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New Orleans plan draws outrage

Residents slam a proposal to downsize city

NEW ORLEANS -- Angry homeowners screamed and City Council members seethed yesterday as this city's recovery commission recommended imposing a four-month building moratorium on most of New Orleans and creating a powerful new authority that could use eminent domain to seize homes in neighborhoods that will not be rebuilt.

The commission's recovery plan anticipates a city that will be only a fraction of its pre-Katrina size of nearly half a million residents. The city now has about 144,000 residents and is projected to grow to 181,000 by September and 247,000 by September 2008.

Hundreds of residents packed in a hotel ballroom interrupted the presentation of the long-awaited proposal with shouts and taunts, booed its main architect, and unrolled a litany of complaints. One by one, homeowners stepped to a microphone to lampoon the plan -- which contemplates a much smaller city and relies on persuading the federal government to spend billions on new housing and a light-rail system -- as ''audacious," ''an academic exercise," and ''garbage."

''You missed the boat," homeowner Fred Yoder, who lived in heavily flooded Lakeview, told committee members. ''Give me a break: We don't need a light-rail system. We're in the mud."

The plan released yesterday is the first stage of what is sure to be a multilayered, multilevel effort to resuscitate New Orleans.

Mayor C. Ray Nagin, who can accept or alter the proposal, will have to present the plan to a state commission that will control allocation of billions of federal dollars; to President Bush's hurricane recovery coordinator, Donald Powell; and to the White House. The commission's recommendations are heavily dependent on federal money, counting on $12 billion to buy storm-damaged homes and $4.8 billion for infrastructure improvements, including an ambitious light-rail proposal to connect downtown New Orleans with the city's airport, Baton Rouge, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

The furious reaction to the plan is the latest agonizing episode in this city's troubled campaign to reinvigorate itself after the devastating floods caused by Hurricane Katrina last August. Nagin, already politically weakened by widespread criticism of his response to the flooding, now faces the difficult challenge of guiding decisions about whether some parts of the city will cease to exist.

Some activists have long accused the commission -- which was appointed by Nagin -- of trying to find ways to abandon predominantly black neighborhoods, such as the Lower Ninth Ward. Yesterday's unveiling did nothing to assuage their fears, even though commission members promised to give all neighborhoods an opportunity to prove that they should be rebuilt by convening planning groups in coming months.

The proposed moratorium would be in the city's most damaged neighborhoods, and officials would use the four-month period to gauge whether enough residents will come back to make the areas viable.

''If this plan goes forward as it is, many people's worst fears about our African American heritage and population will come true," Sue Sperry of the New Orleans Preservation Resource Center said. ''It's almost like it will be extinguished from this Earth."

Despite the hurdles ahead, the commission urged fast action on a the recommendations, including stronger levees and a restructured school system. John Beckham, a consultant who helped devise the plan, urged residents to ''imagine the best city in the world."

Before the commission's report had even been unveiled, five city council members -- responding to leaks of the plan's main components held a news conference to condemn the committee.

Within minutes of the plan's unveiling, Nagin was already showing signs that he might back away from the commission's most controversial proposal. He told WWL-AM that he had some ''hesitancy" about the building moratorium.

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