NEARLY THREE months have passed since Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans. But although the water is gone and the French Quarter is open, things are very much not back to business as usual. Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen -- who has been running the federal side of the recovery effort since former FEMA chief Michael D. Brown's departure in mid-September -- reckons that almost none of the 1.5 million people evacuated from southern Louisiana after Katrina have gone home. New Orleans today is a city of contractors, low-wage workers from elsewhere and a small number of "natives" living in the relatively undamaged higher-altitude wards. Even if they have homes, most of those residents still have no easy access to hospitals or to schools. Large chunks of the city are without electricity, gas or water, and large numbers of homes are still uninhabitable.
The next steps forward for the city are in some ways the hardest: At the moment, few people can live there because there are no services, and there are no services because few people live there. Recognizing that they need to move on -- and quickly -- most, if not all, of Louisiana's politicians have abandoned their initial "give us $250 billion and let us decide how to spend it" plans and are entertaining more sensible proposals, both for how the city can proceed and for how outsiders can help. The Urban Land Institute, in cooperation with city politicians, has issued a series of recommendations, most notably including the idea that rebuilding should take place in phases, with safer, higher districts being rebuilt first. Both Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) and New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D) appear to have signed on to that model, even though it implies that the lower, more heavily damaged parts of the city may not be rebuilt for years -- if at all.
Both the governor and the mayor also more generally support the creation -- proposed in several versions -- of a federal or federal-local corporation that would purchase damaged property from owners who can't or don't want to rebuild; the corporation then would redevelop the property or put it to some other use. The most advanced version of this plan is a bill proposed by Rep. Richard H. Baker (R-La.), whose Louisiana Recovery Corp. would settle outstanding mortgages; give property owners options to sell and repurchase at a later date or in a drier location; and make infrastructure improvements so land can be sold and redeveloped. Any profits from redevelopment would be returned to the U.S. Treasury. The proposal is timely: Within weeks, mortgage companies may start foreclosing on New Orleans property.
If and when these ideas receive the full political support of the state and city, it will be the turn of Congress and the federal government to step in with carefully targeted recovery money: for repairing levees and infrastructure and for lending to small businesses. When that's in place, the uncertainty about whether there will again be a New Orleans will come to end.
But none of this has gelled yet, and no unquestioned leader has emerged. Until one does, there is certainly a danger that the city and its problems will be forgotten and the architectural and cultural treasures of New Orleans ultimately abandoned. Memories are short in Washington, and some people already are arguing that New Orleans isn't worth rebuilding. Now is the time for Louisiana's politicians, in the state and on Capitol Hill, to come to a consensus about what they want New Orleans to look like. They need to convince Congress and the administration that they know exactly how and why taxpayers' dollars will be spent. Congress and the administration, in turn, need to be willing to listen and to put up the money at least for the reconstruction of the failed levees. Only then will more of the city's former residents have the confidence to leave the hotels and apartments they still inhabit across the country, and return home.