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'Congress' to Plan Infrastructure Investments

The Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP) will convene a "community congress" next Saturday (Dec. 2) in New Orleans and four other cities to help prioritize the infrastructure investments needed to rebuild the city. The gatherings will occur simultaneously, through support from the nonprofit AmericaSpeaks, in New Orleans, Houston, Atlanta, Dallas and Baton Rouge. In addition, displaced New Orleanians elsewhere can view and call into the meeting at participating libraries in more than 15 cities nationwide. Organizers of the meeting, which is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, hope to see thousands participate in one of the last large-scale planning sessions of the recovery process. "There is a tremendous need for additional funding to help New Orleans rebuild its parks, streets, schools, sewage and water systems," says Vera Triplett, board chair of the Community Support Organization, which supervises the UNOP process. "This Community Congress is an important opportunity for our citizens dispersed all over the country to come together to discuss and decide the most important investments for a smarter, stronger and safer New Orleans." UNOP is scheduled for completion in January, at which time it will go to the Louisiana Recovery Authority, federal officials and other funding sources to spur the rebuilding and recovery of New Orleans. The local gathering next Saturday will begin at 9 a.m. and continue through 4 p.m. at the Morial Convention Center, where participants will convene in group discussions organized and facilitated by AmericaSpeaks. For more information or to register, call 866-940-1095 or visit www.unifiedneworleansplan.org. -- DuBos

 

'Real Time' Crime Info

Carole Dahlem, the crime prevention consultant whose Web-based strategies met stiff resistance from the New Orleans Police Department during the 1990s, is back in town -- and trying again. Dahlem, who now lives in Holland, first promoted her "NOCrime" interactive Web site here as the No. 2 cop at the Tulane University Police Department. Her updated proposal calls for NOPD to provide residents with "real time" information on crimes in their neighborhood and a comprehensive list of resources for fighting back. A special teen link offers crime prevention tips and lists after-school programs, jobs, job-training programs and volunteer efforts. "It's Neighborhood Watch on the Web," she says. The site also would serve as a "powerful" check against police misclassification of crimes and the "fluffing" of crime statistics, a key problem in the previous city administration, says NOCrime supporter Rafael Goyeneche, president of the private Metropolitan Crime Commission. NOCrime gathered support in the 1990s, but generated fierce opposition from top cops who cited potential privacy concerns of crime victims. The idea died when Dahlem moved to Holland in 1999 to marry a Dutch police commissioner -- after both graduated from the FBI National Academy. Dahlem returned to New Orleans last month on a research grant but has extended her stay amid a revival of support for NOCrime. "It's not the police who can affect crime the most, it's the community," she says. With violent crime rising post-Katrina, Goyeneche predicts a more receptive climate for the Web site. "It's a new time. There's new leadership, and arguably we have a worse crime problem than we did [in 1999]," Goyeneche says. -- Johnson

 

Still No Stats

NOPD's top brass gave the City Council an impressive presentation of its budgetary needs for 2007 -- but without long-awaited crime statistics. "Our crime strategy is second to none in this city," Police Chief Warren Riley said. Under questioning by District A Council member Shelley Midura, NOPD Assistant Superintendent Steven Nicholas said cops have been arresting approximately 1,500 people a week since March, but he could not say what percentage of that number are being booked for violent offenses. Fifty to 60 percent of those arrestees are booked with municipal or traffic violations. Nicholas promised to provide Midura with statistics on armed robbery and assaults later. Critics say NOPD needs to provide the public with up-to-date, verifiable crime statistics if the department wants more community support. District D Council member Cynthia Hedge-Morrell, meanwhile, asked the chief to prioritize a list of items in his request for a $3.6 million "immediate enhancement" for NOPD, including pay raises for 91 crime-scene specialists, a global positioning system to track squad cars, and a $1.5 million media campaign to lure 150 new recruits to the force by the end of 2007. -- Johnson

 

Red Stick's Power Play

Baton Rouge officials can't wait for the Capital City's power surge that was predicted in the wake of Katrina and Rita. The storms forced people out of the southeastern corner of the state and pushed them toward the capital, where many have remained. For the city to pick up new legislative seats and land more federal and state dollars, a population survey will need to be taken and redistricting talks initiated. The rub? Another census isn't scheduled until 2010. Jim Brown, a former secretary of state, says the region may actually have legal recourse if four years is too long to wait. "Baton Rouge has a case," Brown says. "They can go to court because Baton Rouge is underrepresented. In some districts, there are eight to 10 times more people." But even if Baton Rouge's legislative delegation does grow, either by court order or census, that doesn't guarantee spoils, especially if people can't work together. The delegation has long been criticized for being fractured, often divided on region-wide issues. Of course, such talk may be premature. "The evidence of all this has yet to materialize," says Dr. Albert Samuels, a professor of political science at Southern University. "Then again, there's still a lot out there that hasn't happened." -- Alford

