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Time to Answer the Call

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Last week in this space, we anticipated the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina by looking ahead to the two-year benchmark, suggesting specific goals for New Orleans as it struggles to gain some traction in its recovery efforts. This week -- in an issue dated on the one-year anniversary of the killer storm -- it's appropriate to look back at the progress, or lack of it, since Katrina struck. The news is mixed: parts of south Louisiana are rebounding nicely, some parts are even flourishing -- and then there's New Orleans, which remains stuck on stuck.

This conclusion is based not on anecdotal evidence but on a comprehensive, three-state study undertaken by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government and the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana (PAR). The report (http://www.rockinst.org/gulfgov/) concludes that Katrina produced two disasters. The first was the immediate effects of the storm hitting land, and the second, more profound disaster was government's failure, at all levels, to respond to the crisis effectively. The report notes that the second disaster remains the more dangerous "because the inability of the various levels of government to coordinate their efforts has spilled over into the recovery work, with ordinary citizens caught in the middle." We couldn't agree more.

The report analyzes five critical areas that reflect the impact of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita: how the storms affected local and regional economies; shortages of housing and workers in the wake of each storm; how state governments are faring; the vital role that nongovernmental responders played after the storms; and local as well as regional rebuilding plans. Here are some of the findings:

• "Katrina and Rita did not just devastate isolated communities; they irrevocably changed an entire region." Levels of damage and recovery vary, with communities falling into one of three categories -- areas that are struggling (New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish), areas that were damaged but are rebounding (Jefferson Parish), and areas that are growing (St. Tammany and Baton Rouge).

• "What Katrina and Rita took away from the coastal areas, they gave in abundance to communities farther inland." Thus, St. Tammany and Baton Rouge are booming because they were "logical choices for businesses and residents seeking first to evacuate and then to relocate as close to the city as possible."

• "Neither Louisiana nor Mississippi was brought to its knees economically by the storms." Both states saw a spike in tax revenues, but the resulting budget surpluses are "misleading" because they were generated by a temporarily high volume of consumer spending.

• "Nonprofits and faith-based organizations helped fill a tremendous gap left in the response by the state, local, and federal governments. In many instances, representatives of these organizations were the first to reach communities that were devastated by the hurricanes."

• "New Orleans has no plan at the moment, and the excruciatingly slow pace of the recovery bears witness to that." Other communities, including hard-hit St. Bernard Parish, "have rebuilding plans in place thanks to local leaders who forged ahead."

The 48-page report should be required reading for all who want an honest picture of the storms' impact and the state of the entire Gulf Coast one year later. Of particular interest to the New Orleans area is the report's assessment of rebuilding plans. "Most notable among the areas without an overall rebuilding plan so far is New Orleans," the report states. Citing "numerous attempts" at crafting a plan, including efforts by the Urban Land Institute, the Bring New Orleans Back Commission and the City Council, the report notes that "frustrated residents started their own planning and rebuilding processes."

It goes without saying, of course, that Mayor Ray Nagin bears the brunt of the responsibility for the city's failure to have a plan by now. In typical fashion, the mayor remains obtuse to the stark realities all around him. He continues to proclaim that all is well, that more people are in New Orleans than anyone else can count, and that we do in fact have a plan -- even though no one can point to it. In reality, what New Orleans has is a plan to write a plan. We won't actually have a plan until some time in 2007 -- and even then, there's no guarantee that it will go beyond neighborhood redevelopment to include rebuilding the city's frazzled infrastructure, charting a new economic development course, improving public education and more.

The national and international press has used the storm's one-year anniversary to excoriate Nagin for his lack of leadership. We have not had to wait that long. The world seems to agree that our mayor doesn't have the guts to make tough decisions -- or the willingness to work with other elected officials -- and the city's recovery is suffering for it. As the report notes: "Without clear guidelines from the city about what areas will be rebuilt and when, many residents have put off making a decision about whether to return, and the longer the delay, the more likely they are to stay where they are. That, in turn, has consequences for the city's long-term survival."

We can only hope that the mayor will not shrug off the latest round of criticism but will instead take it as a wake-up call. Even the mayor's harshest critics acknowledge that it's not too late for New Orleans to get its act together. The people are crying out for leadership. There's no better time to answer the call than now.

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