Video: Nagin unveils rebuilding plan

updated 3/21/2006 7:18:41 PM ET 2006-03-22T00:18:41

New Orleans is better prepared for the upcoming hurricane season because of stronger flood walls and better evacuation plans since Hurricane Katrina, Mayor Ray Nagin said in an interview Tuesday.

“We should be able to sustain another Katrina,” the mayor said.

“If a Category 5 hits us, probably the city will be gone and the levees will still be standing. The work they’re doing is just incredible,” Nagin said of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Nagin’s comments came a day after he endorsed a proposal that would allow all New Orleans residents to rebuild their homes in neighborhoods shattered by Hurricane Katrina.

He said the pace of rebuilding will likely depend on federal and state aid, but too much bureaucracy could hobble hopes for restoration.

“The worst-case scenario is the state creates an incredible bureaucracy to issue this money, everything gets bogged down and bottle-necked and lots of people get frustrated and we kind of limp along at half the population we had,” he said.

Nagin’s advisory commission, formed after Katrina struck Aug. 29, recommended in January that some flooded neighborhoods be replaced with parks and that the city take a go-slow attitude in rebuilding low-lying areas. But that suggestion was greeted with jeers and outrage at public meetings.

Nagin distanced himself from that plan, which included a proposed moratorium on building permits in some neighborhoods.

On Monday, he offered to let residents rebuild anywhere, but warned that homeowners in flood-prone areas would do so at their own risk. “I’m confident that the citizens can decide intelligently for themselves,” the mayor said.

Extensive wish list
The report also recommended a host of other ideas, from revamping schools to consolidating some city offices. The wish list of projects included new light-rail systems, new riverfront development and better flood protection.

Residents vented their frustrations during the public comment period, with one black man calling the group “a rotten, racist committee.”

But the commission’s plan has been warmly received in many circles. Ron Forman, a strong mayoral candidate and prominent businessman, applauded the commission’s work and the breadth of the report. But he said it is still short on specifics.

“The only problem I see with the plan is that I don’t see an implementation plan, an action plan, based on dates on when we can expect to be done,” Forman said.

Nagin, who is running for re-election on April 22, turned the plan immediately into fodder for his re-election campaign, poking fun at a prominent opponent and using the spotlight to make light of missteps he’s made.

‘Chocolate City’
“I’m going to do something I hate to do: I’m going to read from the script ... so that I don’t get caught up in the moment,” said Nagin, whose off-the-cuff remarks have drawn criticism, such as his infamous “Chocolate City” speech in which he said God intended New Orleans to be a black-majority city.

The release of the report came hours after civil rights groups took aim at the state’s plan for rebuilding, which includes spending billions of federal dollars to buy flood-damaged homes.

Critics said that plan gives short shrift to poor and low-income victims, focusing too much on bailing out homeowners and encouraging high-end development at the expense of low-income renters.

If a White House proposal is approved by Congress, the bulk of Louisiana’s reconstruction would be funded with $9.2 billion in federal grants using a plan by Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

Typically, 70 percent of such grant money is given to projects that help poor and middle-income residents. But the government is allowing Louisiana to reduce that figure to 50 percent or less.

The NAACP, the Advancement Project, the New Orleans-based People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and other groups said in a letter to Blanco’s administration that the 50 percent share is too little.

‘Opening salvo’ in battle for money
The groups cite government estimates showing that about 126,570 rental units without insurance were flooded last year. By contrast, the letter says, only about 25,180 uninsured homes were damaged, which is about 20 percent of all the ruined homes.

“This is really like the opening salvo, if you will, of attempts to get a fair share of that money for low and moderate income people,” said Bill Quigley, a lawyer and civil rights activist.

Blanco’s plan still needs approval by the Legislature, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Louisiana Recovery Authority.

State officials said they welcomed the civil rights groups’ opinions.

“We want to make sure that we get as much input from citizens as we can,” said Suzie Elkins, director of the Office of Community Development, which will also review the rebuilding plan.

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