A responsible plan
Sunday, January 15, 2006
Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans' landscape in ways that would have been unimaginable to most of us before the storm washed over the city.
With so many houses in ruins and so many residents scattered across the country, it is unrealistic to expect the city to be rebuilt exactly as it was. Not every resident will come back. Not every home can be saved. That doesn't have to mean that New Orleans becomes a lesser version of itself. The city can be rebuilt with the same charm. It can retain the qualities that are so important to its residents: devotion to neighborhood, connection to history, reverence for tradition.
But that will not happen spontaneously. Without a practical, clear-eyed plan, some homeowners could find themselves alone amid blocks of rubble and blight.
The land-use committee of Mayor Ray Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back commission has outlined a responsible plan for rebuilding based on a four-month planning and evaluation process for damaged neighborhoods. Critics were quick to seize on a proposed moratorium on building permits in those areas and the possibility of forced buyouts, but residents shouldn't let controversial issues turn them off to the plan.
After the stormy reaction last week, the moratorium may be scrapped. If so, residents in badly damaged areas should be warned that they could be sinking money into a house in a neighborhood that may not make it. As for buyouts, homeowners who lack the resources or desire to rebuild or those who find themselves alone in a blighted neighborhood may well be eager to sell their property to a government-backed entity.
Clearly, no plan is going to please everyone. Some people complained last week that four months is too much time to spend planning, and others complained that it is too little.
The land-use committee's notion of getting residents' input on their neighborhoods is a fine one, though. The city would be divided into planning districts, and residents would be encouraged to come up with a blueprint for their area.
The planning period also is supposed to be a time for a realistic evaluation of which areas will be able to bounce back. The death of neighborhoods is an uncomfortable idea for many people, and understandably so, but it may be unavoidable in the aftermath of Katrina.
The land-use committee had talked earlier about waiting three years to figure out which neighborhoods are viable, but that would have left homeowners in limbo. Four months, by contrast, should be long enough for citizens to determine whether they want to return to their neighborhoods and what they want their neighborhoods to include. It also should be long enough for Congress to pass a bill by U.S. Rep. Richard Baker that would provide for voluntary buyouts of flooded-out homes.
The Baker plan is crucial. It would release homeowners from their mortgages and give them at least 60 percent of the equity in their homes. The land-use committee hopes to find a way to up that percentage to 100 percent to make residents whole.
The buyout plans differ in a significant way, however. Rep. Baker's legislation calls for voluntary buyouts, while the land-use committee proposal includes the use of eminent domain to expropriate property, if the situation warrants doing so.
Even with the promise of a buyout, the idea of requiring people to move will be controversial. As harsh as it seems, though, it may be necessary. The city will not be able to afford to provide services to sparsely populated neighborhoods. Nor is it wise to allow hundreds of damaged houses to sit and rot.
The land-use committee's plan is not perfect. Some obvious questions remain: How can the city measure a neighborhood's interest in rebuilding? Can New Orleanians simply call in from Dallas to indicate their wishes, or should homeowners have to take a more significant step to prove their willingness to return?
Those sorts of details will be vital to whether the plan works. Just as crucial is political leadership. Mayor Nagin and other elected leaders need to be willing to make tough decisions now and once the four-month period is up.
So far, members of the City Council seem to be assuming that all residents of flooded-out neighborhoods want to return to their homes and rebuild no matter what. But people whose homes took on water up to the gutters may have different ideas.
can't control for every variable, and they can't wave a
magic wand and return New Orleans to its pre-Katrina
state. What they can do is embrace a responsible plan
for redeveloping a great city.