The New Orleans Muddle
Published: June 21, 2006
It has been almost 10 months since Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast, and there is still no redevelopment plan for New Orleans. Congress has passed the emergency relief bill, and President Bush has signed it into law. Billions of dollars are headed the city's way. Leaders in New Orleans and in the state capital of Baton Rouge will have only one chance to get it right. There are no more excuses for local officials, no more pointing toward Washington. It is time for southeastern Louisiana to rebuild itself.
Yet Adam Nossiter reported this week in The Times that it will be six months before a "master planning document" answers the questions foremost in the minds of residents, like which neighborhoods will return, where rebuilding will be encouraged and where returning residents will have to make do without city services. That is totally unacceptable.
In large swaths of the city, houses still sit empty, block after block. In many places, trash and flood-ruined automobiles have yet to be cleared away. These wastelands provide hideouts for criminals, the perfect breeding ground for the kind of violence that erupted over the weekend when five teenagers were shot and killed. If the city's open wounds are left to fester, it will begin to rot from the inside.
The city's police department is close to its prehurricane size, protecting a population that is less than half of what it was before the storm. Yet Mayor Ray Nagin has now felt compelled to request — and the governor has granted — a National Guard force to help keep the peace. This does not bolster our confidence that the city will be able to govern itself.
New Orleans has its own way of doing things and says it doesn't want to be told by outsiders in what size and shape it should be reborn. That is fair enough, but only if local officials are living up to their responsibilities. Right now, the people of the city are being held hostage to whims and foot-dragging, their lives on hold as they wait for their leaders to make decisions — decisions that should have been made months ago.
If there is one individual who needs to step up more than any other, it is Mayor Nagin. His city needs a leader more than a politician in this difficult time. Now that Mr. Nagin has been re-elected, it is time to start spending the political capital his victory earned him. His legacy will not rest on how many people like him, but on the effectiveness of the reconstruction and the safety and well-being of residents in the years to come.
New Orleans needs its mayor to speak difficult truths — like telling the residents of a vulnerable block that they will have to rebuild on safer ground. Right now, people don't know if or where to build their new walls. They deserve answers. They have waited long enough.