In our cover story this week, historian and author John Barry issues a blunt warning to Louisiana's elected officials: get on the same page, or forget about federal help in rebuilding our state. The Barry interview (on p.19) concludes our three-part series on post-Katrina New Orleans, "The Road Back." Despite official missteps, Barry says he is "cautiously optimistic" about New Orleans' chances for recovery. The city is definitely worth saving, he says, but it won't happen unless our politicians learn to speak with one voice. We agree.
By the end of last week, we saw at least one hopeful sign that Barry's admonition was being heeded. The Louisiana Recovery and Rebuilding Conference brought together local and national planners, architects and engineers for three days of intense discussions with local business and civic leaders, public officials and others to begin charting Louisiana's comeback. The gathering, held Nov. 10-12 at the Marriott Hotel, was Louisiana's first statewide post-hurricane planning conference. Presented by the American Institute of Architects, the American Planning Association, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the American Society of Civil Engineers, the conference was the brainchild of the Louisiana Recover Authority (LRA), the state's rebuilding commission that Gov. Kathleen Blanco appointed last month. The goal of the conference was not to adopt a detailed blueprint for recovery, but rather to forge consensus on a set of guiding principles for use by the LRA in four key areas -- infrastructure, economic development, people and public services, and environment and public health.
The conference was significant not just because of the scope of its work and the breadth of its participants, but also because it marked a tangible starting point for Louisiana's recovery. Conferees wound up their three days of analysis and discussion with a document that will help get Louisiana moving again. Of course, the LRA and a host of local and state officials will have to buy into the vision and, ultimately, do the work of turning it into reality. Tough choices must be made.
In her keynote address, Blanco stressed that while Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated major portions of Louisiana, the storms also presented us with a golden opportunity to recreate our state, not just rebuild it. Blanco challenged participants to think boldly, saying, "I'm asking you to dream big dreams for the future of Louisiana." The governor led by example, citing her plan for the state to take over the city's failing public schools.
The conference continued past press time, but we could see in its early stages the kind of vision that Louisiana has needed to begin the recovery process. Equally important, there was movement toward uniting the various local and state committees that, until now, appeared to balkanize the recovery effort. Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who formed a committee of arts, cultural and hospitality industry leaders, pledged to make his committee "available and inclusive of the governor's commission, the mayor's commission and any other commission." Landrieu also challenged Mayor Ray Nagin and Blanco to merge their respective commissions into one. "I am happy to do the same with my advisory board," Landrieu said. "We all are in this together, and it is time for us to start acting like it."
We couldn't agree more.
As Barry notes in our cover interview, our political leaders' penchant for playing politics with the recovery process -- and their failure to unite behind a single vision -- has cost our state dearly. We already suffer from the stigma, deserved or not, of being the most corrupt state in the union. Our leaders' failure to speak with one voice has given a tight-fisted Congress all the excuses it needs to ignore us in our time of need. This must stop now. All committees must become one; or, at a minimum, one of them must become the single voice that will speak for all of Louisiana. In our view, the LRA has already established itself as the body best suited for that responsibility.
That is not to criticize the members or the efforts of Mayor Nagin's Bring New Orleans Back Commission. The leaders of that group are some of the most well-connected (read: access to the Bush White House) and energetic business leaders in the state. They bring tons of political and business savvy to the task of rebuilding Louisiana. Blanco would be wise to add them to her recovery team -- and to ask them to focus on the needs of greater New Orleans.
We applaud the LRA for fostering last week's conference. We hope that, in years to come, people will look back on it as the real beginning of Louisiana's recovery. For that to happen, our politicians must follow the example set by conference participants and Lt. Gov. Landrieu: unite behind one guiding set of principles, adopt a single vision, speak with one voice, and convey one message.
The world is watching. Louisiana is waiting.