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'A Wake-Up Call'

New Orleans Recovery Director Ed Blakely says 'recovery' is going to require changing a lot more than the landscape. Attitudes will have to change, too.

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Interview by Clancy DuBos and Jason Berry

GAMBIT WEEKLY: There was no playbook for Katrina. Holding aside issues of evacuation, what are the main lessons that other cities should take from New Orleans' experience post-Katrina?

ED BLAKELY: The first is that every city needs to have a recovery plan, not just an evacuation plan. We spend years learning how to evacuate cities, how to deal with emergencies, but not how to put something back together after the emergency. It's very interesting. All the education is on, if the bridge falls down, how to get people off it. But almost no education focuses on how to put the bridge back up. So cities need to think about what happens, what I would call, post-incident. And if you have an incident, let's say there's an explosion in one of our hotels, the hotel comes down, or something like that. That's an incident. Maybe nobody was hurt. But guess what? Most cities would not know what to do about how to put that hotel back in service. First of all, their building codes were probably written 50 years ago, and the new hotel can't be built on that spot because it can't conform to the new building code. Nobody's thought about that. Then there's what I call a disaster, where some significant portion of the city is hurt. You have to have a staging plan for that. We didn't have a staging plan. People came back pretty much willy-nilly. In Oakland, we had a staging plan. ... We had to stage people in, and we had to build roads and infrastructure and so forth. ... And in New York, same thing, no staging plan. So there's enormous confusion about getting big equipment in and out, and how you get it in and out, and so forth. Then there's a reconstruction program. I think cities ought to have emergency orders and things like this so you can get through the processes. And there ought to be a coterie of people in the nation that can help.

 

GW: So, a nationwide fast-response team?

BLAKELY: Yeah. In every U.S. federal district there ought to be a rebuilding/redevelopment team, because there's always something going on.

 

GW: So you're going to write a book about all of this at some point?

BLAKELY: I have to write a book. That's what I do.

 

GW: How do you assess the Bring New Orleans Back Commission as a response mechanism now, with the monopoly of hindsight?

BLAKELY: Had a city been thinking about what's going to happen after a disaster, something like that would be in place. You wouldn't have to invent it. Now, most cities -- and New Orleans is an exception -- or regions have such commissions. In San Francisco, it's called the Bay Area Council. I just testified before them last Friday. They are already planning for the next earthquake, and what the recovery plan is going to be from a major earthquake. They have a number of scenarios. That sort of commission or body should be in place. It's very interesting. The first meeting I came to here, the RPC (Regional Planning Commission) sent a representative to the meeting. And we had it in Shreveport. And [the RPC representative] was begging for time on the agenda and didn't get it because the Chamber of Commerce and all these other groups felt they had prior right to determine the future of the city. So we should have a structure in place, probably a regional structure in place, not just a local structure, that would allow us not just to respond to a disaster but also to plan the region in a continuing planning process.

 

GW: Do you see any movement in that direction?

BLAKELY: I see some movement in that direction. I think since the [parish] presidents have come together with the mayor, they meet now once a month. And they're beginning to move out of the recovery into future planning, talking about transportation. It would be an easy step into that wider arena.

 

GW: Oliver Thomas just pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges. How much do you think our reputation for corruption hurts the chances for recovery?

BLAKELY: The state has an image, and, unfortunately, Oliver Thomas stepped into the state's image. I don't think this comes as a surprise to the rest of the nation. We have a state image; it's not a local image. I was writing an article for the American Planning Association Journal, and the editor sent back from my article, "Why aren't you talking about corruption as one of the things that interferes with your capacity to do your job?" And I said, "If I did that, then I would be talking about the state. What I want to talk about is what I'm doing." I have to accept certain things as given in any situation. This is one of the things [Professor and management guru] Peter Drucker says: You accept the business as it is, then you start to change it; if you don't accept the business as it is, you can't change it.

 

GW: In terms of recovery, what are the city's most pressing needs today, and what would you like to see done to address those needs?

BLAKELY: Our most pressing need today is internal reform of our existing policies and procedures. By internal, I mean the state, too. Our administrative procedures in this state are way too cumbersome to do business, much less business in an emergency. For example, when I was in California, after a freeway went down -- it melted down in seven hours -- it was predicted it would take no less than six months to repair it. It came up in seven days, because the state's emergency procedures went into operation. They already had qualified construction companies, and so forth. They had to go to four construction companies and ask for bids. They let the contract in 13 minutes. It would take three months for us to get a competitive bid out.

 

GW: Is anyone spearheading a change to the procedures like that?

