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Filling the Leadership Void 

When Mayor Ray Nagin won re-election on May 20, he promised a 100-day plan to get New Orleans moving again. He also promised to overhaul his underperforming administration, which is known far and wide for its inability to follow through on matters large and small. We're now one-third of the way through those 100 days, but so far there's no sign of either a recovery plan or an overhaul of Mayor Nagin's top administrators. Moreover, every other Louisiana parish that was affected by the storm has submitted a plan to the Louisiana Recovery Authority, the state agency that will distribute billions of dollars in federal aid. New Orleans not only lacks a comprehensive recovery plan, our city doesn't even have an agreed-upon process for drafting such a plan. That things have dragged on this long -- 10 months after Katrina -- without any leadership from City Hall is both astounding and shameful. Worst of all, the official inertia gives credence to the arguments of our city's detractors who say that we aren't worth saving.

To those who say we shouldn't put all the blame on the mayor, we answer that Mayor Nagin has continued to press for extensions of the extraordinary emergency powers he assumed during and after Katrina -- powers that give him authority to act boldly, decisively and quickly. Unfortunately, the mayor cannot seem to muster the courage to use those powers effectively. In Mayor Nagin's hands, the emergency powers have actually stifled the local recovery effort -- and cast a pall over much of New Orleans, which is starved for effective leadership.

It is often noted that nature abhors a vacuum. The planning and leadership void left by the mayor has been filled by neighborhoods acting on their own as well as by the City Council, which hired planning advisers to assist neighborhoods in need of professional help. As a result, New Orleans now has a gallimaufry of well-intentioned but wholly uncoordinated neighborhood recovery efforts in various stages of completion and reflecting varying degrees of professionalism. In a June 11 editorial, The Times-Picayune dubbed the situation "redevelopment by default." Two weeks ago, an editorial in The New York Times called it "the New Orleans muddle" and challenged Mayor Nagin to step up and "speak difficult truths -- like telling the residents of a vulnerable block that they will have to rebuild on safer ground." And just last week, the Orlando Sentinel asked in an editorial, "Where's the leadership?"

We pose that question as well. And not just to the mayor.

Rather than devote the rest of this space to listing all the ways in which the mayor has failed New Orleans, we'd like to suggest that others step forward to fill the void in local leadership -- and we don't mean other politicians. Instead, why can't leaders from the business and financial community, academia, the various professions, the clergy as well as neighborhood and civic associations pick up this gauntlet and run with it? Why must we always sit back and wait for politicians to lead? Recent legislative successes by grass-roots organizations have shown what an aroused electorate can accomplish. Just imagine what can happen if the city's business, civic, religious and professional leaders band together and demand a plan -- or draft one themselves.

Much has already been done by individual neighborhoods, but the city's recovery depends on much more than neighborhoods rebounding after the flood. Literally billions of dollars will pour into southeast Louisiana in the next five to 10 years. We will see an unprecedented building and real estate boom. But then what? If all we do is spend billions rebuilding homes and neighborhoods with no plan for a new and improved economy and infrastructure, what good will it do? Put another way, what good will it do to rebuild our city if there is no long-range plan for better schools, better transportation systems and better jobs? Politicians and business leaders alike have bellowed for years about the need to expand economic opportunities beyond our city's now-bruised hospitality industry. This is our chance to make it happen.

It has become clichŽ to note that the ancient Chinese symbol for crisis is also the symbol for opportunity -- but sometimes clichŽs sum up a situation pretty well. It would be a shame to waste both the crisis and the opportunity presented by Katrina. A failure to fix the things that were broken before the storm could become Katrina's biggest tragedy. Fortunately, the leadership vacuum is one crisis that we can manage, if we seize the opportunity now before us. We couldn't stop the wind or the flood, but we can chart our future -- if we have the vision and the will to do so. If it means working around the mayor, so be it.

Look at the bright side: maybe this is the opportunity our business and civic communities need to show what they're made of. Just because Mayor Nagin is squandering his shot at greatness doesn't mean the rest of New Orleans has to do likewise.


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