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Master Coastal Plan Finally Coming Ashore
A second draft of a new master plan for coastal restoration and hurricane protection is scheduled to be released this week, followed by a lengthy round of public hearings throughout south Louisiana -- and finally a vote by the Legislature during the session that convenes in April. While the original version included a number of mundane projects, the plan also addressed a few controversial matters, such as abandoning parts of lower Plaquemines Parish to bolster upriver communities, closing the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet, and building floodgates and dikes near Lake Borgne and Lake Pontchartrain. Chris Macaluso, a spokesperson for the Governor's Office of Coastal Activities, says most of the plan's major sections are on track. "I wouldn't expect too many significant changes," he says. Similar strategies for recovery and protection have been released by the state in the past, but the intent of this new master plan is to pull all efforts together -- levees, freshwater diversions, dikes, locks, floodgates and other mechanisms. The Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority has been leading the effort since Katrina and Rita devastated the coastline, working alongside a team of scientists, parish officials, federal researchers and others. Three public meetings will be held in south Louisiana before lawmakers consider the plan. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will make its review and, finally, it will be included in the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Plan, which Congress may vote on later this year. -- Alford

 

How'd We Get Here?
If you're geeking out for some great computer-science news, look no further than the state that brought you legalized cockfighting and drive-through daiquiri joints. Louisiana has leaped over most other southern states to secure a site on the Open Science Grid, a global consortium of universities and laboratories connected via the Internet. Through efforts at LSU and Louisiana Tech, the state's computing ability has skyrocketed, and state researchers are participating in one of the most advanced and fastest-growing grid environments in the world. The concept is simple: by connecting with computer stations in Germany, Chicago or elsewhere, Louisiana can tap into the network and share its resources -- everything from computing power to research by other teams. For example, Dick Greenwood, a physics professor at Louisiana Tech, is working on something dubbed ATLAS, a next-generation physics project based in Switzerland. Scientists from all over the world are working together to conduct research on the fundamental nature of matter, with the goal of providing more insight into the creation of the universe. -- Alford

 

Leges Razooing the Pot
Potholes are bad all over, access issues are slowing down economic development efforts, and there's an election coming up. Throw a huge state surplus into the mix and there's no wonder why lawmakers are getting ready to razoo the state's pot of money -- for roads and other pet projects. The state has an $827 million surplus from the second half of last year. Rep. Mike Walsworth, a Republican from West Monroe, wants to dedicate $400 million to roads and $50 million to ports. It's all part of a plan he will introduce during the spring session, and it calls for an additional $200 million to go to roads from the current fiscal year's anticipated surplus. Walsworth says the noise from his district is deafening on this issue. "You don't need a national report to tell you our roads need massive help," he says. Meanwhile, Sen. Reggie Dupre, a Democrat from Bourg, wants to dedicate half the "excess" mineral revenues, which are typically put into the general fund, to road construction and coastal protection. The state constitution dedicates the first $850 million of state mineral revenue to various funds, and anything above that threshold is placed in the state's Rainy Day Fund. Once that fund is "full," Dupre's legislation proposes to move 50 percent of the remaining dollars into a construction program. Mineral production in Louisiana has declined in recent years, but the state has still reaped dividends because of record oil prices in 2006 -- a formula that may be prompting lawmakers to hedge their bets too wildly, Dupre says. The excess mineral revenue is currently treated as "recurring," meaning it is expected to be there every year. In truth, oil prices can fluctuate wildly. "It would be much wiser for us to reinvest some of this excess revenue in Louisiana's infrastructure needs," Dupre says. -- Alford


