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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 January 2006, 19:45 GMT
New Orleans rebuilding unveiled
By Matthew Davis
BBC News, Washington

Damaged houses in the Lower Ninth Ward
There is controversy over what to do with the most-damaged areas
A panel set up to mastermind the rebuilding of flood-ravaged New Orleans has begun unveiling its blueprint for the US city on Wednesday.

The Bring New Orleans Back commission, created by Mayor Ray Nagin, spent three months assessing the city's future.

Over the next nine days it will outline plans to revamp key areas including health, education and infrastructure.

One of the most controversial topics will be what is done with the areas most heavily-damaged by the floods.

There was an outcry in December when a group appointed by the commission said that the city should concentrate the rebuilding effort on higher ground - deferring rebuilding of the worst-hit areas.

Some residents feared the Urban Land Institute's recommendations would create a blueprint that eliminated mostly black neighbourhoods.

'Critical mass'

The panel is likely to say residents should be allowed to return and rebuild anywhere they like, no matter how damaged or vulnerable the neighbourhood, according to reports quoting members of the commission.

View of the New Orleans skyline with blue tarpaulins covering damaged roofs

The main author of the plan, Joseph Canizaro, says the commission will propose that the city should discourage homeowners from rebuilding in the hardest-hit areas, but will not forbid them from doing so.

Areas that fail to attract a critical mass of residents in 12 months will probably not survive as residential neighbourhoods, Mr Canizaro told the New York Times.

Only a fifth of New Orleans' population of half a million has returned since the mass evacuations in the wake of the 29 August hurricane and subsequent flooding of the city.

Most people are living in areas that did not suffer flood damage and where services have been restored, yet vast swathes of the city hit by deep flooding are still without power.

Community activists say that many homeowners remain stranded in other cities largely because of delays with federal emergency trailers and insurance payments.

'A better New Orleans'

There have also been complaints of forced evictions, unfairly high rents and that the local government has failed to reopen habitable public housing projects.

We have to keep the city intact culturally. We're not a typical American city. We want to preserve the best of New Orleans, and at the same time, improve those areas that were marginal.
Mel Legarde
Bring New Orleans Back commission
One community group is fighting a legal campaign to halt the wholesale demolition of thousands of storm-damaged houses.

Much of the federal money earmarked for rebuilding New Orleans is controlled by the Louisiana Recovery Authority - a state-wide organisation set up by Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco.

LRA executive director Andy Kopplin says the agency will favour plans that provide good returns on investments, at the same time as staying "true to the aspirations of local communities".

The BNOB commission will hear reports from committees in seven broad areas: urban planning, education, culture, health and social services, infrastructure, administrative/government effectiveness and economic development.

A broken canal wall in New Orleans
Upgrading flood protection is also a priority
Commissioners will present the final master plan to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin on 20 January.

Their recommendations are not binding, but will be based on the most comprehensive study of the options yet conducted.

Mel Legarde, co-chair of the Bring New Orleans Back commission, said: "My hope is for a better New Orleans, a better city, a city that is more robust than it was before.

"We have to keep the city intact culturally. We're not a typical American city. We want to preserve the best of New Orleans, and at the same time, improve those areas that were marginal."

Better schools

Other ideas on the table include re-creating a long-gone jazz district, building a network of cycle paths and commuter rail lines, and establishing a better school system.

"This isn't about us asking for $1bn (565m) to build three more Superdomes and five more airports," said Michael Arata, chairman of a subcommittee that looked at rebuilding the city's film and music industries.

"These are projects by real New Orleanians that will have real benefit and affect the lives of the people of New Orleans."

Meanwhile, the first carnival season since the hurricane officially began in New Orleans on Friday, despite objections from people who say it is too soon to throw a Mardi Gras party in the battered city.

Mayor Nagin said the decision to proceed with a shortened parade schedule, which culminates on Fat Tuesday on 28 February, would send a message that the city was unified in its determination to rebuild.

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