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Measuring Progress

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That old saw about being up to your ass in alligators is an apt way to describe life in New Orleans since Katrina. We're so busy trying to survive that it's difficult to put progress -- or lack of it -- into perspective.

Now that we've reached the storm's one-year anniversary, it's appropriate to take stock of how far we've come --Êand what remains to be done -- except for those damn gators. Fortunately, at least one objective source has undertaken the task of putting things into perspective.

The Council for A Better Louisiana (CABL) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank based in Baton Rouge. Last November, CABL brought together experts from various disciplines to create a framework for evaluating the planning process that was expected to guide recovery efforts. "Our particular focus was on New Orleans," CABL writes in a status report released last week.

Unfortunately, New Orleans is only now beginning to have a "plan for a plan." The so-called master plan, if one ever comes, won't materialize until early 2007. Until then, CABL's latest report (available on-line at www.cabl.org) offers an excellent overview of what has gone right and wrong thus far.

The 11-page CABL report poses and answers key questions about the recovery effort and offers comments to back up each assessment. Here are some of the key questions and answers, along with comments:

• Does Louisiana have credible projections for the size of a rebuilt New Orleans in increments over the next five years, and do we know how these projections were determined? Answer: Yes, to a degree. The exception is Mayor Ray Nagin. "The mayor of New Orleans has used significantly higher estimates in describing the current population of New Orleans, and it is unclear what the actual source of those numbers is. ... Bad data leads to bad decisions, and all too often, undesirable outcomes."

• Do we have a timeline for rebuilding in incremental periods? Answer: No. "[P]lanners look upon this as a recipe for disastrous redevelopment."

• Do we know the land area a rebuilt New Orleans would include? Answer: No. "Balancing the desires of citizens, flood protection realities, and the ability to provide adequate infrastructure and public safety within significant fiscal constraints will require tough decisions."

• Do we know with relative confidence the city will be safe from flooding? Answer: To some degree. "Citizens need to look at all the available information and make decisions based on the level of risk they are willing to take."

• Do we know that the rebuilding effort will be coordinated with flood protection milestones? Answer: No. "The Corps of Engineers is working to strengthen levees so that they will be able to withstand a '100-year storm' by 2010. But they also note that Katrina was larger than a 100-year storm and the area remains potentially vulnerable to even more powerful storms."

• Do we have a plan with a strategy to retain the cultural diversity of New Orleans and encourage people of all socio-economic backgrounds to return? Answer: Not specifically. "Those with low to moderate incomes will no doubt face many more difficult challenges. One of the biggest might be whether all who want to return and rebuild will be able to do so in a city that could be a more expensive place to live."

• Do we know that damaged structures in New Orleans will be insurable? Answer: No. "Insurance is a serious issue, and it is unclear how it will be resolved."

• Do we have a sound strategy for temporary housing and a strategy for removing and converting temporary housing? Answer: Not really. "A comprehensive strategy for dealing with temporary housing does not seem to exist. ... The real issue is how soon suitable permanent housing can become available, and that could be a major problem for south Louisiana."

In conclusion, CABL notes that out of Katrina's devastation has come tremendous opportunity -- a chance to rebuild south Louisiana stronger, better and smarter. "We must refuse to allow the opportunity that was presented to us in such an awful way to elude us," the report concludes.

Nowhere is that truer than in New Orleans. Citizens, businesses and neighborhoods are doing their part, but so much depends on whether Mayor Ray Nagin will rise to the occasion and lead. He can start by making some of the "tough decisions" CABL has identified in its report.

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