New Orleans Needs More Federal Assistance to Rebuild, Panelists Argue
New Orleans will need more federal funds and more cooperation among local, state, and federal governments to rebuild in the aftermath of Katrina, said participants in the Urban Law and Policy panel of the Conference on Public Service & the Law March 17.
Professor Richard Schragger, who moderated the discussion, said the diverse backgrounds of the three panelists should help listeners consider what roles all levels of government should play in rebuilding and financing the city. Panelists included Virgil H. Goode Jr., a 1973 graduate of the Law School who is serving his fifth term as the congressman for the 5th District of Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives; Smedes York, Chair of the Urban Land Institute’s New Orleans Advisory Services Panel; and Kim M. Boyle, a 1987 graduate of the Law School and a member of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission.
According to Schragger, questions remain over whether to rebuild New Orleans, how to rebuild, and who gets to make the decisions. Other important issues regard the rights of the city’s citizens to return and their access to financial assistance.
Boyle, a native of New Orleans, said over 1,300 people lost their lives as a direct result of the storm, and more than 80 percent of the homes in the city were flooded. New Orleans lost more homes than Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and other parts of Louisiana combined. Despite the destruction, Boyle said the city should not be abandoned.
“I think that there is no doubt, no question, and no issue as to whether or not New Orleans should be rebuilt, and to be honest with you, I really am flabbergasted that people would even raise the question,” she said, noting the historical, cultural, and economic value of the city.
Furthermore, the United States has a moral obligation to rebuild the city. Although Katrina was destructive, the city’s worst devastation came from the flooding that was a direct consequence of the breach in the levies, which “is the responsibility without question of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”
To help the rebuilding efforts, the mayor created the Bring New Orleans Back Commission and appointed 18 volunteers to serve on seven committees: education, infrastructure, health, cultural, economic development, urban planning, and government efficiency. Boyle was tapped to chair the health committee.
“Those committees were charged with going out and trying to develop a plan to not just rebuild those previous infrastructures, but recreate those infrastructures,” she said.
Volunteers have dedicated considerable time and effort to planning on the local level, but their goals cannot be reached without federal money, she said.
The Urban Land Institute (ULI) has offered suggestions on how to appropriate federal money. York, who has led 16 of the 18 ULI panels of which he was a member, explained that the mission of the ULI is “to provide responsible leadership in the use of land in order to enhance the total environment.” Compared to all prior panels in which he was involved, the panel for New Orleans was the most extensive, including approximately 50 members. Participants visited New Orleans for a week last year, when they toured the area, held town hall meetings, and conducted interviews to help prepare their suggestions, which were due in November.
“My first impression: much more devastated than I thought,” York reflected.
In contrast to what television led people to believe, the damage was not contained mostly within one area, he said. Still, the panel determined New Orleans should and would be rebuilt.
“It’s a question of sequence of how to go about it,” York said.
The ULI’s key recommendations were that two boards be created to oversee the rebuilding process: a Temporary Financial Oversight Board and the Crescent City Rebuilding Corporation. A crucial part of the recommendation was that the boards should include representation from the local, state, and federal levels.
The ULI also categorized districts within the city into three groups based on levels of destruction. The most damaged areas require collective action and planning under the Crescent City Rebuilding Corporation and funding from the federal government. The areas with moderate damage require decisions on a community-by-community basis, and the least damaged areas can be dealt with individually.
Because cities usually rely on property and sales taxes to finance their activities, New Orleans is in a dire position, York explained. The value of property has declined severely, lowering tax revenues, and sales also have dropped. Thus the city must rely on federal money.
Goode noted that “the federal government has already ponied up a tremendous amount of money to deal with Katrina.” More specifically, Congress allocated $62 billion in September 2005 and the House of Representatives approved an additional $20 billion on March 16. At least $50 billion has been shifted from federal agencies, negatively affecting other districts.
“Federal agencies have done varying degrees, in my opinion, of successfully responding,” Goode said, praising the U.S. Department of Agriculture and criticizing FEMA. “Our concern from the initial appropriation [was] that so much was being allocated and so quickly that there was going to be some waste and abuse, and I think the news media has certainly shown that to be the case.”
Goode stressed the importance of accountability in appropriating large sums.
“If I’m writing the check, I can tell you you’re not going to have a blank check,” he said. “We’ve already put billions of dollars into this, and anyone who complains about the deficit, I want you to know that $82 billion of it is the aftermath of Katrina.”
After their introductory comments, the panelists fielded questions. Among the concerns they addressed were the upcoming elections, which they said somewhat complicate rebuilding efforts. According to Boyle, while some candidates’ campaigns suggest they support ULI recommendations, others do not. Goode and York agreed that the adoption of the ULI proposals would help the area obtain additional federal funding.
Still, the decisions ultimately must be made by local planners with federal oversight, according to Boyle.
“I think the initial plans or concepts certainly have to be vetted and come through on a local basis, but we understand that because it’s federal money, that because Congress needs and should have specific accountability, that there has to be accountability from the federal level,” she said.
One possible use of federal money may be a program that would buy flood-damaged homes and pay off mortgages, the panelists said. Other plans are being evaluated to help the return of renters, who comprised around half of pre-Katrina residents in New Orleans, Boyle added.
“We are committed to making our city better,” Boyle said. “We just need help to do so.”
• Reported by Elizabeth Katz