A unique chance to build smarter

By Jarvis DeBerry Published:

By Jarvis DeBerry

Even before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was a city divided.

In the parts of town near the Mississippi River and along the citys natural ridges, you could see houses that were built high -- in obvious anticipation of flooding.

In the parts of the city that used to be swampy, you could see houses built directly on the ground, as if to say, Flooding? What flooding?

Not surprisingly, when water from Hurricane Katrina broke through many of the areas levees, the houses built sensibly and in the oldest part of the city fared much better than those built with no thought to the areas topography.

Katrinas message was clear: Respect nature, and shes somewhat more likely to respect you back.

After Hurricane Katrina, 80 percent of New Orleans was under water. Theres no way that everybody who wants to live in the city can squeeze onto the 20 percent of the city that stayed dry. But does that mean that 100 percent of the city should be available for those who want to rebuild?

Ask most of the members of the New Orleans City Council, and theyll say yes. Every homeowner has a right, according to them, to rebuild in the exact same spot, no matter how many feet of water their houses took.

We should all be thankful, therefore, that the council isnt in charge of much of anything these days and that responsibility for planning was given to a panel Mayor Ray Nagin appointed, called the Bring New Orleans Back Commission.

That commissions recommendations, released Wednesday, are not perfect, but the people whove served on the commission deserve credit for telling the people of New Orleans what council members wont: giving every homeowner carte blanche to build wherever he or she likes would be the worst thing that could happen to New Orleans.

Granted, there are homeowners who disagree. In their minds, nothing could be worse than being told by the government that they cant do what they want with their properties. They bristle at the commissions recommendation that certain flooded neighborhoods prove their viability before construction work is allowed to begin.

Some residents want to go back to the lot they call home, even if no one else on their block follows suit. Some of these same intrepid souls already have endured long lines at City Hall waiting to get building permits and have spent thousands of dollars rehabilitating their homes. Imagine how it feels to them now to be told that their neighborhood may be one of the ones taken out of commerce.

Actually, one doesnt have to imagine how such homeowners feel. Theyll tell anybody who asks that theyre angry. Nevertheless, their anger isnt reason enough to abandon the commissions plan, or to grant other homeowners permission to build willy-nilly.

Approximately 462,000 people lived in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina. There are 144,000 now, and the Bring New Orleans Back Commission predicts that by September 2008 there will be 247,000 people here, or 53 percent of the pre-storm population. Nevertheless, some people have called suggestions that the city shrink itself to reflect its smaller population a thinly veiled plot to separate black people from their land.

If the commissions recommendations are accepted by Nagin, people in neighborhoods targeted for buyouts will get government help in getting out from under their mortgages and then refunds for whatever equity theyd put into their houses. Everyone who has to move would be compensated.

Yet, some homeowners who showed up at Wednesdays unveiling of the plan warned officials to bring weapons with them if they tried to take homeowners land. One woman screamed that her property would be taken over my dead body. Another man told Joseph Canizaro, a New Orleans developer who served as chairman of the commissions urban planning committee, Mr. Joe Canizaro, I dont know you, but I hate you.

All these comments came from people who own property in the Lower 9th Ward. When a flood wall along the Industrial Canal gave way, many of the homes closest to the canal were washed away. Farther from the canal, homes were pushed off their foundations and into neighbors yards or into the streets. Many homes remain in the streets.

The fact that some residents see the Bring New Orleans Back Commissions suggestions not as a plan to take worthless property off their hands, but rather a scheme to steal from them, exposes yet another of New Orleans divides. Some residents, many of them black, cant allow themselves to believe that the commission has their best financial interests at heart.

But neither does the City Council. If so, its members wouldnt be supporting their constituents desires to live on worthless land. Theyd be pushing for a new city less divided than the one that was.

(Jarvis DeBerry is an editorial writer and columnist for The Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans.)

Special to Newsday

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