Recovery Czar Ed Blakely Outlines New Orleans Reconstruction

“When you turn on the radio, you hear New Orleans. No matter where you are in the world. If you’re in Leningrad, the taxi driver puts on New Orleans music. It’s a city we all know about and should care about.”

With these words Dr Ed Blakely began his public lecture, at the University of Sydney on 5 April, on the rebuilding of the world’s jazz capital.

A professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Sydney, Dr Blakely was recently appointed to head the reconstruction of New Orleans, which was virtually destroyed on 29 August 2005 when the storm surge from Hurricane Katrina burst through levees meant to protect the low-lying city from the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. Eighty per cent of the city was inundated.

In the aftermath the world watched as the Bush administration’s failure to respond left tens of thousands of people stranded for days without food or water. This failure was later widely linked to the fact that most of the city’s residents were poor and black.

Dr Blakely believes such incompetence and indifference would not be tolerated under Australia’s parliamentary form of government. “The Prime Minister would be gone because you couldn’t have a leader who had disappointed the electorate that badly,” he said.

Nineteen months later, about half the pre-Katrina population has returned to New Orleans only to find their neighbourhoods are still a disaster zone.

Traffic lights remain broken and many roads are impassable. Schools are badly damaged and some are rodent-infested. In March, 18 months after the flood, the city’s first hospital and emergency room re-opened. Some neighbourhoods in the city still have no electricity or drinkable water.

The US government has refused to release $1.1 billion in disaster aid under a reimbursement process which requires that the city first fund its own repairs, despite being bankrupted the day Katrina hit. Federal emergency loans to New Orleans also have not been forgiven, even though such debts were forgiven within the first month for every other major disaster to hit the US.

In its April Katrina Index, independent research organisation The Brookings Institution says New Orleans may have turned a corner with the January appointment of Dr Blakely, dubbed the city’s ‘Recovery Czar’. He has brought to the role extensive experience helping cities recover from disasters.

In New Orleans, his first task was to secure private funding to kick-start infrastructure projects by selling bonds and borrowing against the redevelopment of abandoned properties seized by the city.

His recovery strategy involves developing cluster housing on higher ground in 17 districts across New Orleans and reviving these areas’ commercial centres. Residents of the lowest-lying neighbourhoods will be encouraged to swap their land for a nearby property on higher ground. This strategy was unveiled on 30 March to wide acclaim.

Five principles drive the strategy:

  • Continue the healing and consultation;
  • Insure safety and security in all neighbourhoods;
  • Build 21st and 22nd century infrastructure;
  • Diversify the economy; and
  • Design a sustainable settlement pattern.

Conscious of the ongoing distress felt by local residents, Dr Blakely gives daily media interviews to reassure people that New Orleans will recover and that local government remains deeply committed to rebuilding the city.

The major objectives of the 15-year recovery plan are to enable the city to survive and grow sustainably, while preserving the culture that has made New Orleans such a unique historical treasure.

“New Orleans already has a very well-defined and excellent urban fabric, with unique architecture,” said Dr Blakely. “We have to build onto this fabric.”

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