After a year and a half of recovery, New Orleans still doesn't have a comprehensive plan for rebuilding.
The Bring New Orleans Back Commission was the first group to tackle the question. Then came a series of neighborhood and district planning meetings. Next, there were a series of Community Congresses — multimedia gatherings that connected planners and residents with New Orleanians living in Atlanta, Houston and Dallas.
Now the latest deliberative process, the Unified New Orleans Plan, is nearing completion. It is 600 pages. Thousands of people have taken time to attend meetings and provide input for the report. But if you're a New Orleans resident looking for answers, Janet Howard says, forget it.
"If you're a homeowner and you look at this plan, you're not going to have a clue. Unless you know you're on the sliver by the river, and you're high and dry, that's it," she said. "But if you're in any kind of area that's damaged... it's a very ambiguous situation for you. You do not have a roadmap."
Howard's the president of the Bureau of Governmental Research, a local public policy group that's long worked to strengthen planning in New Orleans. The group released a scathing review of the citywide plan, criticizing it as a feel-good document that once again avoids making tough decisions.
As an example, she cites a prioritized list of 91 projects compiled from meetings with residents. At the top: a billion-dollar medical center and new low income housing. She said projects that are most crucial to a city comeback are languishing midway down the list: roads, schools, sewers and water pipes.
"The government's main responsibility is to provide infrastructure," she said. "Why is that down there on ... the same level as repairing Fort Pike?"
Fort Pike is a 19th-century brick and mortar structure 23 miles east of New Orleans.
At a hearing Wednesday night on the citywide plan, project manager Troy Henry, was called on to answer Howard's charges that it still did not give residents the guidance they need to decide whether they should rebuild. Henry said he believes the residents of every neighborhood should have the right to return and rebuild their homes, no matter where they're located.
"We think that every neighborhood needs to be preserved, but also at the same point in time, put out of harm's way," he said. He said the city came up with innovative approaches, providing incentives for residents to move into clusters of rebuilt houses, and like elevating houses.
It was a standing-room-only audience at New Orleans' City Hall. And many residents had other complaints about the citywide plan.
One woman wanted to know why the list of rebuilding priorities omitted any mention of strengthening the levees. It was an oversight Henry assured her that would be fixed in the next draft.
Resident John Pecoul voiced a concern others echoed, that the new citywide plan seemed to draw little from the district plans he and many others spent months producing. Despite those misgivings, Pecoul says the city has too much invested in this process to turn back now.
"I do not believe we should say, 'Stop this, go back over it again,' as the Bureau of Governmental Research has proposed," he said. "In doing that, you would slap the faces of the people not only here, but in the workshops around the country that took place to get the input and the voices of people who are not here to be heard."
If there are to be tough decisions made in New Orleans' planning process, they still lie some months in the future. The City's planning commission says it hopes to begin work on the plan in April. After that, it goes to the mayor and City Council — which means there will be many more weeks of hearings and study before residents begin to get answers on where they can safely rebuild.