Louisiana Recovery Authority's Role in Rebuilding

The Louisiana Recovery Authority is the planning and coordinating body guiding the state's recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Farai Chideya talks with Walter Isaacson, the authority's vice chairman of the board of directors. Isaacson is also president and CEO of the Aspen Institute.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And now we turn to rebuilding, the key word, says Walter Isaacson. Isaacson is a former chairman of CNN and co-chair of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. The advisory group was created last month by Governor Kathleen Blanco. Walter Isaacson joins us from Washington, DC.

Welcome, Walter.

Mr. WALTER ISAACSON (Louisiana Recovery Authority): Thank you very much, Farai. It's good to talk to you again after all these years.

CHIDEYA: Yeah, it's good to talk to--absolutely. We go way back.

Now let me ask you, we just heard Lauren McKnight talk about trying to really support the city that she loves and lives in. Is your advisory commission, the Louisiana Recovery Authority, focused on tourism or focused on local residents?

Mr. ISAACSON: We're focused on rebuilding, and we've got certain priorities, the first of which is obviously to get the levees and coastal restoration back. The other is to get small business loans so that the businesses can come back. So when you're going that, you develop the tax base, and Lauren was exactly right. I mean, my--I grew up on Napoleon Avenue. That's where my family house is, and, you know, my family's working as hard as they possibly can to get back in the next three or four weeks.

CHIDEYA: So how is your family doing?

Mr. ISAACSON: Well, you know, they're displaced in Austin, but the one thing about New Orleans residents and southern Louisiana residents is that there's such a magic, such a pull of the place that they're going to do all they possibly can and work as hard as they can to get it back. I think there's a draw, of all the people who have ever lived in New Orleans, there's just an incredible magnetic draw, and so the city's going to come back.

CHIDEYA: Let me ask you about the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the hardest-hit areas of the city, of course, predominantly African-American, overwhelmingly African-American and poor. What can a commission like yours do for a place that is so thoroughly devastated, arguably tainted by toxic waste? What can you do about that?

Mr. ISAACSON: We try to bring everybody back to the city. I grew up in Broadmoor, as I said, around Napoleon Avenue, and it was a totally integrated neighborhood when I was growing up. It's a totally integrated neighborhood now. We should try, as Wynton Marsalis said as part of his work for rebuilding Louisiana and New Orleans, to create one of the only integrated cities in America, integrated by race, integrated by economic status. And so we got to make sure everybody feels the right to come home. I'm not sure we should rebuild or concentrate on rebuilding things that are purely segregated, whether it be Lake Vista or the Lower Ninth Ward. We got to just have neighborhoods of choice. That's the word Bill Jefferson, the congressman uses, neighborhoods of choice that people want to come back to. So I wouldn't focus on exactly which ones are going to be rebuilt first, because frankly, the Lower Ninth Ward can't get rebuilt first. It's just, you know, not ready to be rebuilt first, so we got to find other ways to lure all of our citizens back.

CHIDEYA: Let me ask you about something that's breaking in the news today, that 150,000 evacuees are going to end their stay in publicly funded hotels within the next month. They can choose to stay, but they'll have to pay. Is the city going to be prepared to accept back some of those people who no longer have free accommodations in other places?

Mr. ISAACSON: I think it's going to take a lot of hard work to get a lot of the housing back, but there's housing available all throughout the parts of high and dry New Orleans that we've been talking about, very integrated parts of New Orleans, from Uptown through Central City through Broadmoor through Black Pearl, all the way downtown to the French Quarter. So people can come back, but there's a lot of work to be done, and unfortunately, you know, we had a lot of promises from the federal government and from everybody else about how they were doing to rebuild New Orleans, but we really have to rebuild it ourselves. The federal dollars did not flow in. The appropriations bill did not pass. We're still hoping there'll be small-business loans that they'll find some breakthrough for. And of course, there is levee money so the levees are being rebuilt. But you know, we need to get the levees and coastal restoration back up to Category 5. So in other words, yeah, you can come back home, but it's going to take a lot of hard work. Nobody's giving out free housing, unfortunately.

CHIDEYA: Let me ask you about tourism. Of course tourism did not make New Orleans, but it financially heavily supported the city, and New Orleans has lost $1.5 million in tourist revenues every day since the levees broke. Is there going to be a way to get people back to pour money into New Orleans?

Mr. ISAACSON: Oh, yeah. I mean, I just came back from New Orleans. I was actually stunned. The French Quarter is great. I went to a couple of restaurants. The Uptown Magazine Street restaurants are all going. I was at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and they were having a great jazz party. We're going to have a limited Mardi Gras, but Jazz Fest will be back bigger than ever. But we have to realize that it's not just a tourism thing, it's a creativity thing. What New Orleans has produced for this nation and this world, like many great cities, is that blend of people that produce great creativity, whether it's great music, great cooking, great literature, great plays, that sort of thing. And if you keep the social fabric of the city right, people come down not just for tourist attractions, they come down because they like the music, they like the art, they like the food, they like the literature, and we export that to the rest of the world.

CHIDEYA: Certainly New Orleans has had a profound effect on the rest of the world.

Walter Isaacson, a former chairman of CNN, is co-chair of the Louisiana Recovery Authority.

Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. ISAACSON: Farai, it's always good to talk to you.

CHIDEYA: All right. Take care.

Some would point out he, of all people, would know. Clarence Thomas says Supreme Court confirmation hearings shouldn't be so tough. We'll find out what our Roundtable guests think about that, next.

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