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A Seat at the Table 

Almost as soon as Katrina's floodwaters receded, the cry for a single, overarching vision and plan for New Orleans' recovery arose from all corners of town. Mayor Ray Nagin and the New Orleans City Council took much longer than anyone would have expected to get a citywide planning effort under way -- and it took several false starts before a planning process finally took hold -- but now, at long last, New Orleans is near the end of a citywide planning process.

One unfortunate result of the slow going is that many New Orleanians already have "planning fatigue." The process that city leaders ultimately adopted -- the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP) -- has been complex and deliberate, to say the least, but much of that reflects a desire to include citizens from all walks of life and all parts of town. Toward that end, neighborhood and citywide meetings have been scheduled to give citizens a chance to voice their concerns and weigh in on proposals put forth by others. This Saturday (Dec. 2), the second "Community Congress" or citywide meeting will be held locally at the Morial Convention Center from 8:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. It will include New Orleanians who have returned as well as those who remain displaced, connecting them via satellite from four cities that continue to house former residents -- Baton Rouge, Houston, Dallas and Atlanta.

It is vital that everyone who can attend do so. Attending this Saturday's meeting is the recovery equivalent of voting in a major election. If you don't participate, you have no voice and, afterward, you have no right to complain about the outcome. Only more so with this process -- because there won't be another recovery in four years. We've got to get it right the first time.

One of the problems with the protracted planning process is that many of those who have returned are quite busy going about the business of individual recovery. They aren't waiting for City Hall or some out-of-town consultant to tell them how to bounce back; they're picking themselves up by their own bootstraps. However, a true citywide recovery requires much more than each of us getting our own home and/or business back in order. It also requires an extensive -- perhaps even a complete -- overhaul of the local infrastructure grid -- utilities, streets, sewerage lines, drainage lines, water mains and more. Infrastructure is not just a favorite bureaucratic buzzword, it's a key to deciding what parts of New Orleans will become viable first and what parts may never come back.

To dredge up a hot-button topic: it's the "footprint" issue.

That is not to say that this Saturday's meeting will resolve the matter. It won't. But it will mark an important step in setting citywide priorities. "Our process will mirror the normal problem-solving process -- identify the problem, analyze the issues, and figure out the solutions," says Darren Diamond, one of several consultants hired by the City Council to help map out a strategy for planning and financing the recovery. "We're going to spend a lot of time trying to get people to paint the big picture, to take off their 'neighborhood' hat and put on their 'citywide' hat."

That's a critical step for citizens to take, because until now much of the focus has been on neighborhood plans. It's understandable that citizens in hard-hit areas will want to see their neighborhoods brought back fully -- and immediately. But what the city's consultants and planners are asking of us all is to think as well as act globally -- with the entire city being the "globe" in this case. That's not something New Orleanians are accustomed to doing, but it's something we must do now.

Planning consultants say citizens should not become discouraged by reports of what the final plan may or may not contain. "We can't accept every project in every neighborhood," says Diamond. "But, we won't throw any of them away. Those projects still mean things to people. We hope to end up with a base that others can add on to over time. If there's some aspect of one district plan that's not included, residents of that district can still have that plan and still pursue funding for it, because once you have the base plan, we anticipate that you can add to it and grow from it."

Put another way, this is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. Full recovery will take years, so patience remains the order of the day -- and money will determine what gets done as well as when it gets done.

It would be nice if we could magically make everything just as it was before Katrina -- well, almost everything. But everyone must accept the fact that life as we knew it before Katrina has changed forever. We can't go back to what was, so let's look forward to what should be -- and let's do it in an orderly, civil and responsible manner.

At its core, that's what UNOP is. Participation on Saturday is free and open to the public, but advance registration is recommended. For more information and to register, call (877) 527-3284 or visit www.unifiedneworleansplan.com/home2. This is everybody's chance to have a seat at the table.

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