NOPD Outdoes Itself

The New Orleans Police Department has apparently outdone itself -- on its own Web site. Unfortunately, the public may not necessarily be any safer. After thousands of citizens staged an "anti-violence" march on City Hall on Jan. 11, NOPD attempted to "update" its oft-derided "neighborhood crime maps," which use colored icons to denote the locations of most major crimes in the city. (Sex offenses are omitted to protect the victims' identities.) Critics have long dismissed the maps as too vague, outdated and of little use to the public. Last week, NOPD's newly posted maps (http://secure.cityofno.com/portal.aspx?portal=50&tabid=76) purported to show the locations of major crimes for a 30-day period ending Jan. 26. But a Gambit Weekly check of the maps showed a total of only 10 murders for that period. In fact, there were 19 homicides during the month of January, including two criminal suspects whose deaths were classified by police as "justifiable," according to the Orleans Parish Coroner's Office. A time-consuming survey of NOPD "press releases" last week -- posted on the same Web site as the crime maps -- offered a more accurate and detailed picture of the city's violence. In addition, NOPD's crime prevention tips, collected by Lt. Robert Gostl, have not been updated since long before Katrina. -- Johnson

 

Time to Buy a Gun?
Crime consultant Carole Dahlem, who is seeking funding for a community-based crime prevention Web site (www.nocrimecommunity.com), gingerly responded recently to a common question that many police Web sites avoid amid hot-button debates over handgun control -- "Should I get a gun for protection?" In an interview, Dahlem said that people should consider "all of the ramifications" of owning a gun, not just "horrific" scenarios involving criminals. People who are not getting along with their neighbors, and individuals who have "depressed" people or "volatile relationships" inside their home or FEMA trailer should not have a gun around "at that time," she says. Policy debates aside, she says, the National Rifle Association offers training courses for gun owners. "It's a huge responsibility," she says. "Once you own a gun, you have to continually learn about it." Gun owners should practice at a supervised shooting range at least quarterly. They should also check their home and auto security to prevent their weapons from being stolen and used in a violent crime. For women living alone, a gun should not be the only defense against crime, Dahlem says. She was living alone in Uptown in 1997 when a man tried to break into her apartment by repeatedly kicking her door -- as she dialed 911. He failed. "I had installed a high-security door," Dahlem says. She had just returned from the FBI Academy and was unarmed at the time. -- Johnson

 

Nagin Concerned About 'Psyche of Our Public'
Mayor Ray Nagin was supposed to discuss New Orleans crime, mental health and housing needs before a panel of United States senators in town last week for a hearing on the city's post-Katrina recovery. Mental health got short shrift. Instead, Nagin joined in a festival of finger pointing among federal, state and local officials when the senators asked why the recovery is moving so slowly 17 months after the storm. Nagin said that reliable data on post-Katrina suicide rates and other mental health indices have been hard to come by. He also said there has been a "50 percent increase" in the city's natural death rate since Katrina, which he attributed to stress-related illnesses after the storm -- but he provided no supporting data. "Stress is up," a subdued Nagin told Sens. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Mary Landrieu, D-La. The mayor appeared to elaborate in an interview late last week with WWL-TV morning anchor Eric Paulsen. Mental health advocates say the American Red Cross is providing up to $1,000 for additional mental health services for Katrina survivors who apply before Oct. 1. For more information, visit www.a2care.org. -- Johnson

 

'Powerful Statement'
Mental health advocate Sarah Hoffpauir says she was impressed by Mayor Ray Nagin's dark assessment of the public mood on WWL-TV last week -- 17 months after Hurricane Katrina. The mayor told visiting U.S. senators that "stress is up" all over New Orleans, and he later told WWL, "There's just a feeling of apathy, of hopelessness, that I find to be very concerning. ... I'm really concerned about the attitude and the psyche of our public." Hoffpauir, a spokesperson for the nonprofit Behavioral Health Action Group of Greater New Orleans, called Nagin's assessment "a powerful statement." She also says crime and substance abuse may be deepening the city's psychological abyss. "Resiliency requires some normalcy such as our basic needs being met and a sense of community," she says. But the stubborn crime rate has forced some people indoors, where they become depressed and isolated. "It's important for people to try to create a new type of routine that includes socialization and reaching out to neighbors, friends and churches," she adds. Hoffpauir says she wants her group to work with criminal justice professionals to determine what role substance abuse is playing in post-Katrina crime in the area. -- Johnson

