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City Leaders Propose New Design for New Orleans

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, says the city will not stop residents from rebuilding their homes, even in the most flood prone parts of the city. He also said the city will not necessarily help the rebuilding of the riskiest areas. These announcements came as Nagin releases the final version of his master plan for the city's future.

NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

MARTIN KASTE reporting:

Most structures in the lower Ninth Ward are too wrecked to live in. This house standing on a rise, next to the river levy, is an exception. A gasoline generator is one sign of habitation, as is the defiant flags and the signs banning bulldozers. Patrice Gadell(ph) comes to the door accompanied by her dogs.

Ms. PATRICE GADELL (Ninth Ward Resident): This is my parents' house. As I told my husband, if it was anything, if this was just a house that we bought, I'd be out of here. But I've been born, raised, lived here all my life. And I'm going to rebuild it.

KASTE: Lonely pioneers, like Gadell, have become a flash point in New Orleans politics. Many locals see them as heroes. But urban planners say it doesn't make much sense to have these isolated pockets of redevelopment. Mayor Nagin has tried to straddle the issue. He laid out his philosophy in a front-page article in yesterday's Times Picayune under the headline Rebuild, But At Your Own risk. In a nutshell, he said people should be free to build where they want. But they shouldn't necessarily expect insurance and city services. Patrice Gadell is not impressed.

Ms. GADELL: I think that's rotten. I think it stinks. I don't think he's going to make mayor next year, next term, either.

KASTE: Nagin, who's running for re-election next month, knows full well just how delicate this subject is, something he acknowledged last night as he rolled out his blueprint for the city's recovery.

Mayor RAY NAGIN (New Orleans): I am going to do something that I normally hate to do. I'm going to read from the script.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KASTE: His carefully worded speech was the result of a month long study by a blue ribbon panel called the Bring New Orleans Back Commission. The plan is a long wish list of reforms and potential new projects, such as a new light rail line. But the most attention focused on how to decide which neighborhoods to rebuild. The panel originally suggested strict guidelines--for example, a requirement that neighborhoods prove that a critical mass of their residents is planning to come back.

Nagin has toned those requirements down, sticking with his rebuild at your own risk approach. But even that has come as a bitter disappointment to the hundreds of flood victims who came to hear his plan. Kim Hutchins is from the Lower Ninth.

Ms. KIM HUTCHINS (Lower Ninth Resident): Mr. Mayor, when I opened up that paper this morning and I saw the word risk, I said who in the hell is this mog(ph). When you speak, Mr. Mayor, please don't give us false hope. We need the truth.

KASTE: Nagin is in a tough spot. In New Orleans, it's political poison to seem to abandon any neighborhood. But at the same time, the whole point of this recovery plan is to convince a skeptical Congress that the city has a sensible plan, for the billions of dollars of community development aid that it's requesting. So Nagin is telling New Orleaneans that they're all free to rebuild, but some of them should think twice.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.