Katrina paradox


Published: Sunday, January 29, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 28, 2006 at 10:36 p.m.

Hurricane Katrina was the worst natural disaster in American history; it remains daily pain and misery for hundreds of thousands. But calamity has begun to unleash some inventive ideas.

A prime example: the "charrette" planning process for the Mississippi Gulf Coast that brought 120 volunteer New Urbanist planner/architects from across the U.S. and Canada to meet with local citizens, transportation engineers, government officials and others for seven days of intense dialogue in December.

The sessions, led by New Urbanist architect Andres Duany, didn't solve the sticky questions of where, given the peril of future deadly storms, post-Katrina development should occur. But the sessions generated interesting concepts: grind up storm debris to raise elevations, turn the main coastal road into a beachfront boulevard, pull major retail back into the historic city centers, build high-speed regional rail connected to local streetcar systems.

The charrette's most captivating idea: a compact (308 square feet) and affordable ($35,000) "Katrina cottage" designed by New Yorker Marianne Cusato - big-windowed, one-bedroom structure with four bunks, ingenious storage space, faithful to Southern architectural traditions and built with quality materials - a compelling alternative to FEMA trailers.

The new idea door widened more on Jan. 19 as Gov. Kathleen Blanco announced a "dream team" of nationally known traditionalist planners - Peter Calthorpe, Ray Grindoz and Duany - to help shape the rebuilding of southern Louisiana.

The new group's work is likely to dovetail nicely with the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, which is recommending mixed-income and pedestrian-scale redevelopment, light-rail transit and other innovations. Parks, for example, could become part of an internal stormwater management system, flooding when necessary like the pioneering park and flood plan of Curitiba, Brazil.

Innovation is brewing on the finance side too. The best hope for thousands of homeowners who can't make mortgage payments on their hurricane-ruined properties is legislation offered by Rep. Richard Baker, a Republican from suburban Baton Rouge.

Baker calls for a federally chartered Louisiana Recovery Corporation able to buy out homeowners at no less than 60 percent of their pre-Katrina equity. It would also be empowered to restore public works, acquire and clean up devastated areas and resell them to developers. The Bush administration hasn't endorsed - or rejected - the measure yet. Though costly, it would be a major step toward fulfilling the president's promise to restore New Orleans and the Gulf Coast economies.

The "Bring Back" commission in heavily Democratic New Orleans, with its own Crescent City Recovery Corporation idea, likes the Baker approach, suggesting only it be amended so that homeowners can receive 100 percent, not just 60 percent, of their pre-hurricane market value (less insurance and mortgage balance).

It is true discord continues to swirl around the Bring Back commission's proposal of a four-month moratorium on rebuilding in heavily impacted neighborhoods. As distraught homeowner Melody Lee told me: "I had hoped for a buyout of my flooded home, especially since that area has been in limbo since August. I don't want to invest insurance money in it, but if I don't begin to work on it soon, I will have nothing left. But if there is a moratorium, then the house will rot, and if there's no buyout, then I am screwed. How do you suggest I deal with this?"

Her predicament suggests another unconventional idea - swift government action. Congress could hasten to pass the Baker bill, providing early assurance to property owners on the compensation issue.

And dare one say it - could FEMA speedily release of all its advisory data on base flood elevations? And keep updating it? Then there'd be more grounds for debate and action on whether - and how high - to rebuild damaged homes, and where future federal flood insurance will be available.

New Orleans, for its part, could engineer a quick start to its inventive proposed process of inviting residents of damaged areas to show through significant numbers their intention to stay or return in well-identified neighborhoods - a trigger for return of city services and utilities.

And Katrina should be the impetus, says Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, to "change the DNA" of Pelican State politics - away from "partisan bickering, parochial turf battles and political selfishness" and toward reinvented government.

Not content with current proposals to unify the New Orleans area's multitude of levee boards into one, Landrieu proposes a unified New Orleans regional port authority embracing ports, airports and transportation infrastructure.

Landrieu also endorses an American Institute of Architects proposal to let local Gulf Coast governments, reeling under heavy business losses, to be underwritten by the state if they declared a three-year property and sales tax holiday. They'd have a chance to rebuild their economies - but only on agreeing to transform themselves into smaller, more efficient, entrepreneurial units.

Katrina has clearly opened windows to fresh ideas - in the face of suffering, a rare and wondrous opportunity.

Neal Peirce writes for The Washington Post Writers Group.

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