrunken city.

Immediately after the storm, many residents, often African Americans, worried that low-lying flood-ravaged neighborhoods would be left unbuilt and turned into wetlands. Though that possibility has diminished, one fear won't dissipate: that those same areas may wither as a result of restrictive zoning changes or a waning commitment to rebuilding in certain parts of town.

It's the issue that tugs at New Orleans resident R.C. Brock, 68, more than the threat of another flood, even with the rapid approach of hurricane season. Brock is building a replacement home on a Lower 9th Ward block where water once covered the rooftops.

"We ask the question all the time: 'What are y'all doing for us in this neck of the woods?' " said Brock, whose new four-bedroom cottage is being erected in a battered landscape of empty lots and empty, flooded-out houses. "We can't get streetlights down here. We got holes in the street."

The sentiment is echoed across the city in neighborhoods that have yet to see the return of schools, parks and other government services. And though it is not felt solely by blacks, the issue has taken on a distinct racial dimension.

Since Katrina, whites have gained more political power here, helping elect the first white-majority City Council since 1985. Historically, many of the city's white elite have lived in high-ground neighborhoods that were not badly flooded. And a recent poll shows that a majority of white voters do not support rebuilding some vulnerable areas.

The result, among many African Americans, has been a "justifiable paranoia" that parts of the city will be left to languish, said Mtumishi St. Julien, director of the Finance Authority of New Orleans and a resident of the battered New Orleans East area.

That paranoia, he said, stems from "a historical legacy of privilege, which seems to be heavily based on race."

The fear has also complicated the fate of the city's proposed master plan, the much-anticipated document that will guide the city's post-storm redevelopment for the next two decades. In November, a citywide vote was required to give the plan the force of law.

The measure passed, but narrowly, after African Americans rallied in opposition. They argued that a draft of the plan had not been written yet -- and feared that it might be used to sneak in backdoor limits on development that could slowly and subtly kill off struggling black neighborhoods.

"There are issues in terms of whether the shrinking city will take place by a declared policy, or an informal policy of neglect," said Ron Nabonne, a local attorney and political consultant who helped lead opposition. "I have family who owns homes in these low-lying areas. It's a very emotional issue."

A draft of the master plan was released in March, which promised to address "the needs and aspirations of every resident in every corner of New Orleans." However, some black leaders are supporting state legislation, approved by a Senate committee this month, that would allow residents to vote again on whether a final draft should be implemented.

The bill was introduced by Sen. Ed Murray, a Democrat and African American who has announced his intention to run for mayor next year. He said the government never offered an equitable buyout program that would allow residents to move out of vulnerable neighborhoods, leaving many no choice but to move back.

"People were encouraged to come back, and people have done that," he said. "You can't now say that we're not going to have city services in those areas."

Maggie Merrill, the policy director for Mayor C. Ray Nagin, said the city has been committed to an equitable recovery plan. The problem, she said, is that the damage is so serious in those areas that it has taken longer to fix.

In the early stages of recovery, the idea of shrinking the city's footprint was most prominently espoused by the nonprofit Urban Land Institute, which was hired on to advise the citizen-led Bring New Orleans Back Commission appointed by Nagin. The proposal sparked outcries from displaced residents and their allies.

Dismantling neighborhoods, they argued, was a violation of human rights. Perhaps an attempt at ethnic cleansing. A former City Council president said the concept was tantamount to "not honoring the dead."

Under this pressure, Nagin and the city government allowed Katrina's exiles to return and more or less rebuild wherever they wished. Since then, New Orleans has grown to an estimated 336,000 residents -- about three-quarters of the pre-storm count.

Badly damaged areas such as New Orleans East and the Lower 9th Ward have only been partly repopulated, though in almost every neighborhood, at least a few cars once more sit in driveways, and a few house lights shine at night.

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