The role of the office of Recovery Management is, in large part, to set priorities in the rebuilding, to coordinate with various groups working on the recovery, and to hunt down the funding to pay for it.
On the first task, Blakely moved swiftly. After less than three months in office, he issued a plan to redevelop 17 key neighborhoods, which would receive about 40 percent of the $1.1 billion that Blakely projected was essential for the first phase of recovery. The pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods were selected based on the criteria crafted in the UNOP proposal, with the target zones falling into three categories: rebuild, redevelop, and renew.
The majority—nine neighborhoods—fall in the renew category, neighborhoods already close to being viable. “These areas are doing fine and were doing fine before,” Blakely says. “With just a little bit of touch-up, paint-up, and spruce-up, they'll do very well.” Only two neighborhoods are rebuilds, requiring major reconstruction: a portion of the devastated Lower Ninth Ward and a shopping district in New Orleans East.
The ultimate goal? Attracting private investment to higher, safer neighborhoods. “We're trying to cluster people around our civic assets,” says Blakely. “This is all carrot,” he claims, without any stick. Anyone can rebuild anywhere they want, but better city services will be concentrated on higher ground, serving as a lure. According to Blakely, early analysis shows that it's more economical to move people into elevated neighborhoods than to elevate houses on stilts, as some homeowners are choosing to do.
Some bloggers and other critics have faulted the plan as too timid, focusing on neighborhoods that are basically fine and overlooking the hundreds of acres of wholesale devastation. But others defend Blakely. The redevelop and renew zones “represent low-hanging fruit,” agrees Cantrell, but she says there's a good reason for starting with healthier neighborhoods. “People are tired of planning. We're planned out. We need action.”
For his part, Blakely offers a blunt diagnosis of what has ailed the recovery.
“The federal government has been the biggest disappointment,” he says, adding that it has actually hurt things rather than helped them. “I've worked with FEMA before, and I think FEMA officials, for whatever reason, have been told that they should do everything they can to interfere. In my previous experience, they were told to do everything they could to get it done quickly, smoothly, and efficiently.” Blakely shakes his head over the money spent keeping Katrina evacuees in hotels for months. “Everybody could be living in a brand new, 1,500-square-foot house just for the hotel bills alone,” he says. “There's some insanity and lack of logic here I can't follow.”
Blakely bemoans the “total incompetence” of the state government. “In most states, the state government is a step up from the local government. But in this state, it's a step down,” he says. “Government here is almost deliberately poor and starved, so you don't have very good people. If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.”
At the local level, the city's racial politics have proven more cutthroat than he anticipated. “The black-and-white issues go beyond black and white. They get into almost like the Sunnis and the Shiites—one would rather see the other one dead than successful.” Also discouraging to him is that many local businesses “have grown pretty lazy,” he says. “They're neighborhood-serving or tourist-serving, and so [they feel they] don't need to be involved civically.”
Blakely's biggest challenge to date has been coming up with the $1.1 billion he says he needs to carry out his plan. Blakely envisioned five funding streams, but none has been without problems. They include a bond issue backed by blighted properties, which spawned legal complications; a $260 million bond issue passed in 2004, which must legally be spent on projects previously attached to that bond; and funding recently allocated by the U.S. Congress, which may get diverted to the state-run Road Home program that's now at least $4 billion in the red.
Given these shortfalls, Blakely has revised his earlier aggressive timetable. In June, he canceled a meeting with interested developers, noting that it was premature to discuss detailed rebuilding plans until funding was in hand. The promises made last winter of cranes “on the skyline in September” have become cranes “pretty soon.”
But some encouraging news has surfaced: Also in June, the Louisiana Recovery Authority accepted the city's recovery plan, opening the door for the city to receive $117 million in federal block grants. It's only about 10 percent of the money Blakely needs, but it's the first promise of serious cash.
And he's still building local support. On another Blakely bike tour through the Riverbend and Carrollton neighborhoods early this summer, about a hundred bikers showed up to ride along. Blakely was wired for sound by two camera crews, radio reporters held out mics, and riders jockeyed for position to tell him about improvements on their streets. People working on their houses stopped and stared; a few hooted and clapped as Blakely pedaled by, according him the status of a minor rock star. Despite the “Dr. Flakey” moniker, he appears to maintain significant reserves of goodwill.
Nathan Shroyer, executive director of the Neighborhoods Partnership Network, a collective of 60 local groups formed after Katrina, says his members generally favor Blakely's take-charge attitude. Based on what he's learned from leaders in other disaster areas, Shroyer says, the two-year anniversary is when a recovery often breaks either positive or negative. “My own sense is the tipping point will go positive,” he says.
A couple of weeks later, the Broadmoor Improvement Association announces it's lined up its own grant of $2.5 million to fix up the Rosa F. Keller Library. This is the good news from New Orleans, says Blakely: “[The] biggest bright point is the people themselves,” he says. “The people have cleaned up the parks, they've cleaned up the city, they cleaned out houses. It hasn't been the government that's done any of that.”
Wayne Curtis is a freelance journalist based in New Orleans.