BLAKELY: Me.

 

GW: How is it going?

BLAKELY: Well, first, I want to do things here. The state has been very generous to me. Everything I suggested to the state has passed. I suggested the infrastructure bank, a totally new idea here. But if we had an infrastructure bank, this would be one thing that we could use to respond. When interest rates are low, the state could park money in this bank, have it drawing interest, and when you had an emergency or a catastrophe ... instead of doing like we do -- wait for the feds to help us -- we could help ourselves. Furthermore, when interest rates are low, particularly for small communities, you could do a lot of things -- build their roads and have them pay back that bank rather than have them try to go to Wall Street. That's the way it's done in California, by having this collective instrument. California state just issued $142 billion in infrastructure bonds via the state infrastructure bank.

 

GW: And we have nothing of that sort here?

BLAKELY: We do now. We have the genesis of it.

 

GW: The mechanism?

BLAKELY: The mechanism passed the state Legislature. And the state is very interested in speeding up the procedures to cut out some of the red tape. I have a hypothesis: The more the red tape, the more opportunity for corruption.

 

GW: So then you see us as a state larded in red tape?

BLAKELY: Yeah. And what do you do when you have red tape? You try to get around it. But in California, where something can be done in a few minutes and the process is pretty open, it's pretty hard to get around it. There's no need to pay somebody, because the system is clear. It's clean. It's fast.

 

GW: What will it take to peel away all these layers of red tape in this state? You're talking about a real paradigm shift in the political culture.

BLAKELY: I think we had a wake-up call. We're beginning to discover that the ways we were doing business don't fit the situation. And, perhaps, that can be used as leverage, as Mayor Nagin is trying to do, to internally reshape our own bureaucracy here. And then the state has had this wake-up call, particularly with Road Home. It's a perfect example of the state not having the infrastructure to do the business it needed to do. Now, New York had a very similar thing [after 9/11]. They had a lot of payouts to do. In about a week it was set up, and they paid people out within about two or three months.

 

GW: How close are you to getting the $1.1 billion in funding to jumpstart your recovery target zone? Where is the money falling short -- and why?

BLAKELY: We received $200 million from the state to jumpstart our FEMA process. We received $117 million about a month ago. ... The $260 million bond issue is going out, I think, in about a week or so. The blight bonds are being sized -- we just brought on our advisors. I'm getting very good feedback from very good people about issuing that. I've got $100 million of that under wraps already, which will be recycled up to three- or four-hundred million. So where I'm short is that $300 million that is held up by the Road Home Program. The rest is pretty much in place.

 

GW: Do you regret making the promise of cranes in the skyline in September?

BLAKELY: No. I would say this has done a couple of things. One of them is, it's really made my staff hustle. If you don't have a deadline, it won't happen. It's gotten people's attention. ... But I've also had to spend a lot of time on the VA [Hospital]. The VA distracted me from things that I would be doing otherwise on some shopping centers and so forth, to make sure those cranes are in the skyline. But the VA is so important.

 

GW: It's huge.

BLAKELY: It's so big -- and it's so complicated. And I'm one of the few people that's ever had the experience of putting a deal like this together, so it's absorbed a lot of my time. Before I came here, that's what I was working on.

 

GW: Looking ahead to your one-year anniversary on the job -- Jan. 8 -- what do you think will be the three main successes that you can point to in terms of recovery at that point?

BLAKELY: Well, the first is having a plan, a plan that I think has been pretty well received. We took the UNOP plan and carved it into the 17 target areas. And that's been pretty well received. Funds have been allocated to it. The second is bringing our bureaucracy around to doing recovery. We had this situation when I arrived where the bureaucracy thought I would come and I would do recovery, and the rest of the bureaucracy would go back to its own business. Well, it can't work that way. So the things I mentioned earlier, changing our competitive bidding process, and all those kind of things, I think by January it will be accomplished and it will be good for the city in the long run. The third thing is unexpected, and that is the large-scale projects that are going to come online. The VA and LSU [hospitals] -- they weren't there when I got here at all. I anticipate a couple of other very major projects that will help reorient our industrial base.

 

 

GW: What is the status of the Hyatt and the National Jazz Center Plan?

