Envisioning Open Spaces for New Orleans

Michael Olivier, Louisiana's Secretary of Economic Development, talks about what kind of help state officials are looking for from the federal government as they rebuild New Orleans. Olivier expects the city to rebuild with greater "green areas," public-use open spaces that could also hold water after heavy flooding.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The New Orleans flood wiped out parts of that city. Now one official wants to seize a chance to start again.

Mr. MICHAEL OLIVIER (Secretary, Economic Development, Louisiana): This is an opportunity to do something that we, in Louisiana, have dreamed about doing all along.

INSKEEP: Michael Olivier is secretary of economic development for Louisiana. That makes him influential in reshaping what had been his state's biggest city, and he's one of the people who will share their rebuilding plans this week on MORNING EDITION. Olivier's hoping to create a different city than the one that evolved in Louisiana's swamps over the last 287 years.

Mr. OLIVIER: You're going to see the same thing that you've seen before: the French Quarter, the uptown area, the streetcars. But the rest of New Orleans that sometimes tourists don't see is what's going to change in a huge, huge way. We're going to change it into a bold new city. And I know those are cliche terms, but we've dreamed about different projects along the river, projects that would provide green space.

INSKEEP: You want to grab this opportunity to build a better city, but, of course, your first priority, I assume, will be making sure that it doesn't flood again or that it's more survivable in a flood.

Mr. OLIVIER: Well, absolutely. What we want to do is to design it. If we're going to have a flood, and we will again, then how do we control that? How do we build for that? Better building standards. Better planning. Don't depend on urban sprawl to determine where people live and where businesses locate but to actually plan that.

INSKEEP: Are you going to raise the ground level?

Mr. OLIVIER: No, we won't raise the ground level. What we will be doing is looking for the strengthening of the levee system and also a better pumping system. Additionally, what you want to do is to provide the green spaces where in the event of flooding the floodwaters will be directed to those green spaces, that in between--and it may be 20 years in between or whatever--these would be parks and green space areas that would be enjoyed.

INSKEEP: Are you talking about a smaller city then in terms of geographic area?

Mr. OLIVIER: In terms of geographic area, a smaller city, yes, because we would have more green space. Absolutely.

INSKEEP: Should it still have half a million people in it?

Mr. OLIVIER: I think that we will for a time have a smaller population, but I think that population growth will continue because people again are going to be attracted by the new, bold city.

INSKEEP: Now you had a great concentration of poor people in New Orleans before this storm.

Mr. OLIVIER: Yes.

INSKEEP: I know the message has been sent repeatedly, people are welcome back in New Orleans, even the poor are welcomed back in New Orleans, but I want to ask: Do you want all poor people to relocate to New Orleans or might it be a good thing in your view if poverty is spread out a little bit?

Mr. OLIVIER: Governor Blanco wants our people back and we want them to have an opportunity for quality jobs, and we're going to put a great deal of time and effort and money into training because we're going to need a significant work force to come back to build back, to build anew.

INSKEEP: One of the political problems you're likely to run into when you say, `We want to restructure the geography of this city'--some parts of the city may be off-limits, become parks and flood plains. Some people will be told, `You can't come back to your property anymore. You can't be protected by the levee system anymore. You have to move somewhere else.'

Mr. OLIVIER: Well, just as any area, Americans are very fierce in their protection of personal property rights, and that's an issue we'll have to contend with. We'll just have to have a meeting of the minds and everyone will have to just accept that we have to do it differently so that we can survive better.

INSKEEP: This is an utterly devastating flood, of course, but it is not the first major flood to strike Louisiana or even New Orleans for that matter. People have warned for years about this kind of problem. Solutions have been attempted. Millions, even billions, of dollars have been spent, and still you had the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. What gives you confidence, if anything, that the state and the country will get it right this time?

Mr. OLIVIER: Well, because we want to. We have to. New Orleans and Louisiana is very important to the energy equation in the United States. We have over 40,000 miles of pipeline offshore and onshore in the coastline of Louisiana. The refinery capacity of Louisiana is critical to the national economy. With grain shipments coming down the Mississippi River, the Mississippi River itself, all of those things and more make Louisiana very important to the national economy.

INSKEEP: Michael Olivier is the secretary of economic development for the state of Louisiana.

Mr. Secretary, thanks very much.

Mr. OLIVIER: Thank you very much for having me.

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