NEW ORLEANS --The city's official blueprint for redevelopment after Hurricane Katrina, to be released Wednesday, will recommend that residents be allowed to return and rebuild anywhere they like, no matter how damaged or vulnerable the neighborhood, according to several members of the mayor's rebuilding commission.
The proposal appears to put the city's rebuilding panel on a collision course with its state counterpart, which will control at least some of the flow of federal rebuilding money to the city.
The primary author of the plan, Joseph C. Canizaro, said teams of outside experts would try to help each neighborhood return to normal, and those communities that drew enough people to justify the expense of city services would be permitted to grow.
But those areas that fail to attract a critical mass of residents in 12 months will probably not survive as residential neighborhoods, Canizaro said, and are likely to end up as marshland as this city's population declines and its footprint shrinks.
People who rebuild in those areas will be forced to leave, according to the proposal. Though such a requirement would be emotionally wrenching, the commission will propose a buyout program to compensate those people at the market price before Hurricane Katrina, but it is not clear whether there will be federal financing for such a program.
Assuming the commission's recommendations are adopted by Mayor C. Ray Nagin, the plan would effectively defer for a year one of the most difficult issues in the city's struggle to recover from the flooding that followed the hurricane: the fate of the most heavily damaged and flood-prone neighborhoods.
Many residents of low-lying neighborhoods such as the Lower Ninth Ward and New Orleans East have said they are determined to rebuild their ravaged blocks, while some experts have contended that such areas are better returned to marshland for safety and economic reasons. Some civic leaders who had hoped the mayor's panel, the 17-member Bring Back New Orleans Commission, would take a firm stand on the issue expressed disappointment.
"There are some very tough decisions that have to be made here, and no one relishes making them," said Janet R. Howard, chief executive of the Bureau of Governmental Research, a nonprofit policy organization based in New Orleans. "But to say that people should invest their money and invest their energies and put all their hope into rebuilding and then in a year we'll re-evaluate, that's no plan at all."
At least one member of the state panel, the Louisiana Recovery Authority, has echoed that sentiment.
"Someone has to be tough, to stand up and to tell the truth," Sean Reilly, a member of the state commission, said in a speech last week. "Every neighborhood in New Orleans will not be able to come back safe and viable."
Andy Kopplin, executive director of the state commission, declined to comment on the specifics of the city's report, which "hasn't been formally presented to us."
But he said his agency, when doling out federal dollars, would favor plans that emphasized safety and the wise use of precious resources.
"We want to make sure they invest in a smart way that provides a good return on investment," Kopplin said, adding that at the same time plans should be "true to the aspirations of local communities."
Canizaro, a prominent real estate developer here, acknowledged the possibility that Hurricane Katrina could spell the death of more than one New Orleans neighborhood. He cited a study by the Rand Corp. that estimated that in three years the city would have a population of no more than 275,000, down more than 40 percent from its pre-hurricane population of 465,000.
"It doesn't take a genius to figure if you're only going to have 40 or 50 percent of your original population, then there's going to be shrinking in the amount of land that's going to be needed," Canizaro said.
Yet deciding which neighborhoods should not be rebuilt involves far more than the cold rationale of geographic and demographic data, Canizaro said, especially considering the historic racial tensions in New Orleans.
The hurricane devastated the lives of white and black alike, but the waters that roared though much of the city disproportionately flooded its predominantly black eastern half.
"Unfortunately, a lot of poor African-Americans had everything they own destroyed here," Canizaro said. "So we have to be careful about dictating what's going to happen, especially me as a white man. What's important is we give people an opportunity to determine their future, as best we can."