N.O. sees ‘08 as a tipping point in recovery

Published 8:44 pm Monday, December 31, 2007

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The way Mayor Ray Nagin sees it, 2008 is a tipping point in the recovery from Hurricane Katrina, the year a stronger, better New Orleans begins to rise in earnest from the ruins.

Residents want to believe. They look optimistically for construction crews, neighborhood investment and homecomings for neighbors still in exile 28 months after the storm. They also worry about housing, a crime wave sweeping the city and rising cost of living. Like the city itself, they are near a tipping point.

Carrey Britsch bought a home in hard-hit Lakeview, hoping to do her part for the recovery. But she said a friend living in New Mexico after the storm is put off by reports of bureaucratic foot-dragging and street violence, and questions whether returning makes sense.

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‘‘It’s a make-or-break point, definitely,’’ Britsch said at a Starbucks coffeehouse, where a painted line memorializes the watermark left by Katrina’s flooding.

Janet Speyer, a University of New Orleans economist, puts it bluntly: ‘‘2008 is the year when the future of New Orleans is going to be determined.’’

Will it be a better city? Nagin believes so. After focusing on restoring services, stabilizing city finances and planning for the future, his administration is bracing for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid expected to bankroll neighborhood reconstruction.

New Orleans, the mayor recently told the City Council, is ‘‘getting ready to explode.’’

Unfolding events in 2008 will be telling.

Among them are public education reform, construction of affordable housing, rebuilding public infrastructure and attracting big bucks in corporate investment.

Then there is the emergence of new city leadership, and an almost unprecedented citizen demand for accountability of public officials.

In a racially polarized city struggling with post-storm reality, it won’t be easy.

However, an early indicator came in December, when protests turned violent over plans to demolish public housing and build instead mixed-income developments.

The City Council, in perhaps the strongest political statement since Katrina, cast off racial voting lines of the past and unanimously voted for demolition.

‘‘I don’t know of a sign that’s been more encouraging to me,’’ said Elliott Stonecipher, a Shreveport analyst who has closely followed post-Katrina politics.

Stonecipher believes it probably will be about the time of the city’s tricentennial — 2018 — before anyone can definitively say ‘‘this is the New Orleans that rose from the storm.’’

There are signs it is beginning. An estimated two-thirds of the population is back, some neighborhood business districts, such as in Lakeview, are busy and the hospitality-based economy is hosting major events, such as the BCS football championship Jan. 7.

While only about 10 percent of the population has returned to the impoverished Lower 9th Ward, rebuilding efforts such as one led by actor Brad Pitt hold promise.

‘‘I know this kind of progress will take time, bricks and mortar take a long time, and emotions take a long time to heal, and those are the kinds of things you can’t hurry,’’ said Laura LeBon, who’s renting an apartment until her home is repaired.

The recovery has been a fragile, emotion-wrenching one. Besides dealing with red-tape clogged bureaucracy, another murder or the upbeat dedication of a walking trail can create thousands of personal tipping points.

For resident Karen Gadbois, an indicator came at Christmas. The fewer lights decorating homes in her neighborhood could have signaled a mood shift.

‘‘I would say last year there was a greater sense of urgency, with this idea that we were on the cusp of change,’’ she said. Now, ‘‘I think there is less optimism, and more resignation.’’

That could change if success is achieved in long-standing problems such as education and an economy with limited opportunity.

Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas, who took over in summer 2007, has embarked on a two-year reform plan. He believes strategic shifts — such as industry-based instruction to prepare students for the workplace — can turn New Orleans into a national model for public education.

‘‘If I can’t lay a foundation in two years,’’ he said, ‘‘they need to get someone else in here.’’

Eastern New Orleans resident Lisa Stafford knows change won’t happen overnight. She just wants more signs it’s under way in an area where many homes still stand gutted.

Stafford’s personal benchmark is economic: redevelopment of a huge former shopping center, at one time a center of community life. If it happens, she believes former residents of an area anchored by the city’s black middle class will come home.

‘‘There are still a lot of people sitting back, waiting, trying to see what’s going to happen before they make those final commitments on whether to rebuild their homes,’’ she said. ‘‘I think it will make a big difference to people if they saw the city had faith in their area.’’

UNO’s Speyrer suggests the city must step up its sales pitch to lure more private investment and jobs. The city needs to abandon the ‘‘Katrina mentality, that other people are going to help us and give us the money we need, and I think we have to start moving toward doing things ourselves,’’ she said. A proposal for a public-private economic development partnership offers hope, though past similar attempts have yielded only modest success.

As the new year begins, Gadbois has not decided whether to stay in the work-in-progress city when her daughter graduates high school.

‘‘Right now,’’ she said, ‘‘leaving New Orleans feels like dropping the book halfway through, and it’s a really good book. I wouldn’t want to stop this story right now.’’