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Rebuild, but at your own risk, Nagin says
Recommendations from BNOB come with warnings and worries
Monday, March 20, 2006
By Frank Donze Staff writer

All along, Mayor Ray Nagin has been steadfast in his commitment to residents of New Orleans' flood-ravaged neighborhoods that they -- and not the government -- should have sole authority to decide whether to rebuild or relocate. Advertisement

Nagin isn't wavering on that as he prepares to unveil his Hurricane Katrina recovery blueprint tonight. But the final report from his Bring New Orleans Back Commission offers some weighty caveats for homeowners thinking about resettling in some of the hardest-hit areas, in particular the Lower 9th Ward and a pair of low-lying sections of eastern New Orleans.

In those so-called "delayed recovery areas," Nagin said, his administration will continue issuing building permits to all comers. But City Hall's pledge of cooperation comes with a strongly worded warning to people to rebuild there at their own risk, at least for the time being.

"I just want to be honest with people," Nagin said. "I want to let them know what the deal is."

In addition to pointing out the potential for flooding, Nagin said, his report will offer more cautionary food for thought.

For example, he said the report emphasizes the likelihood that properties in devastated parts of the city may not be eligible for federal grants that will be disbursed by the state and that homeowners could face sharp increases in insurance premiums down the road. That may sharply degrade the market value of the houses, making them hard if not impossible to sell later.

Also, Nagin said, he wants homeowners in areas that struggle to repopulate to understand that the cash-strapped city may not be able to provide even the limited level of municipal services -- from police patrols to a functioning sewer system to weekly garbage collection -- it now offers in thriving neighborhoods.

In the end, Nagin said, he views the recommendations included in the report as "general guidelines."

But he said the message he wants to convey is clear: "What I'm saying is: Look, here's the situations with the levees. Here's where I think it's safe, here's where I think it's still not safe. I don't recommend you going in areas I'm not comfortable with.

"Now, if you go in those areas, God bless you. We'll try to provide you with support as best we can. But understand we're concentrating city resources in the areas that are in the immediate recovery zone."

Hot issue

Crafted under the guidance of developer Joe Canizaro, the land-use component of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission's recovery strategy -- particularly its vision of a smaller footprint for New Orleans -- has sparked the most strident opposition to the overall plan. Many residents have reacted violently to the idea, some viewing it as a back-door way of keeping certain people, chiefly the poor, out of the city.

Even some commission members said they deplored the discussion of a reduced footprint. In fact, community activist Barbara Major, whom Nagin named co-chairwoman of the commission, said her fellow commissioners and their hired planners were well-intentioned but failed to grasp the economic implications of their recommendations for lower income African-American families.

"They had great ideas about land use, but I don't think they had any understanding of the historical significance of the 9th Ward," Major said, referring to largely African-American areas including Gentilly and eastern New Orleans. "Black people only moved there because all the good high ground had been taken."

While acrimonious debate has swirled most around questions of future land use, other elements of the plan also are likely to spark controversy in the months ahead.

For instance, Nagin said he will lend his support to the panel's recommendation for drastic changes in how the city's public school system is governed, most notably by replacing the elected School Board with an appointed body for a five-year period.

Other hot-button issues in the voluminous report include proposals to place separate ballot initiatives before voters that would consolidate the city's seven assessors, civil and criminal sheriffs, and clerks of civil and criminal court.

Months in the making

The report, scheduled for release today at 6 p.m. in the Sheraton Hotel's grand ballroom on Canal Street, is the product of more than five months of work by Nagin's commission of business, religious and civic leaders. The commission recruited hundreds of participants to help shape a detailed game plan for rebuilding neighborhoods, redesigning city government, restoring public services and resurrecting the region's wrecked economy.

The commission wrapped up its work in late January, and Nagin has spent the past six weeks tweaking the plan and gathering additional suggestions from commissioners and ordinary residents, as well as focus groups to test how the plan plays politically.

With a few exceptions, the document Nagin will endorse tracks the plan fashioned by the commission.

None of the recommendations has legal force. But the plan of action is considered critical to winning support from the White House for additional recovery money.

State and city leaders are counting on $10.4 billion from the Community Development Block Grant program to pay for rebuilding, rehabilitating and buying out tens of thousands of flood-ravaged homes.

Beyond that, Nagin said, his plan seeks another $2 billion to $2.5 billion for infrastructure needs, including a light rail system and expansion of streetcar lines. That request is about half of what the Bring New Orleans Back Commission originally sought.

Nagin has committed to seek City Council approval for the BNOB plan and to submit the land-use portion to the City Planning Commission.

Meetings lauded

As he has already said publicly, Nagin rejected the Bring New Orleans Back Commission's suggestion to impose a moratorium on building permits in the parts of the city that sustained the worst flooding. Proponents of the building ban said it was designed to give residents time to meet and craft plans to revive their neighborhoods, as well as to better understand the risks of rebuilding in some areas.

Nagin, however, said he fully supports the concept of neighborhood planning meetings, which have been launched without the commission's help in many parts of town. Some neighborhoods, however, have not gotten on track and are awaiting the city-sponsored process, which Nagin said he expects to begin soon.

