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Storm-Ravaged New Orleans Seeks To Reverse Social Ills

File photo of Bourbon St
by Allen Johnson
New Orleans LO (AFP) Jan 29, 2006
Five months after hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, local officials have come up with a plan to transform the city into an economically vibrant urban center.

The report by Mayor Ray Nagin's "Bring New Orleans Back" commission offers far-reaching proposals for reversing the poverty and social ills that had long dogged the city's mostly black population.

"I believe if we get most of what they recommend done, we will have a better New Orleans than we had before the storm," said Keith Twitchell, a writer and activist who has monitored the panel's work.

President George W. Bush, who is expected to discuss Katrina relief efforts in his State of the Union address late Tuesday, has called on Louisiana to come with a single plan for the White House and Congress to consider.

Nagin said he will "tweak" his commission's proposals before putting a price tag on the plan, but estimated that it would cost 10 to 15 billion dollars for five to seven years.

The 6.2 billion dollars in federal aid already earmarked for the recovery "is not going to do the job," Nagin said Friday.

The city's sweeping plan calls for revitalizing its economy by restoring all public utilities, repairing transportation services, securing the levees and providing "living wages" and business opportunities for residents, roughly one-third of whom lived in poverty before Katrina.

The plan seeks to reduce the city's dependence on the low-wage tourism industry by encouraging development of its medical district and participation in an anticipated building boom as some 200,000 storm-damaged homes must be destroyed or repaired.

"We're not asking for a handout here; we're asking for an investment," said commission member Dan Packer, president of a private power company that filed for bankruptcy protection after Katrina.

"A decade from now, we'd like to see this be a more equitable economy and more diverse and more competitive with the surrounding economies, including Mississippi and Arkansas," said Packer.

"We really need to have our displaced residents come back home," Packer said, adding however that they must be business opportunities and job training programs when they return.

The report envisions a major medical research center, but urges immediate action to obtain 770 hospital beds by July 1. Presently, the city's only emergency health care facility operates under military-style tents inside the convention center.

The plan also recommends a light rail system, though the return of the city's famous street cars is still months away.

The plan also emphasized developing the city's music and cultural heritage, even though only 10 percent of the city's musicians have returned since Katrina, according to another commissioner, jazz musician Wynton Marsalis.

Racial tensions have shadowed the panel's work.

The plan was released one day after a Brown University study warned that New Orleans will lose 80 percent of the city's African-American residents and half of its white residents if people cannot return to their flood-damaged neighborhoods.

Nagin, who recently apologized for saying God wanted New Orleans to be a majority black "chocolate city," declined comment on the Brown study.

"Our preliminary research data tells us people are moving back," said Nagin, who is black. He estimates the city's present population is at least 200,000 -- less than half of its pre-Katrina census of 465,000.

Post-Katrina New Orleans is now majority white, according to most estimates.

"We think the Brown report hit the nail on the head," said activist Albert "Chui" Clark who criticized the lack of 'grass-roots' people on the mayor's commission. "The vast majority of the African-American community is suffering. We are scattered throughout the United States."

Leaving the city's recovery "to market forces will clearly disenfranchise the most impoverished citizens, who are disproportionately African-American," said Twitchell, who is white.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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