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By Our Own Bootstraps 

It's time to rebuild New Orleans, and for this Herculean task we need our elected leaders to be on their game like never before. So far, they're not even on the same page. Even now, two months after Katrina slammed ashore, competing "official" committees assert their own relevance amid behind-the-scenes political jockeying over who's really in charge. Meanwhile, parts of New Orleans are resettling without official guidance or approval. We take the latter development as a positive sign. As much as they can, New Orleanians are pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps because they know in their hearts that our city must and shall be rebuilt. Good for them. Good for all of us. Nothing will help us cope with Katrina better than getting to work on bringing our city back. This is a time of tremendous challenge -- and virtually unlimited opportunity. Let's not squander it.

No doubt studies have begun in earnest to determine the best course of official action. We at Gambit Weekly decided not to wait for officialdom to get its act together. We contacted as many community leaders and opinion-makers as we could for this, our "comeback" issue, and asked them what they think our city's priorities should be. We also asked them to identify the elements of New Orleans that should be preserved -- and discarded -- as the city rebuilds. Their responses became our cover story this week.

It starts with a vision. What do we want our city to look like? What image do we want to project? What segments of our old economy must we bring back to make sure New Orleans maintains its unique character, and what industries do we want to attract to help us to grow in new and healthy ways? If we don't know the answers to those questions, nothing else matters. One thing on which all New Orleanians should agree is that we must rebuild our neighborhoods. More than any other American city, New Orleans remains a city of neighborhoods -- each with a unique identity and sub-culture. "We must preserve our city's compassion, grace and spirit -- and our existing architecture," says architect Wayne Troyer, adding, "We must avoid 'Disneyfication' of our architectural heritage." We couldn't agree more. Restaurateur Dickie Brennan offered equally sage advice: "Everyone must participate," he said. Ditto that.

Thus, the vision that decision-makers ought to be discussing is one that includes the best elements of "old" New Orleans -- our neighborhoods, our architecture, our best and most productive industries, and most of all our people. All of them. Or at least, all of them who want to return. At the same time, we must be forward-looking, building on our tremendous natural assets and potential for new development.

We need a plan. Once we have a vision, we must turn it into reality. That will involve some tough decisions, mostly in the way of priorities. There is near-unanimity on the need to start with our levee system. It must be able to withstand at least Category 3 storms by next hurricane season, and ultimately Category 5 storms. That will take time and lots of federal dollars. Considering the fact that the federal government designed the levees that breached, there should be no debate that this is a "federal problem." We also suggest re-engineering the drainage canals so that pumping stations sit at the end of the canals rather than at the halfway points.

Inside the levee system, local utilities are hard at work getting the city turned on, reconnected and lit up as quickly as possible. We applaud those efforts. For the long haul, New Orleans should consider burying its utility lines wherever possible. Economically, nothing will "jump-start" our economy faster than a construction boom. City Hall should work on two fronts at once: speed up the permitting process for homeowners and businesses to rebuild and re-open; and work with FEMA as well as neighborhood associations to establish temporary housing for returning families. Meanwhile, we're pleased to see the hospitality industry already up and running in many quarters, with more hotels and restaurants coming on line weekly. Led by Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, local hospitality leaders set an ambitious goal of operating at nearly full capacity by Mardi Gras. Gov. Kathleen Blanco called the deadline "a mile marker moment" in the city's recovery. We agree.

Execution is everything. The vision and the plan are crucial, but they are futile if not executed competently. The mayor and the governor must start cooperating like never before, and Louisiana must speak with one voice. Gov. Blanco and Mayor Ray Nagin can start by deciding who's in charge. We suggest neither of them should be -- but we hope they can agree on someone else. Let that person surround himself or herself with a team that will inspire the confidence of local citizens as well as Congress, and then let's get about the business of rebuilding -- even if we all have to pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps to make it happen.

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