BLAKELY: The Hyatt and the National Jazz Center Plan has been put on the back burner because we have to do a lot of things with this whole quadrant of the city, including the development of our criminal justice complex, which is going to be on Tulane and Broad. We have to move out of here (City Hall and the Civil Courts Building) into that complex to free that space up, because our civil courts are here, and the civil courts are a big piece of that. And we have to move out of this building. That is my mid-2008 project. ... We're going to build a new building, a 15- or 20-story building. All the courts are going to come into that. We're going to redo the sheriff's area, redo NOPD, all that. That has to take precedent for me, because I have to know what the release valve is. If we're going to come out of this building, where am I going to put the people? The release of this building and the attendant building is not a simple real estate deal. It's a very complex real estate operation. And it includes evacuation. It includes things you wouldn't even think of. We've got a lot of evacuation stuff we have to consider in that maneuver. ... Our emergency preparedness center is upstairs. All of that kind of infrastructure has to be dealt with, and it is not simple. It's very complex. When you move something here, then something comes loose there, so I have to constantly move these pieces around. And, unfortunately, they are spread out all over the place. We don't have them centrally located. So we have to move one thing here, then move that there, to move that there -- it's a whole series of complex moves. With the VA, even the old building of the VA, the new building of the VA, the LSU old building and so forth, they are not simple pieces either. So we have to deal with all those pieces while we're doing the new piece. The acquisition of the land, parcel by parcel and the complexities of those parcels, going through our own existing zoning codes and building codes, the federal codes versus the state codes and so on, they have to be all put together. That means writing MOUs (Memorandums of Understanding) and agreements between the feds, the state, the city. The interesting thing is all these people are like, "Well, I've got to keep my procedures." You say, "Well, what's the most important thing here, isn't it getting LSU?" They say, "No. Running my operation is the most important thing." It's incredible how narrow the vision is within our various bureaucracies. They protect their rights and responsibilities over the goal.

 

GW: Is that parochial mentality a striking trait about Louisiana, or do you find it common elsewhere?

BLAKELY: I find the notion fairly common, even in Sydney, Australia. For example, in Sydney, the people who run the ferries and the people who run the trains and the people who run the buses are all different. And they jealously guard their turf.

 

GW: They need a referee?

BLAKELY: Yeah. They need somebody who doesn't have any stake in the game except the outcome. And that's what I am here. I have no stake in the game except the outcome.

 

GW: I've got a question about TIME and National Geographic. Have you seen the two?

BLAKELY: Yes. Killers.

 

GW: Do you agree with their assessments? Or, conversely, are you confident with the Army Corps's plan for levee restoration?

BLAKELY: I thought the National Geographic article built up the past more than faced the future. The Corps has done a much better job than they depicted, recently. And I thought it was an unfair article because they didn't talk about what the Corps has done most recently except in passing. In a sense, that's an old article. I was surprised by National Geographic, because I read that as refereed science. And this was kind of an archaeological article rather than a present science. In TIME, this is their assessment. You know, you can come to all kinds of judgments of what we've done. I think the guy who did that has not tracked how far we've come. If you just came here in the last six months, you would say, "This is terrible." But if you came here two years ago and have watched -- as you guys have -- cleaning up the streets, getting the water, power and all this stuff back, even the six months I've been here, I've seen some damned near miracles in some neighborhoods. Look what's happened on St. Claude. I mean, it was terrible, now it's coming back to life. I'm not saying it's great, but you see signs of life. A lot of the East, a lot of signs of life. The Vietnamese community, they have to go and find that trailer park. ... Most all of Uptown, the area that I live in, has come back entirely. There are a lot of other communities that are coming back. Lakeview is beginning to spring to life. They fixed up Harrison (Avenue) and some other things. I think it will be coming back.

 

GW: Does it concern you that none of the gubernatorial candidates has put together a detailed program for coastal restoration?

BLAKELY: Yes. Need I say more?

 

GW: Tell us what you would like to see the candidates do.

BLAKELY: I would like to see the candidates commit themselves to three things. The first is putting coastal restoration very high on the agenda for the state. The second is wean us from oil, but keep us in the energy business, because I think we can do a lot with wind here. We can do a lot with the river. The river can produce energy. We can do an awful lot, a real energy strategy. And the third is doing a lot more in terms of what I call community stabilization and security; we have to have secondary tertiary barriers here. We can't get around that. The levees aren't going to protect us. State money should go into networks of canals and drainage systems and so on. I would like to see candidates committing themselves to making a future here and not to just hanging on to the past.

 

GW: Many Third World cities have functioning neighborhoods and government services that work well only in certain areas. Mexico City is a good example. They also have heavy policing issues because of widespread poverty and crime. Is that where New Orleans is today?

