Rebuilding New Orleans Requires Smart Planning

Friday, October 16, 2009

MANY IN New Orleans were not happy with President Obama's brief visit Thursday. They wanted him to spend more time talking with them about what's been happening since hurricanes Katrina and Rita unleashed misery there four years ago. We're sympathetic to their desire for substantial presidential face time. But neither Mr. Obama nor his administration is a stranger to the devastation of the Gulf Coast or the frustrations with the pace of recovery. What's more relevant than how many times he visits is how much more needs to be done.

Public housing is an area for hope. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan broke ground Thursday on the redevelopment of the last of the four big housing projects. The warehouses of poverty and dysfunction will be replaced by mixed-income townhouses with the modern conveniences that weren't available in the 1940s.

Education is another relatively bright spot. The state of Louisiana announced this week that 42 percent of New Orleans public schools were classified as "academically unacceptable." Sounds terrible -- and it is. But an astounding 63 percent of schools fell into that category before the 2005 hurricane struck. A majority of New Orleans public schools now open are charter schools.

According to the New Orleans Index of the Brookings Institution, 76.4 percent of the city's population has returned. But they have come back to a still devastated city. There are 63,000 vacant and abandoned properties. State and local officials continue to fight with the Army Corps of Engineers over levee repairs and construction of a flood protection system that would shield New Orleans from the type of storm surge that helped drown the city in 2005. Mr. Obama announced a new White House working group that would review coastal restoration projects in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast to find ways to cut through the bureaucracy that has long delayed some of them.

A process is underway for approving a new master plan for New Orleans with significant public participation and input. Once adopted, it will have the force of law, and all land-use and zoning decisions will have to conform to it. But left unresolved thus far is any definitive statement on whether officials will permit extensive rebuilding in vulnerable low-lying areas. For instance, will the Lower Ninth Ward, whose destruction shocked the national conscience, be allowed to return to its densely populated past? It certainly should not be.

"I promise you this," Mr. Obama told the crowd at the University of New Orleans, "together we will rebuild this region, and we will build it stronger than before." But will it be rebuilt smarter? The answer remains unclear.

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