Mayor Ray Nagin reached for the stars last week in naming Dr. Edward Blakely to the position of New Orleans recovery czar. Blakely, an urban affairs professor who led recovery efforts in California after a pair of natural disasters in that state, faces a monumental but (to him, at least) familiar task: weaving disparate citywide as well as City Hall recovery efforts into a seamless whole. His experience coordinating planning efforts after the 1989 Bay Area earthquake and the 1991 Oakland wildfire will come in handy. "I kind of know where to go and at what time and what phase," Blakely told reporters last week. He added that his job will be "to assure that all the pieces of government work in sync to get this job done." Let's hope so.
Blakely's level of experience is reassuring. A native of San Bernardino, Calif., he currently chairs the urban and regional planning department at the University of Sydney, Australia. In addition to his work on the California disasters, he helped guide post-9/11 recovery efforts at the Milano Graduate School at the New School University in New York, where he served as graduate school dean. He also advised 100 Black Men of New York with regard to minority participation in Lower Manhattan's rebuilding efforts.
Most important, Blakely has been to New Orleans several times in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and has not hesitated to speak frankly about the pace and scale of recovery efforts here. By all accounts, he is an independent thinker -- something we haven't seen much in the Nagin Administration. Indeed, his toughest assignment may be keeping his boss, Mayor Nagin, from trying to micromanage the Recovery Office. We wish him well in that regard, and we urge the mayor to stay out of Blakely's way.
During one of his post-Katrina visits, Blakely told a Central City gathering that New Orleans' recovery coordinator should have no local ties. That way, he said, decisions could be made free of political, historical and cultural biases -- particularly with regard to decisions of where and when to rebuild. Now he has got his wish. We hope he will have the kind of decision-making autonomy he suggested and that he will not hesitate to use it. We already have one concern: Blakely stated last week that his philosophy does not conflict with Nagin's "market-driven" approach to recovery. With all due respect to Blakely, we don't see how an independent recovery coordinator could possibly buy into the mayor's laissez-faire ideas. Until now, the city has had almost no coordination of recovery efforts -- and that's exactly what a "market-driven" recovery will get you. By definition, a free market cannot be coordinated. What New Orleans needs most right now is plain talk and decisive leadership from someone with the authority, guts and brains to give it to us straight. We trust that Blakely, who starts full time next month, will provide that kind of leadership.
Almost 16 months after Katrina, New Orleans still does not have a comprehensive recovery plan -- although we are told that the Unified New Orleans Plan will be completed by the end of January. Truth be told, that plan must still pass muster at the City Planning Commission, the City Council and with the mayor. In the meantime, what is the recovery coordinator supposed to do? More than a dozen city agencies and departments already are applying directly to FEMA for recovery grants. Citywide, FEMA has more than 5,000 claims from more than 180 applicants seeking public assistance. City Hall is the largest applicant, with more than 820 obligated "project worksheets" seeking hundreds of millions of dollars for facility and infrastructure repairs. While it's important for the city to get as much as it can for public improvements, it's equally important that all applications be coordinated under a single office. In that regard, Blakely will arrive after the game has started.
One other development that troubles us is the budget that Mayor Nagin has contemplated for Blakely's office -- $500,000 for the year 2007, including Blakely's $150,000 annual salary. That's a paltry sum when one considers the scope and importance of the work that the Office of Recovery will be undertaking. To do it right, the Office of Recovery will need more than a director and a few assistants. We recognize that the city is strapped for cash, but you can't do recovery on the cheap. For now, we will assume that the half-million-dollar figure used by the mayor at the outset is just a down payment on the 2007 effort. Nagin and the City Council should be prepared to revisit that office's budget after Blakely arrives and begins to show signs of progress.
Above all, we hope that Blakely will be given a free hand to make the tough decisions that Mayor Nagin has refused to make. Time is running short for our city to articulate a clear vision of its future -- and to make that vision a reality by coordinating and implementing a specific, rational plan with measurable, realistic goals. Welcome to New Orleans, Dr. Blakely.