BLAKELY: Well, first of all, you have very big cultural differences. In most of the Third World, the gaps -- and we're approaching this -- between the rich and the poor, the haves and have-nots, are historic. Our country is built on the notion of closing those gaps. I'm not saying it's being done, but that's the whole [notion of] opportunity. We're not in the business of policing people. We're in the business of creating opportunity for people. We have a relatively small police force compared to the developing world because that's not where we are. So I would say the more we use policing and detention as the method of curing our problem, the bigger the problem is going to get. Crime is huge in Mexico City and just gets bigger. Every place I've been where you use policing as strategy, crime gets worse, including South Africa. But when you go to some of the European places, what we're doing in Australia, you get in the front end of the problem, and it's starting to change. Change is happening in the neighborhoods. Change in the opportunity that people have. Recognizing that we don't have two-parent families anymore and putting in daycare centers that involve the entire family, you reduce crime and increase opportunity. That's the only way out of this. And I think we have to decriminalize a whole lot of stuff.

 

GW: Sure, but there is such a hostility, politically, toward these kinds of programs. In a state like this, how does one engineer changing that political mentality?

BLAKELY: I think it wouldn't hurt to look at states that have made a difference, like New York, where they went to zero tolerance in some things, but put in an awful lot of programs on the other side so that people had other opportunities. They cut their prison costs, which we need to do. They cut their cost of violence in the street. My secretary was just up in New York -- she's from Australia -- and she said she was astounded. She was walking around at four o'clock in the morning by herself and there were women on the street and no one was being bothered. That's where we have to go.

 

GW: Are there building blocks in place to make those kind of fundamental changes here?

BLAKELY: Not yet. I think that's going to take strong local leadership and strong state leadership, a combination.

 

GW: Where would you begin?

BLAKELY: Well, I think we have to begin where we are. You know, this city has an opportunity to be a model for the world. Everyone is looking at New Orleans. I get a little federal help, a little bit of state help, but I would aim at those kinds of programs that transform communities. And I think I'm a part of that solution, the kind of thing we are doing.

 

GW: Is New Orleans, in your opinion, doing enough to help itself?

BLAKELY: New Orleans, like very many southern cities, looks for help externally rather than looking for help internally. The answer to that is, no, we are not. We still have much more of a mendicant mentality than I like. I'm not talking about the leadership here, but I'm talking about the popular view. Repeatedly, I get: When's somebody going to help me or help us? Rather than: What can we do to help ourselves? We haven't fashioned, for example, even after this crisis, any kind of foundations and institutions within the city that would assist us in dealing with such a crisis. The 9/11 Foundation is not going to go away in New York. The Community Foundation is not going to go away. I would think that local leadership here would say, "Look, we've had these kind of crises. We know what some of our problems are. When I die, I'm going to leave a little something to a foundation that's going to keep the spirit of New Orleans alive." I lived in New York for just a while, and I was convinced before I left that I had to leave some money to New York City, which I will do.

 

GW: How much of the Lower Ninth Ward and eastern New Orleans are functioning? And how feasible is it to expect those neighborhoods to recover fully?

BLAKELY: Well, let's talk about the Lower Ninth first. The Lower Ninth presents both an unusual opportunity and a huge challenge. The unusual opportunity is that you can actually replat the neighborhoods. We can actually redo the grid in the Lower Ninth and create a new, more sustainable, ecologically better community. We have opportunities there to use marshlands, particularly adjacent to St. Bernard, that would make this a very attractive place to live. We should take advantage of that opportunity. Now, we're going to spread across the land in a slightly different way. But that doesn't mean the same number of people can't live there. As a matter of fact, they weren't living there in a land use pattern that was sustainable, but we can design that now. The East is quite a different matter. In the East it's how we replace the existing stock and protect it. Because the East is laid out in a pattern as a modern kind of San Fernando Valley, and what we have to think about is how do we protect that. ... It's very difficult to have a levee structure that would protect the entire area. But we can have, and it's already there, some internal structures that offer secondary and tertiary protection, canals, moving some things to higher ground, buildings, and things like this. So I would say, the Ninth Ward actually has a better chance, in a sense, because you can redesign the whole thing. In the East, you do what I call temporize. You can make the situation better, but you can't reinvent it.

 

GW: I'm fascinated by what you're saying about the Lower Ninth. You're speaking of the area well beyond Holy Cross, going toward the parish line.

BLAKELY: Yes.

 

GW: Is that because you're assuming MR-GO will be filled in?

BLAKELY: Yes. I think that MR-GO is going to go.

 

GW: This runs contrary to what so many editorials said immediately after Katrina -- that we had to swallow the smaller urban footprint. What you seem to be saying is that a lot of the area that was deemed too low can be made habitable?

