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Big question mark over Big Easy

The plan to rebuild News Orleans is part blueprint, and part wish list. It’s so grand, city officials say it’s divided into seven parts delivered over five different days. But, NBC News' Martin Savidge reports that  for many residents, the proposed plan still leaves many unanswered questions.
A boat sits in the street of New Orleans as a utility worker repairs lines Tuesday.
A boat sits in the street of New Orleans as a utility worker repairs lines Tuesday.Bill Haber / AP
/ Source: NBC News

NEW ORLEANS —The plan to rebuild New Orleans is part blueprint, and part wish list.

The proposal developed by a commission appointed by Mayor Ray Nagin is so grand, city officials say that the Bring New Orleans Back Commission has divided it into seven parts to be delivered over five different days.

That doesn’t matter to Byron Lafrance who continues to work on his gutted Lower Ninth Ward home; all he cares about is that there is a plan.

“All I need is somebody to say what direction, or what help from the government or the city or local government is going to give us to rebuild our homes.”

The plan
The Urban Planning Committee was the first to unveil its ideas on Wednesday.

Under the plan, residents in the hardest-hit areas will have four months to show that enough people plan to return to make their community “sustainable.”

There would be a moratorium on building permits while neighborhood meetings are held to gather information on who is coming back. Those areas that show they have a large enough population would be allowed to rebuild.

Those neighborhoods that fail to get enough people will be eligible for a yet-to-be-financed buy-out program.

The framework creates an almost survival-of-the-fittest competition. Instead of city leaders deciding the contentious issue of what areas of the city should or should not rebuild, the onus will be on residents themselves.

The committee report also suggests that the “footprint” of New Orleans will be much smaller. Residents from areas that do not rebuild would be compacted into high density housing developments in other less flood prone areas.

Parks and green spaces would be created in the lowest-lying areas for water retention and flood protection.

The total projected cost of is estimated to be approximately $17 billion. Most of which would be devoted to the buyout program.

The second largest expense, $3.3 billion, would go to the creation of a light rail system that would link the newly created neighborhoods and eventually even connect to other cities in the state.

Bringing schools back to the City of Jazz
The plan will also go beyond just bricks-and-mortar issues.

Education will be the subject of the next committee report slated for next week.

According to Scott Cowen, President of Tulane University and the Chair of the Education Committee, its plans include an educational "Network model" with the emphasis on “student learning and achievement.” The long-term goal is focused on taking the New Orleans school system from the basement to the penthouse.

One thought is to cluster schools in neighborhoods overseen by a network manager, sort of like districts, but smaller.

The main point is more power for parents and more accountability for educators.

The same day next week the Culture Committee will deal with the difficult issue of restoring what made New Orleans known round the world: its status as a cultural capital.

Michael Arata, the chairman for the film and music industry subcommittee, wants to develop a jazz district with an interactive museum and live venues, as well as incentives to create film and sound studios to lure the film industry to New Orleans.

Big plans, but how realistic
Because the plan at times sounds big on dreams and short on concrete action, it could very well disappoint or even anger some residents.

Kevin Seibert is from the Lakeview area where, like the Lower Ninth Ward, floodwaters rose to the rooftops. He’s gutted his house, his rental property and his business. His insurance company paid him just $230. He took a break from ripping sheet rock to talk.

“After four months, not a whole lot has changed here. You know there's still people very uncertain about what they're going to do with their houses, and how they're going to proceed with their houses,” Seibert said.

“And people like myself, they want to get with the program, they want to move on... but it's just not happening.”

Political analyst Dr. Silas Lee summed up the issues still haunting survivors.

“Doubt, confusion and anxiety. Right now residents from New Orleans and the surrounding areas are confronted with those three major elements in their lives and they want to return, but they are questioning if they should return,” he said.

But the plan doesn't bring the definitive answers many wanted now. Instead residents will have to wait four more months with the hardest decisions put squarely back in their own laps.

For many, even with a plan, the Big Easy is still a big question mark.