New Orleans can be rebuilt, or so they say.
Just ask the mayor's commission. Or the governor's commission. Or, wait a bit, and see if the congressman's commission flies. The city council's commission was even unveiled with something important missing: commission members. But it was trumpeted as a commission nonetheless.
As this once-flooded city is flooded anew by commissions and subcommittees and study groups, the operative question is becoming: Who the heck is in charge here? "If we can't appear to get ourselves organized, how can we possibly convince the rest of the country that we can do this recovery right?" said Mel Lagarde, a health care executive who is co-chairman of Mayor C. Ray Nagin's rebuilding commission.
Wading into this tangle of internecine rivalries and push-me-pull-you Louisiana politics will be Donald E. Powell, 64, head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. since 2001. President Bush named him Tuesday to oversee Gulf Coast hurricane recovery efforts.
Powell takes on the task in a region with ancient mistrust of the federal government, dating to the Civil War and on into the heat of civil rights-era desegregation battles. Nagin has already warned Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen, the current day-to-day coordinator of the government's relief work, that he is not "the federal mayor of New Orleans."
Powell's appointment was greeted with muted approval. "If this person is going to be doing more than padding his resume, it makes sense to me," said Barbara Major, co-chairman of Nagin's commission. "Y'all in the federal government need to come up with some continuity about what y'all are doing. There seems to be a real lack of coordination."
Judging from the urging that has taken place for weeks, many of the most influential people here would welcome a federal overseer with broad powers, even a so-called czar. Walter Isaacson, the former chairman of CNN who is vice chairman of Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco's commission, said he likes the idea of a czar, even if "everybody gets all allergic about that phrase."
In a sense, New Orleans now resembles Blanche DuBois, the faded belle of Tennessee Williams's "A Streetcar Named Desire," who famously relied "on the kindness of strangers." With New Orleans near bankruptcy, devoid of a tax base and forced to lay off half its 6,000 city workers, there is no doubt here that the money to rebuild will come from strangers -- strangers in Congress -- many of whom have been frosty, and some downright hostile, to the Louisiana delegation's attempts to pass a $250 billion relief package.
"It's almost like fighting with your hands tied behind your back," said Nagin, who traveled to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to plead for tax breaks. "You can't move quickly. Everything's dictated to you."
As New Orleans City Councilman Jay Batt puts it, the federal government will surely play a huge role because of the "golden rule": "He who has the gold makes the rules." Indeed, so far, Nagin says he has been given discretion to spend just $15 million of the $27 billion in federal money that has been allocated to the region.
The city's first stabs at jump-starting the economy failed. Nagin touted, then quickly abandoned, his plan to create a "casino district" by allowing gambling halls in downtown hotels. Some of the city's signature businesses are fleeing -- Ruth's Chris Steak House, founded in New Orleans by the late Ruth Fertel, moved its corporate headquarters to Orlando, and the New Orleans Saints are reportedly negotiating a possible move to San Antonio. Nagin declared that the National Football League team is welcome to return, but owner Tom Benson is not.
At the same time, a lack of money is keeping New Orleans out of the power loop in the recovery effort. The city is so short of cash it had to put school employees on disaster leave.
"At the moment, there are a lot of people who would be able to exercise command and control who don't have the resources," said Rep. Richard H. Baker (R-La.). "They can draw a great plan and have a great vision, but they don't have the resources to implement it."
Baker has introduced legislation to create a quasi-governmental real estate management corporation that would use money raised by the sale of long-term debt by the U.S. Treasury to buy massive tracts in New Orleans. The corporation would be overseen by a seven-member panel, appointed by the president, and could exercise eminent domain if homeowners who opt to sell dispute the price.
A dearth of cash has not stopped the current commissions from beavering away on plans. Nagin's 16-member panel has seven subcommittees and has given out "homework assignments," some as basic as writing an oath for commission members to take. The group has thus far created a quarter-inch-thick "gap plan," which asks the White House for short-term money to run the city. By the end of the year, the commission expects to unveil "a master plan."
Even before then, the commission will have to figure out what it is. Commission members have asked the state attorney general to unravel such basics as whether it is a public or private entity and whether the mayor and a city council member can legally sit on the board.
Once the commission gets answers, it will still have to navigate tricky political waters. Nagin, a Democrat, broke party lines and endorsed Blanco's Republican opponent in the 2003 gubernatorial election. The two leaders bickered in the emotional days immediately after Hurricane Katrina but have since tried to project unity. Still, some are skeptical.
"We would love it if the governor, the congressional delegation, the mayor could say, 'Yes, that's the plan, and I'm willing to die for that,' " Lagarde said. "How I see our political leadership acting right now, I don't see them able to do that."
The commission Lagarde leads may have a rival at some point. The New Orleans City Council, which has often been at odds with Nagin, announced earlier this month that it is forming a recovery commission. Meanwhile, the makeup of the existing commissions has come under attack. Editorialists have criticized Nagin for not including the city's eclectic artistic community on his panel -- the commission's culture subcommittee, for instance, is headed by a lawyer/land developer. And, despite the universal goal among the city's power brokers of improving the New Orleans school system, there is no representative of elementary or secondary schools.
Louisiana's history of florid political corruption is working against it. Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), a member of the Appropriations Committee that will dole out recovery money, told Idaho's Lewiston Morning Tribune that "fraud is in the culture of Iraqis. I believe that is true in the state of Louisiana as well. . . . Louisiana and New Orleans are the most corrupt governments in our country and they always have been." Cesar R. Burgos, a New Orleans lawyer on the mayor's rebuilding commission, believes the city is being punished by Craig and others for the sins of its political past.
"It's frustrating to hear the same thing over and over as if we're some unorganized Third World country," Burgos said. "Don't kick somebody when they're down."
Trying to overcome the region's long-standing reputation for dysfunction and corruption has made Lagarde feel as if he is "auditioning."
"The group we're auditioning for isn't the city of New Orleans -- the money is going to come from the rest of the country," he said. "It could get to, maybe, the point where you're not really in charge of your own city anymore."