Fri, Jan 13, 2006 - Page 7 News List

New Orleans residents blast city's post-hurricane plan

CONTROVERSIAL RECONSTRUCTION Citizens rejected a proposal to destroy low-lying houses in areas which scientists said should be returned to marshlands


Residents of the city's most devastated neighborhoods responded with anger on Wednesday after the city's rebuilding commission unveiled its most contentious proposal: giving neighborhoods in low-lying parts of the city from four months to a year to prove they should not be bulldozed.

The plan was presented at a standing-room-only meeting punctuated by catcalls and angry outbursts that often interrupted members of the panel.

"Over my dead body," was uttered more than once.

"I'm going to suit up like I'm going to Iraq and fight this," said Harvey Bender, a laid-off city worker, who shouted out his comments before an audience at the Sheraton Hotel that numbered in the hundreds and spilled into the aisles and hallways.

Bender owns a home in New Orleans East, a predominantly black middle-class neighborhood of 90,000 residents largely destroyed by the flooding after Hurricane Katrina.

Portions of the neighborhood might not survive, according to the plan, if they do not attract enough returning residents.

Speaker after speaker, black and white, prosperous and poor, dismissed a plan that Mayor Ray Nagin described as "controversial." But Nagin gave them hope as he walked a middle line that neither endorsed the plan nor opposed it.

"This is only a recommendation," Nagin said in remarks that preceded the formal presentation of the rebuilding plan.

"We as a community will have the ultimate say in how we move forward," Nagin said.

The mayor called on people to listen to the commission's presentation with an open mind.

"Take the time to digest this information, to look it over very carefully," Nagin said. "The reality is we will have limited resources to redevelop our city."

Yet the audience did not seem in the mood for calm debate.

"Please let us build our own homes," said Charles Young, a homeowner in Lakeview, a largely white, middle-class neighborhood. "Let us come back on our own time. Let us spend our insurance money, which we paid for on our own."

Under the proposal, residents would not be allowed to move back into the hardest-hit neighborhoods -- about two-thirds of the city, including more than half its home-owners -- for at least four months. During that time, the leaders of each neighborhood would have to submit to a city-wide planning body a recovery plan that would have to be approved before residents would be allowed back.

Neighborhoods not able to formulate an acceptable plan, or those that do not attract sufficient development within a year, could be bulldozed and returned to marshland, with the city compensating homeowners.

The plan represents a compromise between the homeowners in low-lying areas who are determined to rebuild, and the scientists and other experts who believe the city should allow large portions of its flood-prone areas to revert to marshland.

Each neighborhood would have at its disposal teams of planners and other experts to help residents do what they need to prevent the city from forcing them to live elsewhere.

"We want to give every community as best a chance to come back as we can," said Joseph Canizaro, a member of the commission.

Much of the crowd's enmity was directed at Canizaro, the plan's main author and a prominent developer here, who was booed several times.

"Joe Canizaro, I don't know you, but I hate you," said Bender, the New Orleans East resident, when granted his turn at the microphone.

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