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City's recovery off key

Eye witness - John McKenna finds New Orleans has many issues to resolve on its way to recovery

Wandering around New Orleans French Quarter I turn a corner to find an impromptu jazz concert taking place in the middle of the street. In front of the trumpets, trombones, euphonium and drums, smiling children dance as tourists throw dollars into their busking box.

On this evidence I would be tempted to say the storm had done little to change this unique town, but the reality is that it has changed everything.

The city, which prides itself on its gastronomic delights and plentiful restaurants, has lost two thirds of its population. On every other restaurant door is a sign that reads 'Staff wanted', while many remain closed. I find myself wondering why people are not returning.

Perhaps it's because, although flood waters have receded, New Orleans is still a devastated city. Visiting consultant MWH's downtown office, the contrast between what reconstruction work has been done and what is left to do could not be greater. Across the road from their office, workers are putting the finishing touches to roof of the home of the New Orleans Saints football team, the Louisiana Superdome.

But next door, a former shopping mall converted into an ad hoc hospital is the only source of treatment in the city centre for those without medical insurance. This building was converted after its predecessor, the nearby charity hospital, was contaminated with chemicals and bodily fluids, condemning it to demolition.

Symbolic projects, such as the Superdome and the new bridge being built across Lake Pontchartrain are superfi al representations of the city's recovery. I can't help but wonder what kind of city sets as its fi st priority the rebuilding of its sports stadium, but fails to provide enough schools and hospitals.

As long as this unbalanced approach to reconstruction continues, the city's dispersed residents will not return.

The reluctance to rebuild can be attributed to the political implications that come from producing a rebuild plan that will have to include floodplains where entire neighbourhoods once stood. No one wants to commit to this.

Small wonder that before his re-election in May this year mayor Ray Nagin shelved consultants' planning recommendations, instead opting to ask the city's 73 neighbourhoods to come up with a strategy.

Of course, public consultation is vital for a planning project of this scale, but will a design team ever come up with a masterplan that will satisfy all 73 stakeholders? I doubt it.

In his book, An Unnatural Metropolis, Louisana State University geography professor Craig Colten writes: 'Within the general pattern of flood risk, water flows away from money? away from the properties of those that can afford to live in less flood-prone areas.

With greater means and power the white population occupied the better drained sections [of New Orleans], while blacks typically occupied the swampy 'rear' districts.' If it is those poor swampy districts that are best suited to floodplains, then as Colten's colleague Bruce Sharky told me, any rebuild plan must include signifi cant social housing, preferably closer to the city centre and its 'Staff wanted' signs.

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