Nagin finally speaks on recovery progress
By Frank Donze and Michelle Krupa Staff writers
Armed with facts, forecasts and a cadre of upbeat advisers, Mayor Ray Nagin stared down the naysayers Wednesday and offered an abundance of evidence to support his claim that 11 months after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is making steady, definitive progress toward recovery.
Addressing the news media at roughly the midpoint of the first 100 days of his second four-year term, Nagin said he has been hard at work fulfilling his election night promise of two months ago to jump-start the rebuilding effort.
Though that task is far from complete, with the most devastated areas showing few signs of life and even the most resilient neighborhoods still dogged by crime, debris and shuttered stores, Nagin said his wounded city is becoming safer, cleaner and economically healthier by the day.
“We are on track. We’re moving forward,” he said during an afternoon news conference at which he was flanked by staff and community leaders he drafted to help fashion a strategy for getting the city back on its feet.
“A lot of the decisions that we made early right after Katrina seem to be paying off. No one would have guessed that we would be sitting here today with 250,000 of our residents back in the city of New Orleans living, breathing and helping us to move forward,” the mayor said. Nagin, who has been criticized for what many say are overly optimistic estimates of how quickly the city’s post-storm population will grow, stuck to his guns, predicting that by year’s end nearly 300,000 people will be back home — a milestone he said would be the “tipping point” for a renaissance.
“We as New Orleanians are resilient people,” he said. “We are proving it. We are creative people. We will not take no for an answer. And I don’t care what anybody says, on the very limited resources that we have, we’re going to figure out a way to bring this city back bigger, better and stronger.”
During a two-hour presentation that touched on topics ranging from cleanliness to infrastructure repairs to the future of the city’s troubled electric utility, Nagin was expansive. His candid and detailed remarks were a stark contrast to his relative silence since the May 20 runoff.
Sharing the mayor’s stage was attorney Rob Couhig, a mayoral contender who was one of Nagin’s most caustic critics before getting knocked out of the race in the April primary. Couhig, who has taken on a prominent role in the recovery initiative since backing Nagin in the runoff, offered an explanation Wednesday for the dearth of information coming out of City Hall.
“I don’t want to over commit,” he said. “One of the things we’ve tried not to do in this 100 days is not get out and tell you, ‘We’re going to do these things,’ ... but rather wait 50 days and say, ‘Here’s what we’ve done.’¤”
While on the surface, it may seem like not much is happening, Nagin said he and his team have been paddling feverishly and clear results are on the horizon.
For example, he said his administration has awarded the first of several street repair projects and work crews have restored 70 percent of the city’s traffic signals, which were wiped out by Katrina’s floodwaters.
And on Friday, the mayor said he plans to unveil a long-term plan to fix a crippled water distribution system that has caused widespread water pressure problems.
Nagin said in recent weeks there has been considerable progress in the painstaking effort to rid the city’s streets of flooded-out vehicles and storm refuse.
The improved appearance is the result of several factors, Nagin said, including a recent agreement by the Army Corps of Engineers to remove commercial as well as residential construction debris, a city sanitation swat team that is targeting repopulated neighborhoods and a positive response by residents to the administration’s request to take debris directly to sanitation transfer stations.
Sanitation Director Veronica White said her agency plans to sponsor citywide cleanups for each weekend in August and soon will place 500 new trash cans on downtown sidewalks. By Jan. 1, White said, the city hopes to begin distributing residential garbage receptacles that can be emptied by mechanized trucks and to open recycling drop-off sites.
As for his pledge to reorganize his executive staff, Nagin said two new hires will be announced next week, followed shortly thereafter by the appointment of an administrator to oversee all recovery issues.
Lawyer Virginia Boulet, another former mayoral contender tabbed by Nagin as an adviser, said she is working on incentive plans to lure big-box, discount and high-end retailers to the city.
Boulet also pledged to deliver to the mayor by Sept. 6 — the end of the 100-day period — a set of recommendations on what to do about Entergy New Orleans, the city’s bankrupt electric utility.
Included in the list of possible solutions is municipalization, a city takeover of the utility, a strategy that hasn’t been seriously considered since the City Council rejected a buyout in 1990.
“The mayor said he wants reliable energy at the lowest possible price for consumers,” Boulet said. “So we have no sacred cows, everything is on the table.”
Boulet said Entergy may want to have “some assets municipalized so they can get insurance against a future storm.” Nagin noted that a potential benefit of municipalization is that it would allow for FEMA to pay 75 percent of restoration costs in case of a future storm.
In the end, Nagin said he believes all parties — “the feds, the state and Entergy itself” — must participate in coming up with the estimated $650 million needed to stabilize the utility.
As for the option of merging with its parent company, Entergy Louisiana, Nagin said that appears to be a longshot because the state Public Service Commission “has sent a signal that they’re not interested in that approach.”
Nagin and his advisers also touched on perhaps the most emotionally charged and complicated issue of the hurricane recovery effort: getting displaced residents back to the city.
The Rev. Frank Davis, a co-chairman of the mayor’s housing task force, said the city will open an informational center Aug. 22 in Houston to provide New Orleanians living in Texas with details about housing, employment, education and social services in their hometown. This will be the first of several planned in cities with large numbers of evacuees.
“We want to get them on the yellow brick road, which everyone knows will take you to the Emerald City, which is New Orleans,” Davis said, adding that a welcome center will open Aug. 23 at New Orleans’ main library downtown.
Nagin said he also wants “to have a city presence” at offices set up to help residents navigating the Louisiana Recovery Authority’s Road Home grant program, which is designed to cover uninsured property losses caused by last year’s hurricanes.
The mayor remained steadfast, however, that as City Hall provides information to residents returning home, his administration will continue to let residents to get building permits for all sections of town, while still advising them to beware rebuilding in low-lying zones. That decision drew ire last year from critics who said the mayor should have put some areas that flooded badly during Katrina off limits to rebuilding.
Nagin said that 70,000 building permits, including 40,000 residential permits, have been allotted so far, and the vast majority of them have been for properties on relatively high ground, evidence that residents are using common sense.
“If you look at the maps of where those permits are, people are making intelligent decisions,” Nagin said. “They are getting permits to rebuild in some of the highest areas of the city, and they are shying away from the areas that are some of the lowest lying areas.”
Most recently, residents have been getting permits to rebuild in Mid-City, the highest ridges of eastern New Orleans and on high ground in the Lower 9th Ward, Nagin said. He said activity is lacking in areas that have flooded repeatedly, though he would not name them.
Nagin also refused to say how advisory base flood elevation maps released by FEMA earlier this year may affect how the city will be rebuilt. The advisories recommend that all homes in Orleans Parish be built to the base flood elevation set by FEMA’s 1984 flood maps or to 3 feet above the ground, whichever is higher.
The City Council may be forced to adopt the maps so New Orleans homeowners can be eligible for Road Home grants. City officials would be able to request waivers for certain provisions of the maps before adopting them as part of the zoning ordinance.
Though Nagin would not comment on when or precisely how he will weigh in on the maps, the mayor suggested that he will ask that buildings in the oldest sections of the city, perhaps the French Quarter or areas of Uptown and Mid-City, be exempted from the requirement to raise buildings three feet off the ground.
“We will come in line with the advisories with the exception of areas that make New Orleans unique,” Nagin said.
In the end, the mayor said he would not lay down rules about which parts of the city can be restored.
“I fundamentally do not believe in that,” Nagin said. “I believe governments role is to create the right environment for people to make intelligent decisions.”
(Frank Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (504) 826-3328.)