Tough Choices Ahead as New Orleans Rebuilds

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Will some New Orleans neighborhoods hit hard by Hurricane Katrina fade away? Will the school system change? R. King Milling, president of Whitney Bank tells Steve Inskeep New Orleans faces difficult options as it rebuilds.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

In recent weeks, we've been listening as Gulf Coast residents decide on their futures.

Unidentified Woman #1: We don't know if we're going stay. We're sort of up in the air as to whether we actually want to sit around and wait for it to be rebuilt.

Unidentified Man #1: They want to bulldoze down my house. They tell me I got to bulldoze my house down. If they do that, do we start over again?

Unidentified Woman #2: I'm not going to abandon the city. I'm not going to let the city purge me out.

Unidentified Man #2: You know, right now the big problem is we don't know what they're gonna do yet. Nobody tells you nothing. You know?

Unidentified Woman #3: You know, I'm not leaving my home. This is home. Only way I won't be here is I'm forced out of here.

INSKEEP: Many people don't know if they'll have a voice in what happens next. Here's one man who will: R. King Milling is president of a New Orleans bank. He's also involved in saving disappearing wetlands that protect the city from hurricanes. And he's part of New Orleans' powerful elite. As Milling talks, you hear all of his roles: the civic leader, the environmentalist, and the hard-nosed banker, all preparing for brutal choices.

Mr. R. KING MILLING: Well, I think just in terms of how you redevelop the city, how you re-zone it. They estimate that up to 50,000 homes may have to be demolished in this city. That just leaves tremendous space available. Who's gonna own it? Are we going have Fannie Mae as the largest single landowner in New Orleans? The answer to that is probably yes.

INSKEEP: You mean the federal mortgage insurer ...(unintelligible)?

Mr. MILLING: That is correct. Because a lot of people are not going to rebuild. So you're gonna have a lot of foreclosures and a whole lot of properties out there. Now what is the design for those properties?

INSKEEP: Will certain neighborhoods not be rebuilt?

Mr. MILLING: I don't know. That's an issue of both emotion and practicality. They're going to be areas that can not be protected. This city is up against some very difficult issues and hard decisions are going to have to be made.

INSKEEP: What do people in the business community want to happen with the school system right now?

Mr. MILLING: Well, I think that it is a well-recognized fact that in New Orleans the school system has failed its citizens. There's much discussion at this juncture concerning the creation of a series of charter schools which I think probably makes sense. Our children can, in fact, be educated, and given an opportunity.

INSKEEP: There's already been an effort within the Board of Education to set up these charter schools, which would still technically be public schools but they'd be freed from the control of the Board of Education (unintelligible).

Mr. MILLING: That is correct.

INSKEEP: Already there's been a lawsuit, and, in fact, resistance from people, saying, `Hold on a minute. You're dismantling the public school system.'

Mr. MILLING: Well, that's right. And that's acceptable. I--it won't be the last lawsuit that will be filed in connection with activity that's going to have to be done.

INSKEEP: Has the New Orleans area been protected in ways that make sense?

Mr. MILLING: To the extent hurricanes are, in fact, part of our life, the answer to that probably would be no. You know, we have lost 2,000 square miles of what we call America's wetlands and the primary rationale for that loss goes to the fact that we built this unbelievable levee system. And the ecosystem that has protected New Orleans and those of us who've lived in south Louisiana for years has been depleted and has disappeared because the river no longer feeds it with fresh water and nutrients and sediment. That's the primary cause of this issue.

INSKEEP: Even before this storm, you had spent several years trying to get Louisiana and the federal government to pay attention to the problem of the erosion of the wetlands...

Mr. MILLING: That is correct.

INSKEEP: ...of this delta, and didn't have much success.

Mr. MILLING: Well, I think there was incremental success. In Washington, there have been two or three bills presented and more is on the way.

INSKEEP: There's also been, though, in the last few weeks, a bit of shock at the numbers, in the billions, that people have been throwing around for restoration of wetlands. Do you think the political climate has permanently changed when it comes to this issue?

Mr. MILLING: I don't know. There are--and shall always be--challenges faced by areas of this country that those areas are not going to be able to financially support, and the country's got to make a hard decision as to whether or not there is value in retaining the areas.

INSKEEP: Mr. Milling, thanks very much for speaking with us.

Mr. MILLING: Fine.

INSKEEP: R. King Milling is president of the Whitney Bank and one of the people that may influence the future of his city, New Orleans.

Here's an update on a story we're following this morning. Karl Rove, the president's top political adviser, remains under investigation in the CIA leak case. Rove's lawyer said today that special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is continuing to examine whether government officials committed crimes in connection with the leak of the name of a covert CIA operative. The investigation had been expected to end today. Another target of the investigation is Lewis Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. And the prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, has scheduled a news conference for 2:00 Eastern time.

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