NEW ORLEANS – Mayor Ray Nagin presented his plan for resuscitating this hurricane-battered city, saying residents should be allowed to rebuild anywhere — as long as they do so at their own risk.
Nagin said the city will continue issuing building permits to all comers, but warned that low-lying neighborhoods like New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward could flood again if another hurricane hits.
"I don't recommend you going in areas I'm not comfortable with," the mayor said Monday. "I'm confident that the citizens can decide intelligently for themselves."
The report also recommended a host of other ideas, from revamping schools to consolidating some city offices. The wish-list of projects included new light-rail systems, more farmers' markets, new riverfront development, job-training sites and better flood protection.
"We have worked tirelessly," Nagin told hundreds of residents Monday who attended a meeting to hear about the plan. "It has been controversial in some respects, but I am pleased by the results."
The blueprint does not have the force of law, and many of its aims depend on federal funds that have not yet been allotted. A state agency, the Louisiana Recovery Authority, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also will have sway.
The plan comes two months after the mayor's advisory commission, formed after Katrina struck Aug. 29, recommended that some flooded neighborhoods be replaced with parks and that the city take a go-slow attitude in rebuilding low-lying areas. But that suggestion was greeted with jeers and outrage at public meetings.
Nagin, who is running for re-election April 22, distanced himself from that plan, which included a proposed moratorium on building permits in some areas.
Residents lined up to speak against the latest proposal during a public-comment period. One of them, an activist named Chui Clark, called the commission "a rotten, racist committee," echoing criticism by many black residents who say they are being discouraged from returning.
But the plan has been warmly received in many circles. Ron Forman, a strong mayoral candidate and prominent businessman, applauded the commission's work and the breadth of the report. But he said it is still short on specifics.
"The only problem I see with the plan is that I don't see an implementation plan, an action plan, based on dates on when we can expect to be done," Forman said.
The release of the report came hours after civil rights groups took aim at the state's plan for rebuilding, which includes spending billions of federal dollars to buy flood-damaged homes.
Groups including the NAACP, the Advancement Project and the New Orleans-based People's Hurricane Relief Fund complained that the state plan gives short shrift to poor and low-income victims by focusing too much on bailing out homeowners and encouraging high-end development at the expense of low-income renters.
In a letter to Gov. Kathleen Blanco's administration, the groups cited government estimates showing that about 126,570 rental units without insurance were flooded last year. By contrast, they said, only about 25,180 uninsured homes were damaged, which is about 20 percent of all the ruined homes.
"This is really like the opening salvo, if you will, of attempts to get a fair share of that money for low- and moderate-income people," said Bill Quigley, a lawyer and civil rights activist.
The state plan still needs approval by the Legislature, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Louisiana Recovery Authority.