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Mayor backs Big Easy rebuilding plan

 (The Spokesman-Review)
Nagin (The Spokesman-Review)

NEW ORLEANS – Mayor Ray Nagin finished work Monday on a plan to rebuild New Orleans, endorsing a proposal that would allow all residents to reconstruct their homes in neighborhoods shattered by Hurricane Katrina.

The mayor’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, who is running for re-election April 22, distanced himself from that plan, which included a proposed moratorium on building permits in some areas.

On Monday, he offered to let residents rebuild anywhere but warned that homeowners in flood-prone neighborhoods would do so at their own risk.

“I’m confident that the citizens can decide intelligently for themselves,” the mayor said.

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

“We have worked tirelessly,” Nagin told hundreds of residents who attended a meeting to hear about the plan. “It has been controversial in some respects, but I am pleased by the results.”

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

But the 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 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.

“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.

Groups including the NAACP, the Advancement Project and the New Orleans-based People’s Hurricane Relief Fund complained that the plan gives short shrift to poor and low-income victims by focusing too much on bailing out homeowners and encouraging high-end development at the expense of low-income renters.

In a letter to Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s administration, the groups cited government estimates showing that about 126,570 rental units without insurance were flooded last year. By contrast, they said, only about 25,180 uninsured homes were damaged, which is about 20 percent of all the ruined homes.


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