BLAKELY: It can be made habitable. But remember, people were reacting to what they saw. There was no science behind their reactions. Now we have a little bit of science. We have a little bit of policy, and the combination makes it possible to create a great living space. Again, in the East, it's a containment. That living space is there. You can't reorganize it. And in order to protect it, you would have to put in enormous barriers that would be enormously expensive. But we're all facing the same dreaded situation here: the lack of cypress swamps. That would cut down on the wind and the surge if it were back. Dr. Ivor van Heerden suggests that we begin putting in artificial barriers so we can collect the sand, and that isn't being done. And I can't fathom that. If this is such a simple, straightforward technology, why isn't it being done?

 

GW: How well do you think New Orleans will be functioning in 11 years, which will be its 300th anniversary?

BLAKELY: If I had to predict, and I'm going to take one thing into my prediction that may or may not be a good idea -- I want to predict no storms as violent as the storm we faced -- what I would predict is that ... we're going to have a denser, very interesting kind of downtown New York feel about this, that the French Quarter will be like Little Italy. It will be only one place that the people go. It will be kind of an integrated space. The Warehouse District and all that will be an integrated space. This will have the feel more of a New York because of the cosmopolitan nature. Our ports will have a very different orientation. The medical complexes we're going to have here will be the size of those in Houston. It's going to have an enormous impact on the city in terms of the kinds of people that are going to live here and the types of sciences that it will be involved in. And this city will stop being what I call cartooned. People will come to this city for business like they would come to any other city for business.

 

GW: You're sketching a vision of a city that would be more cosmopolitan, with a different kind of infrastructure and different infrastructure needs. But there is the octopus in the living room -- one-third of the people here are dreadfully poor.

BLAKELY: Yeah, that's right.

 

GW: How do you get around that?

BLAKELY: A third of the people who were here were dreadfully poor. There are a couple of texts to that. One of them is I think we have to do a heck of a job in the rebuilding process in incorporating them into the rebuilding process, and make them have stakes in it and have them working in it. ... I think, also, we have to enforce the Clinton welfare rules -- five years and you're out. No one was doing that here. And we weren't providing the skill base. We have to say here, "This isn't the 'Big' or the 'Easy' anymore." You know, come home. Come home to work. Come home to opportunity. We don't want you to be poor, and you shouldn't want yourself to be poor. We're going to do everything to help you out of poverty. We can turn that corner; other cities have. We can do that. But what's held us back, I think, is that it's actually been in the interest of some people to have a lot of [poor] people around, kind of a reserve labor pool. But if we move away from that and everyone is regarded as a human being who can participate in a new market, 11 years from now I think people will look at you like you're crazy, that that kind of situation would continue. But I think we have to face this head-on. We can't say that this will go away on its own. The other thing that we have to do is provide decent, affordable housing across the city, and not have anyplace where only poor people live.

 

GW: But right now we don't have the housing stock.

BLAKELY: We don't, but we will. We will. And the great thing, in some senses, is what went on before. All this blighted housing stock can be reconfigured, re-done, redeveloped into a new mixed-housing stock.

'Every city needs to have a recovery plan, not just an - evacuation plan.' - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • 'Every city needs to have a recovery plan, not just an evacuation plan.'
'Our administrative procedures in this state are way too - cumbersome to do business, much less business in an - emergency.' - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • 'Our administrative procedures in this state are way too cumbersome to do business, much less business in an emergency.'
'I have a hypothesis: The more the red tape, the more - opportunity for corruption.' - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • 'I have a hypothesis: The more the red tape, the more opportunity for corruption.'
'I have no stake in the game except the outcome.' - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • 'I have no stake in the game except the outcome.'
'I've seen some damned near miracles in some - neighborhoods. ... I'm not saying it's great, but you see - signs of life.' - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • 'I've seen some damned near miracles in some neighborhoods. ... I'm not saying it's great, but you see signs of life.'
'I would like to see candidates committing themselves to - making a future here and not to just hanging on to the - past.' - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • 'I would like to see candidates committing themselves to making a future here and not to just hanging on to the past.'
'This city has an opportunity to be a model for the world. - Everyone is looking at New Orleans.' - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • 'This city has an opportunity to be a model for the world. Everyone is looking at New Orleans.'
'We have to say here, "This isn't the 'Big' or the 'Easy' - anymore." You know, come home. Come home to work. - Come home to opportunity.' - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • 'We have to say here, "This isn't the 'Big' or the 'Easy' anymore." You know, come home. Come home to work. Come home to opportunity.'

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