 

Off and Running
Candidates will qualify Wednesday through Friday (Feb. 7-9) for a pair of local special elections that are being held on separate dates. The primary to choose a successor to state Rep. Peppi Bruneau in Lakeview will be held on March 10, and the contest to name a new Civil Court judge will be on March 31 -- the same date as the runoff, if one is needed, to fill Bruneau's seat. After qualifying this week, candidates for both offices must wait for more than two dozen Carnival parades to pass so that campaigning can resume in earnest on Ash Wednesday (Feb. 21). After Mardi Gras, it's a short sprint to the March 10 special primary in House District 94. A 31-year veteran of the Legislature, Bruneau announced he will resign effective April 30 -- one day after the beginning of the 2007 regular session and roughly one year before his term expires. Bruneau is stepping down early to help elect his son, 36-year-old Jeb Bruneau, a salesman. Lawyer Phil Brickman is also running for the job, as is community volunteer Deborah Langhoff. Attorney John Michael Holahan, a former assistant city attorney, said last week he is "strongly considering" the race. Meanwhile, at least three lawyers -- Charlene Larche-Mason, Suzette Peychaud Bagneris and Tiffany Chase -- are expected to qualify to finish the unexpired term of Division A Civil Court Judge Carolyn Gill-Jefferson, which runs through Dec. 31, 2008. A runoff, if needed, will be May 5. Jefferson announced last July that she is resigning to spend more time with her family in her home state of Mississippi. -- Johnson

 

Fisheries Aid Coming
The Louisiana Recovery Authority has restated its commitment to the state's battered fisheries by promising to include fishermen in a small business grant and loan program and by committing to a multi-million-dollar fund specifically for the industry. The LRA also is urging industry representatives to provide the recovery panel, which Gov. Kathleen Blanco formed in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, with specific guidance on how money should be spent on the fisheries. "We recognize that what fishermen need now is to get back onto the water," says Rene Cross, an LRA infrastructure task force member. "That's why it's so critical that we invest this money as wisely as possible." Specifically, the authority has outlined two major steps to attempt to address the needs of fishermen: a $138 million program to provide grants and loans directly to individual small businesses, including commercial fishing ventures; and a promise to allocate $20 million to help repair and replace damaged fisheries infrastructure such as stranded boat recovery, engines, nets and new docks for fuel and ice. The Small Firm Loan and Grant Program was recently expanded by $100 million and redrafted to include single employer firms, such as fishermen. It dedicates $100 million to direct grants of up to $20,000 per eligible applicant, and $38 million to provide no-interest loans up to $250,000. LRA Infrastructure Task Force Chair John T. Landry says the state is seeking other federal funding for fisheries as well. Meanwhile, the $20 million fund is all that's available for direct earmarking. -- Alford

 

Cheaper 'Scripts Moving on Both Sides
Louisiana's U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Republican, has filed legislation again that would permit Americans to import cheaper prescription drugs. The Pharmaceutical Market Access Act would allow individuals crossing the border from Canada to import personal-use-only prescription drugs carried on their person. "Americans should be allowed access to these safe, affordable medicines through the Internet and mail order," Vitter says. On the House side, lawmakers recently voted to cut the cost of health care and improve access to medicines by requiring the secretary of Health and Human Services to negotiate with drug companies for lower drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries. "Even with the new Medicare Part D program, the cost of prescription drugs is crushing many seniors trying to get by on fixed incomes," says Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Democrat from Napoleonville. "Seniors shouldn't have to choose between paying their rent, buying groceries or getting the prescription drugs they need to survive and have a decent quality of life." Now all that's left is a way for the Senate and House to agree on how cheaper meds should be filtered down to citizens. -- Alford

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