New Orleans Plan Envisions Few Limits on Rebuilding
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Michele Norris.
This week, leaders in New Orleans will begin asking some tough questions about the future of the city. High on the list: What will the rebuilt city look like? When New Orleans rebounds from the effects of Hurricane Katrina, it's estimated that they will have just half of its former population; down from nearly a half a million to about 250,000 people. Urban planners are urging the city to make a controversial decision: To adopt a massive plan that would essentially abandon some of the most devastated neighborhoods. From New Orleans, NPR's Greg Allen reports.
GREG ALLEN reporting:
No neighborhood here is in worse shape than the Lower Ninth Ward. In the area north of Claiborne Avenue, block after block of homes are now piles of rubble. But head toward the river where they land is higher and the houses look much better.
Mr. BRYAN LEWIS(ph) (Crew Supervisor): This house has been--basically one that's been aired out, dried out, it's not really saturated. The back part of the house have some water in it. Most houses you go in, they still have maybe a foot of water or the carpeting or the furniture, the icebox has never been removed as of yet.
ALLEN: Bryan Lewis is supervising a crew working for ACORN, a community house group that's helping residents rebuild in the Lower Ninth Ward. The workers are tearing out moldy flooring and drywall in a one-story brick home that otherwise looks in good shape. The ACORN crews are working quickly. Lewis says they've already gutted hundreds of houses.
Mr. LEWIS: We're trying to get many families back into New Orleans before they get too comfortable anywhere else, because this is home and we are looking forward to coming back.
ALLEN: ACORN's chief national organizer, Wade Rathke, says there's another reason for the urgency. They want to show city leaders that residents of the Lower Ninth Ward are coming back.
Mr. WADE RATHKE (ACORN Chief National Organizer): If you see block by block that people are living back there, they've managed to fix up their houses, they're making progress, there is nobody who stands for election in this city who's going to say, `Bulldoze that neighborhood.'
ALLEN: Rathke and others in New Orleans are still angry about a plan released several weeks ago by the Urban Land Institute, a planning group brought in by the city as consultants. That plan recommended focusing rebuilding efforts on New Orleans' higher ground and the neighborhoods that were least damaged in Katrina's aftermath. It's a proposal that was immediately rejected in hard-hit neighborhoods and one that Rathke calls racist.
Mr. RATHKE: They're arguing for abandoning much of the population of much of the city.
ALLEN: Many elected officials in New Orleans also denounced the Urban Land Institute plan. New Orleans' City Council responded by adopting a resolution calling for the rebuilding of all of the city's neighborhoods. Tomorrow, the 17-member Bring Back New Orleans Commission is expected to come down somewhere in the middle. Commission members have said they favor a wait-and-see approach, a plan that would allow residents to rebuild anywhere for a certain time period, perhaps a year. At the end of that time, city planners would hold neighborhood meetings and assess the progress and then make tough decisions about where to focus rebuilding efforts.
It's a plan that while not yet formally announced has already drawn strong criticism from people like Janet Howard. Howard is the head of the Bureau of Governmental Research, a good government watchdog group. She calls it a stubborn refusal to look at the facts.
Ms. JANET HOWARD (Bureau of Governmental Research): This city has a footprint that was built for 627,000 people, and we're expected to be down to 250 to 275,000 in three years from now. If you let people go back and rebuild wherever they want, you just--it's an invitation to just terrible blight, because basically you'll have one person for every people who were in the area prior to that.
ALLEN: If the Bring Back New Orleans Commission does adopt that plan, it puts them at odds with another important governmental body, the Louisiana Recovery Authority. That group, appointed by Governor Kathleen Blanco, controls a pot of rebuilding money, about $3 billion, that it says can only be used to rebuild in neighborhoods that FEMA decides are safe. Sean Reilly, one of the authority members, said New Orleans leaders have to make some difficult decisions and they have to make them now, not wait for a year.
Mr. SEAN REILLY (Louisiana Recovery Authority): The people in New Orleans, the victims, are looking for guidance, they are looking for leadership, they are looking for elected officials that will stand up, paint a realistic future and make decisions based upon it. I know that's where I would be if I were a flood victim down in New Orleans. I would like to know: `What are my options? What can I do now?' You know, that will take some leadership.
ALLEN: While important, the master plan due to be released tomorrow by the Bring Back New Orleans Commission, will be far from the last word on how and where the city will be rebuilt. Another key to the future of New Orleans will be the new FEMA flood maps for the area, due out next month. They'll provide guidance on which neighborhoods can be safely rebuilt and are eagerly awaited by banks, developers and insurance companies, as well as activists and residents. Greg Allen, NPR News, New Orleans.
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