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The Work of Rebuilding 

For most of this week and next, the world will be looking back at Hurricane Katrina and how it changed New Orleans as well as America. Dozens of organizations have scheduled tributes, memorials and celebrations of rebirth. There have been disagreements -- heated arguments, even -- as to the propriety of some of the events, and that's only fitting in a town that defies simple definition. For what it's worth, we think all of the events are appropriate, because there are so many sides of New Orleans, so many nuances to our culture, that no single event, or even set of events, could capture the emotions, losses and aspirations that our city feels at this time. So we say, let the celebration as well as the mourning begin. Let us honor those who have fallen as well as those who carry on. Let us weep, let us laugh, let us protest, let us dance. Above all, let us remember -- and then let us get back to the work of rebuilding.

Almost a year after Katrina, New Orleans still does not have a comprehensive plan for recovery. The good news is that, as this newspaper predicted in our first post-Katrina Commentary ("By Our Own Bootstraps," Nov. 1, 2005), New Orleanians are not waiting for officialdom to give permission for the recovery to begin; the private sector is leading the way. "Nothing will help us cope with Katrina better than getting to work on bringing our city back," we wrote then. Although much more remains to be done, the months since Katrina have proven those sentiments correct. We are indeed pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps.

While most will be reflecting back on how far we've come since last Aug. 29, we'd like to use the rest of this space to look ahead. Next to marking the first anniversary of Katrina, the most important thing New Orleans can do at this time is set some high but attainable goals to achieve by the storm's second anniversary. In that spirit, we offer the following benchmarks for New Orleans as of Aug. 29, 2007:

Flood Protection -- By this time next year, the state and area parishes should have agreed with each other and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on a master plan for hurricane protection levees, flood gates and pumps to prevent storm surges from filling Lake Pontchartrain and threatening the city. This plan should include a systematic timetable for closing the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet and building a combination of levees and floodgates to keep the MR-GO, the Intracoastal Waterway and Lake Borgne from threatening St. Bernard Parish and eastern New Orleans. All these projects will take years of planning and billions of dollars to build -- but we should at least have agreement as to the scope of the job and a specific set of plans in place by this time next year.

Infrastructure -- We still don't know how badly our streets, water lines, sewer lines and drainage lines deteriorated while standing in salt water for three weeks, but it's a safe bet that a lot of "hidden damage" remains. New Orleans must undertake a comprehensive study to assess and plan the rebuilding of all its infrastructure in order to serve the "new New Orleans" for the next 100 years. By this time next year, that study should be completed.

Utilities -- Entergy New Orleans keeps getting delays in its bankruptcy case, which only adds to the frustration and uncertainty of local businesses and residents. The city, the state and the federal government must solve this crisis. Either the feds need to bail the company out -- as the government did for Con Edison after 9/11 -- or the city and state should force Entergy Corp. to merge its New Orleans subsidiary with the rest of its Louisiana operations so that rates can be equalized regionally. If neither of those happens by Feb. 1, the City Council should take steps to municipalize the system and re-sell it to a non-Entergy investor or operator. Meanwhile, someone should take Entergy Corp. to court to force it to return the enormous profits it took out of New Orleans before Katrina --Êleaving the local utility with no reserves to rebuild.

Education -- The Legislature stepped in after Katrina to reinvent New Orleans' public schools, and while hopes remain high for the Recovery School District, the reality is that a broken system cannot be fixed overnight -- or even in nine months. By this time next year, however, it's not asking too much to expect all public schools to have all certified teachers in place by mid-August, and for all students to have take-home textbooks and clean, safe school buildings.

Planning -- This one should have been done by now. It's time for our elected officials, particularly Mayor Ray Nagin, to buck up and start making the tough decisions. Quit waffling. Quit flip-flopping. Quit equivocating. We don't have another year for this one. Do it now.

In closing, we'll repeat what we said last Nov. 1: "This is a time of tremendous challenge -- and virtually unlimited opportunity. Let's not squander it." The work of rebuilding has begun; it's time to pick up the pace.

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