Leaders of Big Easy can't avoid hard truth about city's future

September 01, 2006|By Clarence Page

NEW ORLEANS -- There was never any serious doubt among those who really know New Orleans that the city would rise again after Hurricane Katrina. Though bruised and battered, the city still receives too much love and offers too much profit potential to be ignored. What is not clear, a year after the storm, is what kind of New Orleans the recovered city will be.

It still will be a port city and tourist town. Cargo traffic through the city's port system has returned to pre-Katrina levels, officials say. The oil and gas industries are recovering too. Tourism and hotel business still are down, largely because of canceled conventions, which usually book years in advance. But commitments for future conventions indicate a rebound to at least 65 percent of pre-Katrina business in 2008, according to news reports.

Yes, there is money to be made in New Orleans. But how many evacuees will come back to earn it?

A year after the storm, New Orleans is a smaller city. Half of its population is gone and may never return. More than 80 percent of its land was flooded, some of it by more than 10 feet of water, for three weeks. Its broken pipes lose two gallons of drinking water per day for every gallon delivered to customers. Only two major hospitals are left to serve the city.

And, with the commerce, what will become of New Orleans' uniquely zestful Creole- and Cajun-enriched culture? Such questions are no less pervasive in the Crescent City these days than the aroma of catfish, po' boys, fried shrimp, stuffed crab, beignets, cafe au lait, and red beans and rice.

These are important questions to all lovers of the Big Easy's jazz, blues, Mardi Gras beads and bawdy bayou spirit. But whether New Orleanians are here or scattered across the map in their post-Katrina diaspora, the real question I hear haunting their minds is this: Can I come home again?

And the toughest answer for any politician to give, other than a flat-out "no," is: "That depends."

That inability to tell voters the uncomfortable truth appears to be Mayor Ray Nagin's dilemma. Although President Bush took some heavy and deserved hits to his approval ratings for his administration's slow response to the Katrina emergency, most fingers of blame for the city's sluggish recovery now point to Mr. Nagin.

Billions of dollars in federal rebuilding money by way of the Louisiana Recovery Authority have been held up by the city's slowness to produce a master rebuilding plan. Proposals released for public discussion this year indicate the city will have a smaller "footprint." Neighborhoods that are lowest-lying or most isolated may receive few rebuilding resources, if any.

In big jeopardy, for example, is the Lower 9th Ward, home of such artists as Fats Domino. He, too, was trapped by the storm.

The city's long-troubled and now-abandoned public housing developments may be demolished unless their residents somehow organize to show a big desire to return. Everybody knows that reduced footprint is a strong possibility. But few city leaders want to make the hard calls about which neighborhoods are going to get top or bottom priority for the city's limited recovery resources.

Instead, they sound like Mr. Nagin did on CBS' 60 Minutes on Sunday, when he mused: "At the end of the day, I see the city being totally rebuilt. I see us eliminating blight, still being culturally unique, with a new school system that's probably state of the art and a much more diversified economy where creative people come to live, love and play."

But, as in the past, he neatly dodged any specifics about what he means by "totally rebuilt." It's much easier to make a jolly promise that the old happy days in the 'hood will come back again than to announce the uncomfortable truth, that some neighborhoods have to be sacrificed while others receive special preferences.

"He needs to be open and honest with the people," Leonard Moore, a professor of African-American history at Louisiana State University, said in a telephone interview. "He needs to tell them that, `I'm sorry, but this city is not going to be totally rebuilt.'"

Now that the city's voters, here and absentee, have put him back in office, he finds it that much more difficult to present to them a future that falls short of the hometown they remember. But true leadership reveals itself when you're telling voters not only what they can have but also what they can't have. That's the leadership Mr. Nagin's city is waiting for.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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