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Conference panel focuses on community rebuilding after a crisis.

Displaced residents are returning, bankruptcy has been avoided and talks will continue about how to restore the "full essence" of New Orleans said Mayor C. Ray Nagin at the Congress of Cities and Exposition.

Ultimately, the spirit and soul of New Orleans, which is still in recovery two years after Hurricane Katrina hit, is "definitely waterproof," Nagin declared during a panel discussion at the conference about rebuilding a community after a crisis.

Moderated by former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros, former mayor of San Antonio and NLC past president, the focus of the panel was not so much about preparing for a crisis or how to physically rebuild in its aftermath. With the backdrop of the continuing recovery of New Orleans, the discussion was about how to convey to citizens the sense that the community can go forward.

"The subject at hand here is important to you," Cisneros stated as he addressed the delegates "It is not a question of whether it's going to happen or if it will occur. It's only when and who in this room will experience a major circumstance that involves loss of life and emergency action."

Also joining the panel discussion was Susan Thornton, former mayor of Littleton, Colo., and principal of Susan Thornton Associates, who was mayor pro tem in her city when the Columbine High School massacre occurred in April of 1999 in nearby unincorporated Jefferson County, Colo.; and Dr. Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, founder and president of AmericaSpeaks, a network of organizations promoting citizen participation in local and national governance.

Leadership Challenges

With buzz about "cleansing" New Orleans by "shrinking its footprint" and with a question looming about whether the city should even be rebuilt at all, Nagin had to make many controversial decisions after Hurricane Katrina hit. But his biggest challenge was how to unburden the citizens "who were damaged, who were hurting, who were frustrated."

"I made a decision to basically say to our community, we will rebuild every section of this city," he stated. "We will rebuild smarter, we will rebuild higher and we will rebuild better. And what that did was that brought some of the tension down."

Whether displaced or still living in the city, citizens are being involved in the planning process of rebuilding, which Nagin said is helping them feel more empowered and makes sure they plan and buy into their city.

Lukensmeyer and her AmericaSpeaks network have played a big part in these efforts to engage the New Orleans community holistically. Traveling across the country facilitating town hall meetings focusing on how to create strong communities from the ground up, AmericaSpeaks convened a meeting last December, which allowed displaced New Orleans residents to help prioritize the infrastructure investments needed to rebuild the city. The meeting utilized interactive TV to link thousands of participants in New Orleans and 21 other cities

"The major message that came from people that day was this is the first time the city felt whole again," she declared.

During the panel discussion. Lukensmeyer urged leaders to use creative and risk-taking measures such as the interactive meeting in New Orleans to help people feel like the whole city is in it together.

Leading in the Aftermath

"Shock" is the word Thornton used to describe the emotion that spread across the country on April 20, 1999 after two students embarked on a shooting rampage, killing 12 students and one teacher. Part of the shock for those in Colorado was the fact that the massacre happened in a "middle-class, safe community with an excellent school."

Thornton said the first step after the massacre occurred was to ensure the safety of the citizens. Afterward, the area was inundated with support--from volunteers to e-mails to songs Thornton found such support can be overwhelming at times for one person to handle and suggested designating people to tasks like writing thank you letters.

In her city, volunteers even gathered the flowers sent to the school and made them into potpourri for the victims' families


"The more you can involve people in helping, it seems the more they feel in control and involved, and the healing begins," she said.

On a larger scale, Nagin had to control lawlessness that was occurring in his city after the hurricane. He addressed each issue in phases In phase one, he sent a message to looters that their actions would not be tolerated, In phase two, he provided techniques--such as not paying up front and making sure to check references--for people to protect themselves from scam artists.

Looking at community-wide tragedy from a non-elected official perspective, Lukensmeyer pointed out citizens aren't "sitting in the seat," meaning it is necessary that leaders respond in a way that meets people's immediate needs.

"This is a time when people experience something that was just previously incomprehensible to them in that moment in time," explained Lukensmeyer. "What communities most need from their leaders are visual actions and words that reinstill our trust and our confidence that we can collectively five through. It has to be grounded in something that intuitively [you] believe. You can't give false optimism."


A Federal Perspective

In the relief efforts in response to Hurricane Katrina and in the storm's aftermath, condemnations of mismanagement and lack of leadership were the primary criticism, especially the delayed response to the flooding in the city.

Nagin hasn't seen much change.

"Right now, I'm afraid for y'all because what has happened to New Orleans, and with the fundamental laws that are in place to deal with another disaster like this, nothing has changed, ladies and gentlemen," he observed.

Speaking after the panel discussion, Donald Powell, federal coordinator of Gulf Coast Rebuilding, agreed that some aspects in the federal government need to be changed in order to ideally handle disasters. For example, he said the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act needs to be amended because it doesn't anticipate a catastrophic event like Hurricane Katrina. Though he understands some of the rationale behind it, be believes it is obsolete and rigid.

Powell is working with local officials to devise a long-term plan for rebuilding the region devastated by Hurricane Katrina. His status report on the progress of rebuilding thus far is that the infrastructure is going to be completely rebuilt and The Road Home, a program that helps residents of Louisiana get back into their homes, will hopefully be properly funded in the region shortly.

"This is too important not to get it right," Powell insisted. "I think our responsibility at the federal level is to do more than stand on the sidelines and clap."
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Author:Duvall, Cherie
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 26, 2007
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