Rebuilding New Orleans: How and For Whom?

Oct 3, 2005
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

The clean-up in New Orleans is well under way. Now city officials are beginning to think about the next phase: rebuilding. Mayor Ray Nagin has appointed a 17-member commission to advise on how best to bring back the devastated city. Among the first questions: Who will pay for the rebuilding, and for whom will the city be rebuilt? NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN reporting:

Throughout New Orleans, homeowners and businesspeople all have the same question: `Who is going to help me rebuild?' In the city's Central Business District, Gale Gillette(ph) owns Professional Sports Shop, a business that sells fishing gear and which has been in her family since 1948. Her store was devastated not by Katrina but by looting in the storm's aftermath. She and her husband, Jim(ph), want to rebuild, but so far she says all she's heard from the city or the state is silence.

Ms. GALE GILLETTE (Owner, Professional Sports Shop): There's been no mention of anything other than the French Quarter, you know? I mean, they assume that everybody else had insurance and can fend for themselves, but there's plenty people out here that don't have either enough coverage or no insurance. And, you know, what do you do? It's not just about tourism.

ALLEN: For decades, New Orleans has placed all of its bets on tourism. The importance of the port and the oil and gas industry have declined as the city looked instead to a future built on hotels, casinos and conventions. But while New Orleans has always been a great place to visit, many have found it difficult to live here. Silas Lee is a sociologist and a pollster who has studied public attitudes in New Orleans for more than a decade. Lee says long before Katrina, many residents saw New Orleans as a broken city. The schools were dysfunctional, there was little economic opportunity for those at the bottom, and many believed government was a major contributor to the city's problems.

Dr. SILAS LEE (Sociologist; Pollster): We've done a very good job of wearing a mask, having this celebratory culture which gives the illusion of social and economic harmony. But beneath that mask is a city with a troubled soul.

ALLEN: Five years ago, a group called Committee for a Better New Orleans studied the city's myriad problems and compiled a wish list with ways to fix them. The price tag at that time was $2.7 billion. Like many studies, it was well-received but essentially went nowhere.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans now has both an enormous problem and an enormous opportunity to rebuild a city with a more diverse economy, stronger schools, better infrastructure and to have the federal government pick up at least some of the tab. Louisiana's senators, Mary Landrieu and David Vitter, turned heads in Washington last month when they introduced a bill asking the federal government to allocate $250 billion to rebuild the Gulf Coast. An editorial in The Washington Post called the congressional delegation `Louisiana's looters.'

In announcing his Bring Back New Orleans Commission, Mayor Ray Nagin took issue with that description, saying he doesn't care if the federal government allocates, quote, "250 billion or $100 billion or some other number."

Mayor RAY NAGIN (Democrat, New Orleans): No one is trying to loot. We just have such a precious asset here that we want to make sure that you provide us with the resources or help us to rebuild ourselves.

ALLEN: Clearly without federal help, New Orleans and Louisiana are not going to be rebuilt anytime soon. The city has begun laying off some 3,000 non-essential workers; that's 40 percent of its work force. The state has also begun making cuts. But along with the question of where the money will come from is another: Who should the city be rebuilt for? In the evacuation, many of New Orleans' poorest residents disbursed to cities across the country; some have openly wondered whether, if they don't return, New Orleans may, in fact, be better off. Barbara Major, community activist and co-chair of the mayor's rebuilding commission, says the city wants all of its residents back.

Ms. BARBARA MAJOR (Community Activist; Co-chairperson, Bring Back New Orleans Commission): It's not just the architecture. It is the flavor of the people that made this city. And if they don't come back, then New Orleans won't come back. That's the bottom line. But they don't have to come back poor to bring that spirit and flavor. That's the difference.

ALLEN: Mayor Nagin and business leaders echoed those comments, saying when it's rebuilt, New Orleans won't be a Disneyland, but they hope it will be a city that offers improved social and economic opportunities for all of its residents. Greg Allen, NPR News, New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.