NEW ORLEANS – More than 15 months after Hurricane Katrina, Mayor Ray Nagin on Monday tapped a leading regional planner and disaster recovery expert to head a new city recovery office.
Ed Blakely, who helped coordinate recovery planning in California after two natural disasters and in New York City after Sept. 11, has been chosen to lead what is expected to be a five-person office and to serve as the leader for marshaling a recovery process that critics have derided as too slow.
Blakely's appointment as the city's executive director for recovery management was announced at a City Hall news conference Monday morning.
The mayor also has hired Becca O'Brien, a former policy director for the federal government's Gulf Coast recovery operation, as his executive counsel.
In September, Nagin marked the first 100 days of his second term by announcing the city would create a recovery office. Last month, he told the city council he had a high-profile person in mind to lead it.
For the last two years, Blakely has been a professor of urban, regional planning and policy at the University of Sydney in Australia, and he has been involved in regional planning projects around the world. He helped coordinate planning in California after the 1989 Bay Area earthquake and the 1991 Oakland wildfire, and in New York after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
The California native also made an unsuccessful bid for mayor of Oakland in 1998.
Blakely said he has been to New Orleans several times since Katrina hit in August 2005. He told The Associated Press on Sunday that he sees tremendous challenges facing the city, ranging from improving its bond rating — to inspire confidence in the private investors, whose money will be key to helping fund future projects — to completing and implementing comprehensive recovery and long-range master plans.
Blakely said he knows from past experiences that "leadership makes all the difference." In New Orleans, he said, the recovery has been bogged down by the number of bureaucracies and people involved and by the lack of a modern, citywide master plan.
Nagin said in a recent interview a recovery director previously didn't make sense because "I couldn't really communicate to the person their authority, how the money was flowing, how (the recovery) would be set up. All that clarity is in place (now)."
The city has made strides, Nagin said. "I just need somebody to take me to the next level."
Blakely said he plans to set up a coordinating council to ensure local government leaders are working together. He also wants his office to provide regular updates on its work.
He said he's been assured he will have the authority to name his staff. Nagin proposed spending about $497,300 for the office next year.
Some of those who have worked with Blakely say he is a consensus builder and a visionary with a thick skin.
"He's a pillar of integrity," said Robert Yaro, the president of the Regional Plan Association, a New York-based urban policy and planning group. "He has this amazing, Zen-like calm in this sea of emotion."
John Renne, a professor in the department of planning and urban studies at the University of New Orleans, called Blakely a "powerhouse in urban planning," but noted he is stepping into a difficult role.
"Really, you need a special person that would be able to perform in this type of job, because if the person fails to deliver it's greater than the individual," Renne said. "It's really about, is the city going to recover?"
Blakely said he feels pressure because the world is watching what happens. In Australia, Blakely's local newspaper routinely carries stories on New Orleans, many of which aren't flattering to the United States, he said. How the United States takes care of its own people affects how it's viewed by other countries, he said.
"In New Orleans, we have to look like we know what we're doing," Blakely said.
Blakely, 69, said he is taking a leave of absence from his other work to lead New Orleans' recovery.