A Waiver for New Orleans
The city has a new plan to build on higher ground, but it needs another push from Washington.
AFTER MONTHS of false starts and a raft of incoherent plans, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin (D) announced a redevelopment plan last week that might actually stand a chance of becoming reality. Rather than pursue a blanket approach to reviving the city devastated by Hurricane Katrina, the proposal targets 17 areas for direct investment that Mr. Nagin and others hope will spur private development. There’s one hitch: the federal government.
The $1.1 billion plan relies on bonding and state grants, but the biggest share of the financing depends on the Federal Emergency Management Agency waiving a requirement that local jurisdictions in Louisiana supply 10 percent of the funds for infrastructure projects financed by FEMA. That would have the effect of freeing up $324 million that Mr. Nagin and his renowned recovery chief, Ed Blakely, could leverage to attract private dollars to the Crescent City. Not only that, the waiver would free New Orleans from the burdensome red tape required for every project that uses FEMA money. Putting in a new streetlight generates a sheaf of documents that slows down rather than spurs the city’s rebirth.
So far, the Bush administration is not interested. Since Washington included grants to cover the 10 percent local contribution for projects in the latest $4.2 billion allocation to Louisiana, administration officials seem mystified by the waiver clamor coming from Louisiana. Yet a waiver would allow federal funds now earmarked for covering the FEMA requirement to be put to better use funding projects that would allow New Orleans to rebuild on higher ground. The exemption the state is seeking was granted to New York after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and to Florida after Hurricane Andrew. A waiver has passed both houses of Congress, but it is tacked on to the supplemental spending bill for Iraq and Afghanistan that President Bush has promised to veto.
The 17 sites, spread throughout the city, represent a welcome willingness of Mr. Nagin to prioritize the city’s redevelopment efforts. The extra commitment from the federal government could be the signal that the private sector is waiting for to make a firm commitment to New Orleans. And it would allow Mr. Bush to make good on his solemn vow that “this great city shall rise again.”