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The State of the City 

It's not quite Anderson Cooper 360°. Reshaping New Orleans, a new roundtable news program from PBS member station WYES-TV, is "keeping them honest" in its own right, however, putting local, state and federal government officials on the business end of hard-hitting questions from community representatives and urban planners about the state of New Orleans' post-Katrina recovery.

The series' premiere episode, airing Thursday night on channel 12, features television anchor John Snell moderating two three-person panels: petitioners LaToya Cantrell, David Dixon and Stephen Villavaso on the left and respondents Donald Powell, Ed Blakely and David Voelker on the right. Members of the former each take turns posing queries to those of the latter, whose answers are limited to one minute or less.

The time constraints combined with the sheer breadth of information such a forum encompasses keep the hourlong episode from holding any real revelations. With her questions, Cantrell, president of the Broadmoor Improvement Association, advocates for actual people facing actual problems (an elderly neighbor, Della, still resides in a trailer, awaiting her Road Home check), while urban-planning experts Dixon and Villavaso focus largely on macro-level issues such as community clustering and the implementation of the Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP).

Powell, Federal Recovery Coordinator for Gulf Coast Rebuilding, and Voelker, board member of the Baton Rouge-based Louisiana Recovery Authority, spend much of their time sparring for the generality crown, narrowing only to emphasize the unprecedented complexity of the situation, to congratulate governmental efforts or to empathize with the plight of impoverished storm victims. Nothing new is learned from them.

Blakely, though, seems less oblique here than ever before. The recovery director still eschews a buffet of information in favor of bite-size analogies ("You never grow a tree from the top," he reminds us), but his explanations of the 17 high-and-dry areas targeted for relocation and the plans to raise elevation levels in eastern New Orleans and the Lower Ninth Ward are consistently direct. By bureaucratic standards, next to the murky meandering of Powell and Voelker, they're downright cogent.

Most surprising and effective of all is Snell -- a positive since he's the only member certain to resume his post when Reshaping New Orleans returns for a second episode in early 2008. The FOX 8 veteran handily bests his polite panelists in fervor and zeal, at one point interrupting a round of circuitous answers to ask Powell and Blakely how often they actually talk. In the broadcast's best moment, Snell renders Powell speechless when the chairman attempts to parry an inquiry with something about Congress' appropriations.

"All due respect," says Snell, "but there's somebody screaming at the television right now that if George Bush said he needed $2.5 billion more for Road Home, he'd get the money -- with a Democratic Congress."

Anderson Cooper would be proud.

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