12 19 2014
  12:02 am  
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NEW ORLEANS—The proposal was controversial from the beginning: Focus resources on rebuilding New Orleans' less-damaged neighborhoods first and carefully study whether it makes sense to repopulate areas that were flooded the worst.

If all areas were treated the same — that is, if resources were spread thin across vast areas of devastation — planners at the Urban Land Institute said the city would be condemned to a slow, patchwork recovery. Isolated residents would live amid lingering swaths of blight.

But what the planners viewed as logic was dismissed as racism by some local leaders.

"Florida gets hit every year and we never hear the question raised whether or not we need to rebuild the coast of Florida," said Danatus King, president of the New Orleans chapter of the NAACP.

"California gets hit with wildfires and mudslides.

"What's the difference between those areas and the areas of New Orleans we're talking about? It's a majority Black population and poor population," he said.

The plan has not been adopted by government officials. Mayor Ray Nagin has sought to calm critics by stressing he is not committed to every recommendation.

"The facts are, we will be rebuilding every section of the city," he said.

In the wake of Katrina, Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission asked the institute — which worked with Oklahoma City after the 1995 bombing of its federal building, Los Angeles after riots in 1992 and New York after the Sept. 11 attacks — to help develop a rebuilding plan.

The institute, which did not charge the city its regular fee of about $110,000, has offered formal recommendations that cover issues such as land use, tax reform and public transportation.

Tony Salazar, who helped draft the plan, said the aim was to take an objective view of the city's environmental, housing and economic challenges with little regard to politics or race.

The planners presented Nagin's commission with an oft-derided color-coded map. Areas shaded in dark purple are those that would be left alone pending further study.

The plan suggests it may make sense to avoid rebuilding some of the most disaster-prone areas and replace them with open space that could be used for recreation and absorb future flooding with little consequence.

Politicians from "purple districts" have spoken defiantly of starting to rebuild right away.
City Councilor Cynthia Willard-Lewis' badly flooded, mostly Black district in eastern New Orleans includes several generations of middle-class residents who say they have the resources and the will to rebuild.

She says the plan would force the same people who once fought for equal access to education and public facilities to fight again for equal access to relief and restoration.

Many residents in her district say they would rebuild as soon as possible if they knew the government would quickly restore utilities and build up flood protection in their part of town, which for now remains abandoned and pitch dark by night.

"What we're hearing right now is that the east is not a priority as far as rebuilding, and our concern is, how many will come back, because the longer we wait, a lot of people will settle and rebuild in other places," said Rita Bennett, who lived 27 years with her husband, Thomas, in a home wiped out by flooding during Hurricane Katrina.

While purple-shaded areas cover predominantly Black neighborhoods, they include some affluent, predominantly White enclaves near Lake Pontchartrain. Leaders from those neighborhoods also have complained, asking why the city would want to delay repopulating a neighborhood that contributes heavily to the tax base.

But Jim Brown, a San Francisco-based consultant who helped develop the plan, said he hopes politics will not override what he called "the technical truth."

"We've never said those areas shouldn't be rebuilt; we've just raised the question that they need to be rebuilt properly," he said. "Don't hold up the whole city because you need to look at the most difficult areas a little longer."

Brown said families like the Bennetts of East New Orleans should not give up on their now-dormant part of town, but should expect it to be different. Some spots may have pollution problems while others will remain exposed to future flooding.

"There's been a catastrophe, and that makes these challenges extremely difficult," he said. "You can't wish it would go away. You have to work extremely hard to unfold a better city, but it will be different."

—The Associated Press

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