Wednesday's unveiling of the Bring Back New Orleans commission's plan to begin rebuilding the flood-ravaged city left residents raging against the decision to cut off building permits for some of the worst-hit parts of town for at least four months.
Officials expected a dramatic response to the plan, which they got from the 20 or so audience members who spoke out at the standing-room-only presentation. According to New Orleans' Times-Picayune, the residents — enraged by the plan's call to allow the city to seize properties under eminent domain statutes in order to buy out homeowners in areas that are not likely to return — sent a simple message: Don't tell me what I can do with my property.
"We don't want to wait four months," said Jeb Bruneau, president of the Lakeview Civic Association. "We want to be able to go down to City Hall and get permits. We have the means to help ourselves, so don't get in our way." The paper reported that members of City Council also aired their disapproval of the plan before its unveiling, joining a chorus of opposition that includes the NAACP.
Even New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin seemed conflicted over the plan, appearing to favor the four-month planning process, but indicating after the meeting that he is not comfortable with preventing people from renovating their flood-damaged homes and that he's unlikely to support the moratorium.
The city, which is expected to reach half of its pre-Katrina population of just under 500,000 by 2008, has been struggling for months with the suggestion that some neighborhoods should be abandoned and allowed to return to wetlands in order to serve as natural storm barriers (see "New Orleans Levees Still Aren't Safe ... And Maybe Never Were"). Under the proposed plan, residents would not be allowed to return to the most affected areas, which include two-thirds of the city, comprised of more than half of New Orleans' homeowners, many of them poor (see "Katrina Devastates New Orleans; Mississippi Death Toll Rises To Over 110"). During the four-month moratorium, each neighborhood's leaders would have to submit a recovery plan that would have to be approved before residents could come back. Neighborhoods that don't come up with an acceptable plan or those that don't attract enough development within a year could be bulldozed and returned to marshland, with homeowners compensated by the city for their losses.
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Some of the angry residents in the packed Sheraton Hotel ballroom argued that the plan would delay progress they've already made in rebuilding their neighborhoods, while another called it a "land grab" by developers intent on changing the face of the city.
Carolyn Parker of the heavily-damaged Lower 9th Ward warned the group that her home would be taken "over my dead body," according to the paper, while fellow 9th Ward resident Rodney Craft, warned, "If you come to take our property, you better come ready."
While most of the speakers opposed the plan — which they interpreted as a sign that city leaders don't want them to return — some in the crowd of 500 applauded it. Even before the plan was presented, Nagin warned that some in the audience were likely to reject it. "This report is controversial," he said. "It pushes the edge of the envelope." But he assured the crowd that it was not a final draft. "Let's take the time to discuss it, debate it, analyze it and tweak it," he said. "This is a recommendation from the commission. We as a community have the ultimate say in how we move forward."
According to New Orleans Times-Picayune, the plan was in flux until the night before it was presented, with one of the most significant changes including the dropping of the suggestion that for neighborhoods to be considered viable, at least half their pre-Katrina population would have to commit to return within the next four months.
For now, none of the panel's recommendations has any legal bearing, though the mayor's committee voted unanimously Wednesday to accept the report. Nagin must now decide how to tweak it and the upcoming proposals by six other committees scheduled to announce their plans next week for education, infrastructure, government efficiency, health care, culture and economic development.
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