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Pick Up the Pace 

Once again this week, the world will turn its attention to New Orleans as we mark the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Once again, the occasion will be cause for both celebration and sadness. To be sure, much work remains to be done in the wake of the storm. At the same time, New Orleanians have shown their mettle, rebuilding homes and businesses by the thousands despite a dearth of focus and leadership at City Hall, in the state Capitol and in the White House. If there's anything to celebrate this week, it is the dedication, courage and commitment of those who have returned or moved here to be part of the recovery.

As we contemplate Katrina's second anniversary, we begin by taking stock of where we are today. Approximately 60 percent of the city's population is back, according to UNO demographer Greg Rigamer. Other estimates vary, with the U.S. Census Bureau offering more conservative approximations of the city's population and Mayor Ray Nagin promoting rosy "guesstimates" that are significantly higher. We think identifying the exact number of New Orleanians is far less important than changing some of the numbers that cannot be disputed: the number of murders so far this year, for example.

On the brighter side, Rigamer estimates that New Orleans' population continues to grow at a rate of 1 percent each month. Another significant -- and, we think, very positive -- development is the huge increase in "new" New Orleanians. Many of them are young, professional twentysomethings who have migrated here in search of both adventure and meaningful if not always lucrative employment, while others are skilled trades people who have left their own homes and families to help us rebuild. Still others are members of faith-based communities who continue to donate their time and talents to our recovery. Their collective response to New Orleans' post-Katrina needs shows that Americans still haven't plumbed the depths of their compassion. As a community, we are eternally grateful to people the world over who have opened their hearts to us in our time of need.

Early predictions that the local recovery would be "market-driven" have proved true, but for all the wrong reasons. That the private sector is driving the recovery is a sign that government has been achingly slow to do its part. And while it's great news that individuals and businesses are putting their lives and operations back together, there are some things, such as streets, water, sewerage and drainage systems, public schools and public hospitals -- the infrastructure that ties a community together and makes it whole -- that can only be rebuilt by government.

Looking ahead, we note that New Orleans is still struggling to implement the "recovery plan" that took almost two years to finalize. We can only hope that the pace of recovery will be much faster than that of the planning process. Toward that end, we offer the following suggested goals for Mayor Nagin as well as Louisiana's next governor to meet by this time next year:

Get a grip on crime. All the recovery efforts will come to naught if New Orleans does not focus on reducing its sky-high murder rate. The mayor promised protesters in January that he would work on nothing else until the city's crime problem is solved. He has yet to keep that promise. Rather than flirting with a run for governor, we suggest the mayor focus on containing crime.

Start with infrastructure. Without good infrastructure, neighborhoods and businesses will founder. We suggest the mayor turn Recovery Director Dr. Ed Blakely loose -- give him the money and the authority -- to get things moving in terms of streets, drainage and other infrastructure needs. A year ago in this space, we stated: "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." We called for a comprehensive study, to be completed by Katrina's second anniversary, to plan the rebuilding of New Orleans' infrastructure. We're still waiting for that study.

Keep the pressure on the Corps. Our public and civic leaders must constantly lean on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and on Congress -- the two-headed monster that created the post-Katrina flood -- to rebuild our levees and floodwalls in a manner that will protect us as promised. Congress must appropriate sufficient funds and the Corps must insist on better design and construction standards -- subject to independent review.

Turn the money loose. The mayor should put $10 million to $20 million -- not just $1 million or $2 million -- into the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority so that NORA can truly drive neighborhood recovery strategies. Nagin appointed his own blue-ribbon NORA board, then abandoned it without enough money to do the job. You can't micromanage a citywide recovery, Mr. Mayor. Turn the money loose at NORA.

New Orleans has come a long way since Aug. 29, 2005, but we have much more to do. The "market-driven" recovery predicted by the mayor can still occur, but those in public office must recognize that there are some things only government can do. It's time for the public sector to pick up the pace.


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