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Give New Orleans time.

Byline: The Register-Guard

Pragmatic "just do it" Oregonians are undoubtedly wondering why it's taking so long for New Orleans to dig out from under the debris left by hurricanes Katrina and Rita last summer.

There isn't a simple answer; in fact, the issue is so complex it makes your teeth ache. For starters, the you've-got-to-see-it-to-believe-it scale of destruction ensures that rebuilding New Orleans will present public officials at all levels of government with unprecedented challenges.

Those challenges began in Washington, D.C., before the floodwaters had begun to recede. House Speaker Dennis Hastert did not endear himself to traumatized New Orleanians when he remarked, "It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed." Asked whether it made sense to spend billions of federal dollars rebuilding a city that lies below sea level, Hastert said, "I don't know. That doesn't make sense to me."

Hearing such skepticism from one of the nation's most powerful congressional leaders helped to stoke public doubts about restoring New Orleans. An AP-Ipsos poll found that 54 percent of Americans wanted the four-fifths of New Orleans that was flooded by Katrina moved to higher ground.

So before they could even begin to formulate a recovery plan, Louisiana officials were forced to defend the right of one of the nation's oldest and most unique cities to rebuild within its historic boundaries. Fortunately, it began to dawn on people that no one would be raising such questions about San Francisco after a catastrophic earthquake or Chicago after a tornado.

Americans are loathe to allow risks - natural or man-made - to rule out an attractive location for a subdivision or a city. Almost 60 percent of the U.S. population resides in the nation's coastal counties. Huge cities have been built along active fault lines. Millions of homes exist in regions susceptible to landslides, forest fires or tsunamis.

That said, New Orleans officials know better than anyone that the city shouldn't be rebuilt exactly as it was before the floods. If there is a silver lining to be found within Katrina's storm clouds, it's that the reconstruction of the city's devastated housing inventory offers an opportunity to address many of the man-made problems that exacerbated the hurricane's destruction.

There are clear policy reasons why poor African-Americans bore the brunt of Katrina's fury in New Orleans. For decades, federal housing policies concentrated the poorest residents in the lowest-lying parts of the city. Within the New Orleans city limits, the flooded areas were 80 percent non-white and included 38 of the metropolitan area's 49 extreme poverty census tracts.

Now New Orleans has a rare opportunity to turn recovery from a calamity into a rebirth. The rebuilding is moving slowly in part because re-engineering a city's housing, employment and income distribution is a gargantuan and complex undertaking.

Further complicating this daunting process is the emotional trauma facing residents of flooded neighborhoods who could be forced to relocate. In spite of the abject poverty and staggering storm damage present in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, many Lower Ninth residents want to return to homesites that have been in their families for generations. They fear being moved to unfamiliar surroundings and disrupting social networks that could never be duplicated elsewhere.

Some black residents are deeply suspicious that the city will use the recovery program as cover for a scheme to turn their property over to wealthy developers. The heavy representation of real estate interests on Mayor Ray Nagin's 17-member redevelopment commission fuels those fears.

To make matters worse, New Orleans is caught in the mother of all Catch-22s. Katrina forced more than 100,000 workers to evacuate, depleting the city's blue-collar labor pool. New Orleans needs those workers and more to propel its recovery, especially in housing construction. But most of those workers still have no place to live, and details are just now emerging on a program that would help compensate people who've lost their homes.

Among the many things New Orleans needs from the rest of the nation right now is patience and understanding. New Orleans' leaders must be given the time and support they need to get this recovery right. The future of a city that is one of America's cultural crown jewels is at stake.

Associate Editor Jim Godbold recently returned from a National Conference of Editorial Writers fact-finding trip to Louisiana and Mississippi. A series of editorials assessing Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts on the Gulf Coast will appear in the coming week.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Editorials; The right recovery plan could correct inequities
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Feb 28, 2006
Words:743
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