NEW ORLEANS -- Mayor Ray Nagin's proposal to make the New Orleans central business district a Las Vegas strip of giant gambling casinos explains the business community's disappointment with elected officials reacting to Hurricane Katrina. Before revealing the idea, Nagin did not consult his own commission on rebuilding New Orleans. "It's not going to happen," one commissioner told me, dismissing the mayor's gambling scheme.
Nagin is described by business leaders as overwhelmed. His disorganization was reflected when neither the mayor nor his representative attended the first planning meeting last week for next year's Mardi Gras, an event essential for reviving the city. Nagin at least is trying. Gov. Kathleen Blanco is seen as a total embarrassment. The state's two senators, Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican David Vitter, are laughed at for begging open-ended multibillion-dollar expenditures. After a slow start, President Bush is intimately engaged. But out of 2,520 small business loan applications, only six have survived the Washington bureaucracy.
What business leaders want most is restored government services and police protection so that businesses can reopen. After that, they feel, the magic of commerce will do its work. Business also wants a property tax holiday to begin building a smaller, better New Orleans. That is a long way from the post-Katrina talk about a new nationwide war on poverty.
A short visit here reveals the scope of the problem. Only about 5 percent of the city's 460,000 residents have returned or never left. The devastation is complete in the predominantly African-American Lower 9th Ward, 36 percent of whose residents live below the poverty level. Their houses, in poor condition before the floodwaters, are not worth replacing.
Nobody here takes seriously $250 billion proposed for disaster relief by Landrieu and Vitter. Rep. Richard Baker, a senior member of the House Financial Services Committee who represents Baton Rouge, told me that "we're not just going to dump a lot of money on Louisiana." He proposes a Louisiana Recovery Corp. to acquire real estate, retire mortgages and restore bank solvency.
After the early chaos of looting, law and order has returned (including an enforced midnight curfew). Police are augmented by 2,500 National Guardsmen from around the country who man checkpoints monitoring the slim vehicular traffic into devastated areas.
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