NEW ORLEANS – The City Council approved a rebuilding plan Thursday, a move both momentous nearly 22 months after Hurricane Katrina but also just a small step toward organized recovery from the storm.
The endorsement is seen as a prerequisite to a city petition for $117 million in federal recovery grants. But it's hardly a "magic arrow," Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell said. "This is going to be the first arrow in the battle."
Thursday's action gives broadbrush backing to the $14.4 billion Unified New Orleans Plan, a blueprint derided by critics as vague and muddled. And it entrusts implementation to recovery director Ed Blakely, who has in mind a smaller-scale proposal based in part on the Unified plan.
But even funding for Blakely's reduced vision is not guaranteed. To date, virtually none of the $1.1 billion he says he needs has been secured.
On Monday, the city is expected to make a pitch to the Louisiana Recovery Authority for $117 million needed for Blakely's plan. But it is unclear how quickly that money would come. An official of the state Office of Community Development has said it is normally paid out project by project, but it was not clear if that was still the case.
The lack of free-flowing cash has been a big drag on the recovery from Katrina, which struck Aug. 29, 2005, and flooded 80 percent of the city. Local leaders have blamed a slow flow of federal aid and government bureaucracy for the little that's been done to restore city-owned infrastructure. Blakely wants to work in 17 target zones to encourage greater investment, but so far much of the rebuilding progress has resulted from private or personal initiative. Some better-organized neighborhoods have taken it upon themselves to raise money to rebuild or repair libraries and fire stations.
Jessie Smallwood, deputy director of the city's recovery office, said the council's "final anointing" of the plan allows the city to move forward in its recovery.
Hedge-Morrell said rebuilding infrastructure is a key to bringing people back. A recent estimate put the city's population at about 255,000, down from 455,000 before the storm.
Having an official rebuilding plan, she said, should send a message to both the public and private sectors that the city has a vision for its future.
"I'm looking for great things," she said.