 

Quick-Take, the Sequel

As the state continues to trudge through its recovery process, another series of laws may be needed to help the state seize land for coastal restoration and hurricane protection projects. That's one of the official recommendations that will be released later this month when the state issues a new master plan for the coast. Expropriation laws, also known as "quick-take" in some instances, are nothing new to Louisiana. Municipalities and state government can already seize land for roads and certain construction projects, and in recent years voters have approved constitutional amendments for coastal restoration and levee maintenance. It's traditionally a volatile issue in the Legislature, and recent debates are proof of that. But what's on the books now likely won't be adequate to help the state recover from hurricanes Katrina and Rita, officials say. "We have to look at all the possibilities and make sure we have the ability to quickly take land that is needed," says Jon Porthouse, an engineer with the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources. As for what kind of new quick-take laws will be needed, Porthouse says that issue is still being explored. The Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA), which oversees flood control, coastal restoration and hurricane protection, has been pushing the new master plan since last year's hurricane season and is expected to hold hearings in coming months. Similar plans have been released in the past, covering everything from single projects to multi-layered approaches, but the intent of the new master plan is to pull everything together under one umbrella -- levees, freshwater diversions, dikes, locks, floodgates and like mechanisms. No funding sources have been identified, but several appropriation bills are usually pursued for such undertakings. There is not yet a cost analysis or wetlands benefit ratio available for the plan, which is still in the conceptual stages, Porthouse says, although several projects have been included in preliminary drafts. Controversial sections of the plan include abandoning parts of lower Plaquemines Parish to bolster more northerly areas, closing the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, and establishing floodgates and dikes on or around Lake Borgne and Lake Pontchartrain. After the plan is released in draft form later this month and ushered through a public discussion period, the CPRA will issue a final version sometime in February. From there, it will undergo legislative debate, then U.S. Army Corps of Engineers review, and finally inclusion in the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Plan, which Congress is expected to vote on next year. -- Alford

 

Coastal Forum Dec. 1

Three local garden clubs will present a free public forum on coastal conservation issues from 10 a.m. to noon on Dec. 1 in City Park's Pavilion of the Two Sisters. Speakers include R. King Milling, president of Whitney Bank, chairman of America's Wetland Foundation and a member of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA); Mark Davis, executive director of the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana; Dr. Robert R. Twilley, professor of wetlands bio-geological chemistry at LSU; and Sidney Coffee, executive assistant to Gov. Kathleen Blanco on coastal activities and chair of CPRA. The forum is sponsored by the Garden Study Club, the New Orleans Town Gardeners and the Junior League Garden Club. Topics include problems facing the coastal region, destruction of wetlands, loss of barrier islands, global warming, and the lost of cypress trees to logging for cypress mulch. -- DuBos

 

Cypress Sales Sinful

The Save Our Cypress Coalition, a nonprofit consortium of environmental groups from around the state, is targeting some of the nation's better known big box stores and asking them to immediately cease all sales of cypress mulch products. Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Lowe's are on the list. The chains are being criticized for profiting off Louisiana's endangered cypress-tupelo swamps, which are regularly clear-cut to feed a growing demand for mulch. Leslie March, chair of the Louisiana chapter of the Sierra Club, says the coalition wants the retailers to stop selling cypress mulch products until a credible, third-party certification system is operating to ensure that nothing is being sourced from non-renewable cypress swamps. "We are calling on these three retailers to live up to their corporate policies of sustainability to help save Louisiana's coast," she says. A strong argument against clear-cutting can actually be traced to Hurricane Katrina, says Dr. Gary Shaffer, a biologist with Southeastern Louisiana University, because cypress forests can be an important barrier to storm surges. "Satellite imagery shows that most trees in Katrina's path were downed while contiguous cypress forests stood strong and actually protected the rest of the ecosystem," he says. Shaffer adds that cypress mulch does not provide any superior attributes and that alternatives, such as pine straw, pine bark nuggets and eucalyptus mulch, all provide the benefits of mulch without destroying coastal wetlands. -- Alford

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