"They're already figuring it out, they're not waiting," Nagin said of the areas that have already started, "which I think is wonderful."

Nagin said he will not advocate replacing areas that fail to recover fully with parks. Many residents expressed outrage in January after the commission released maps with green circles, symbols of prospective park sites, over their neighborhoods.

"I'm not going to be pushing for the green space that was outlined in the plan," Nagin said. "Green space will be developed based on where the neighborhoods determine they need green space."

Nagin said safety is the determining factor in the areas where he is discouraging redevelopment.

If a storm matching Katrina's force hits the region anytime soon, Nagin said, he fears that levees will be overtopped again, bringing floodwaters to the 9th Ward below the Industrial Canal and to parts of eastern New Orleans.

Nagin said he also is concerned about allowing rebuilding in areas where the infrastructure remains in shambles.

"Right now, people are saying to me they want travel trailers in Lower 9, and I say, 'I can't do that; you don't even have a working sewer system,' " he said. "When I say 'delayed recovery areas,' that's what I mean by that.

"I'm not recommending people go in those areas right now."

But in the end, Nagin said, he will not prohibit rebuilding anywhere unless there is evidence of environmental danger.

Maps on the way

The Bring New Orleans Back Commission report released in January recommended that residents of all of the city's 70-plus neighborhoods, whether they flooded or not, participate in a process to help sketch out a vision for their future.

The fundamental question facing each area is whether they will be able to attract "sufficient population" to warrant investment in city services and facilities, the report said. While the report did not specify a threshold that would satisfy that requirement, planners have suggested at least half the residents should return before rebuilding is permitted.

But Nagin said factors beyond any neighborhood's control may play a role in those decisions.

First, he said, are the soon-to-be-released advisory flood plain maps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The maps, used to calculate required home elevations as well as flood insurance rates, likely will have a defining effect on homeowners' decisions. If the new maps require homes to be built much higher in certain areas, for instance, the cost to residents could be prohibitive, discouraging resettlement.

Equally important, Nagin said, are the guidelines for awarding federal grants to help homeowners rebuild or elevate their houses. The guidelines are being prepared by the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the state agency that will distribute the federal money.

While the state plan could well result in thousands of New Orleans homes being raised to safer heights, questions linger about what will happen to the tens of thousands of homes that may wind up ineligible for elevation grants. Many of the city's hardest-hit neighborhoods are filled with slab-on-grade homes built below base flood elevation that are unlikely to qualify.

With so many variables in play, Nagin said, he is reluctant to stipulate what percentage of a neighborhood needs to return.

"I think the viability question should deal with whether there are enough people to support essential city services, retail operations, schools and that kind of stuff," he said. "It could be 50 percent for one neighborhood and not for another."

The Bring New Orleans Back Commission had advocated an ambitious timeline that called for a May 20 deadline for neighborhoods to submit their rebuilding plans.

Trouble finding money to pay for the process has led to delays, and Nagin said he expects that schedule to be pushed back at least 30 days.

Education overhaul

When it comes to other aspects of the recovery plan, Nagin said, he intends to push the envelope on several fronts, particularly in public education.

Besides seeking legislative approval to replace the Orleans Parish School Board with an appointed body for five years after board members' terms expire in December 2008, Nagin's plan calls for the state to absorb the school system's debt service for five years and add as much as $2,000 in assistance for every child via the Minimum Foundation Program.

"We want to set up a school system that targets most if not all of the money into the classrooms and also provides pupil-teacher ratios at unprecedented levels," he said.

"If we're going to do this, we might as well do it right."

Nagin also wants to give voters an opportunity to redesign local government.

Besides asking voters to consider consolidation of the city's assessors, sheriffs and clerks, the plan recommends a City Charter amendment that would take away the council's power to overrule decisions of the City Planning Commission and other agencies that regulate zoning.

Nagin said he decided after extensive review not to back the commission's recommendation to merge sections of the city's multitiered court system.

Nagin said local judges "have made a pretty compelling argument that there is no clear cost savings" to the proposal. Instead, he favors letting the state Supreme Court's judicial council study the matter further.

The report will recommend placing all the initiatives on the November ballot along with local congressional races.

Nagin said he is optimistic that the package of reforms will pass.

"I think the voters are in the mood for radical change," he said.

In other alterations to the committee's recommendations, Nagin has halved a $600 million request for federal aid to restore jobs, provide stipends, develop housing and pay for new capital projects and uninsured losses in the city's arts community.

Instead, Nagin is proposing that the city seek federal aid in three $100 million blocks. Before the city seeks its second $100 million in aid, it would have to be matched by $100 million raised locally.

Nagin also scaled back the city's request for financing to build a light rail system from the more than $3 billion recommended by the commission to $1 billion, a number he said the federal government appears comfortable with.

The mayor supports the commission's recommendation to set up an independent oversight panel to monitor spending of federal recovery money and the creation of an agency to act as a repository for properties that are bought out with the funds. The proposed agency also would package the land and seek proposals from developers.

The report also supports the closure of the controversial Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, which is blamed for much of the flooding in eastern New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish. The commission's land-use subcommittee recommended it be closed, while the infrastructure committee had sought to keep it open with modifications.

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Frank Donze can be reached at or (504) 826-3328.