For those wondering where Mayor Ray Nagin has been since he won re-election -- or what he has been doing to spur the city's sluggish recovery in the wake of Hurricane Katrina -- last week's news conference by the mayor and his top advisers was a welcome sight. The naturally upbeat Nagin said that New Orleans is "on track" and "moving forward" with the recovery. Based on facts and figures provided by some of his volunteer advisers, we're encouraged. While the overall pace of recovery remains slow, we can say with confidence that the city is finally getting some traction. Hopefully, the pace will pick up in the weeks and months ahead.
Addressing the media just after passing the half-way point of his "100 day initiative plan" that he implemented when he took the oath of office for his second term, the mayor touched on some of the most pressing issues of recovery and promised to provide additional news soon on other fronts. Among the announcements yet to come are at least two major staff changes (he didn't say which ones) and the appointment of a local recovery director. Flanked by attorney Rob Couhig, who ran against Nagin and then volunteered to help jump-start the 100-day plan after endorsing him in the runoff, and Judith Williams, who co-chairs the 100-day effort with Couhig, Nagin offered optimistic updates in the areas of crime, housing, sanitation, economic development and the local economy.
Here are some of the highlights:
Crime -- The mayor is touting his proposal to increase pay for police and some fire fighters, and he cites a significant reduction in violent crime since National Guard troops came to town to supplement NOPD patrols. "Crime is dropping dramatically," Nagin said, citing the "strong presence" of Guard troops and cops. Nagin also praised former state Attorney General Richard Ieyoub for agreeing to lead the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which attempts to cut through the red tape and bureaucratic impasses that often cripple the criminal justice system. The mayor says Ieyoub and others are making progress in the crucial area of getting cops to work better with prosecutors, and vice versa.
Housing -- Rev. Frank Davis, co-chair of a housing task force, said the city will soon open a satellite center in Houston to offer displaced New Orleanians a "one-stop shop" for information and assistance getting back home. Davis said the Houston center will be the first of many and should be operational by Aug. 22. The immediate goal, he said, is to get 1,000 families back to New Orleans. In another key area, Nagin pointed to the recent run on residential building permits as a sign that the city made the right move in imposing an Aug. 29 residential building permit deadline. "People are making intelligent decisions," Nagin said. "They are getting permits to rebuild in some of the highest areas of the city, and they are shying away from areas that are some of the lowest-lying areas." Nagin said that trend supports his decision to let the market determine which areas of the city will come back after Katrina, rather than have government tell people where they can build.
Sanitation -- City Sanitation Director Veronica White said the city will sponsor citywide cleanups every weekend in August, and the city already looks better because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has agreed to pick up commercial as well as residential construction debris. Nagin also noted that most of the flooded-out, abandoned cars that littered the streets after Katrina have been removed. Elsewhere, the city has put special task forces together to clean up areas that have already repopulated, and new city contracts will be let in the coming months for solid waste disposal.
Economic Development -- Lawyer Virginia Boulet, who also ran against Nagin and then joined his team as a volunteer, pitched the idea of bringing back the city's retail sector by creating a "big-box district" for major department stores such as Lowe's, Home Depot and others, as well as a special district for "discount and high-end shops." Boulet also has been advising Nagin on potential strategies with regard to Entergy New Orleans' bankruptcy and opportunities it may present for lowering citizens' utility bills.
The economy -- Perhaps the best news of all came from University of New Orleans Chancellor Tim Ryan, a noted local economist, who said that the area will see an infusion of some $60 billion in public and private investment over the next five years. Ryan also said the city has regained roughly 70 percent of the jobs it had pre-Katrina. Noting that housing is still a major concern, Ryan predicted that "jobs will repopulate the city."
Couhig offered a noteworthy insight near the end of the presentation when he observed that it's difficult for those who have returned to notice changes that occur day to day -- particularly when they drive to and from work through the same devastated areas. But, he said, when you think back to what the city looked like last October, or even in January, the level of change has been significant, and the pace of progress is quickening.
Overall, the news is heartening. We hope the mayor will take more opportunities in the days ahead -- and more frequently -- to keep New Orleanians posted on the recovery. The people need to hear from their mayor, even if the news isn't all cheery.