The city reached an important milestone on its long road to recovery last week when the Louisiana Recovery Authority approved New Orleans' citywide recovery plan. The plan has many fathers and is the result of more than 20 months of citizens' hard work -- often with equal measures of frustration. Several earlier attempts at a recovery plan stalled before the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP) finally took hold. The process at times seemed unwieldy, but that's because inclusiveness is rarely "efficient." By design, this plan took a while to confect because it required input from all quarters. A series of neighborhood planning meetings and citywide "congresses" led to its initial draft, and the City Planning Commission worked overtime to pare the plan down to its final form. In light of all that New Orleans has endured since Katrina, this is quite an accomplishment.
The New Orleans Strategic Recovery and Redevelopment Plan, as presented to the LRA by city recovery director Dr. Ed Blakely, is an amalgam of at least a half-dozen planning attempts and is still far from perfect. The Bureau of Governmental Research (BRG) has issued a pair of studies (www.bgr.org) criticizing UNOP, but what's most important now is that New Orleans finally -- officially -- has a recovery plan. The City Council scheduled some additional public hearings this past weekend, but the council's official adoption of the plan should be a mere formality at this point.
It's appropriate to savor the moment, but the truly difficult work still lies ahead. The citywide plan's approval by the LRA should lead to the release of $117 million in federal block grants for infrastructure repairs, but that money represents only about 10 percent of what's needed to pay for projects outlined in the plan. Some of those projects -- about 40 percent -- are in Blakely's 17 initial "target zones." Moreover, that money won't come all at once, but rather in dribs and drabs because of federal regulations.
To jump-start things, Dr. Blakely proposes to use the promise of that $117 million to leverage immediate cash from private banks. Even now, cash -- or rather, the lack of it -- remains one of the city's biggest problems. Blakely's proposal to use the promised funds to collateralize bank loans is a good idea if the city can negotiate favorable interest rates -- and get an ironclad guarantee that the federal money will flow quickly after the city draws down on any bank loans. Pressure to borrow money may have eased last week after state lawmakers dedicated $23 million a year for 20 years to the city for infrastructure improvements. That money could be leveraged to almost $300 million in bonds. If nothing else, it's nice to see the city finally having some options.
Equally significant to the LRA's approval of New Orleans' recovery plan was its blessing of St. Bernard Parish's recovery plan at the same meeting. St. Bernard was only about one-sixth as populous as New Orleans before Katrina, but, like the city, it sustained enormous flood and wind damage. Also like New Orleans, St. Bernard emphasizes infrastructure repairs in its recovery plan. Interestingly, St. Bernard officials said they submitted their plan to the LRA more than a year ago, but apparently the authority took its eye off the ball. That only underscores Mayor Nagin's longstanding contention that "there is no playbook" for a disaster the size of Katrina.
Now, however, New Orleans at least has a plan to recover from Katrina's devastating effects.