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Volume XXXI • Number 5 May 2007 | Past Issues


Planning for Post-Disaster Rebuilding:

An Update from New Orleans

Eighteen months after Hurricane Katrina’s devastating landfall, most headlines in the local newspapers are still related to Katrina’s impact and the region’s attempt to recover. Infrastructure remains in shambles; basic services that are essential to a high quality of life are still spotty; and pre-Katrina problems with the economy, public education, and crime all seem to have been exacerbated by the storm.

The Unified New Orleans Plan (UNOP), initiated in September 2006 and now awaiting approval from the city government, attempts to provide a recovery roadmap for residents, businesses, investors, and all branches of government. At the plan’s core is a suite of recovery projects totaling $14 billion that illuminates the gaps, to date, in both the public and private funds allocated toward New Orleans’ recovery. The projects encompass nearly every urban system that must be jump-started following Katrina’s devastating blow—from repairs to public facilities, infrastructure, and transportation; to rebuilding neighborhoods and housing in a more sustainable fashion. The plan also provides a strategic recovery framework with priorities and phasing—to be finalized by the city government as funding is secured and implementation is initiated—that can help guide future investment decisions.

UNOP is the latest in a series of planning efforts that have proceeded sporadically during the 18 months since Katrina struck. In the storm’s immediate aftermath, there was a widespread recognition that ambitious, long-range planning was necessary to address both the post-disaster recovery needs and the myriad, seemingly-intractable problems that had plagued New Orleans prior to the storm. Mayor Ray Nagin responded by convening an ad-hoc commission, called the Bring New Orleans Back (BNOB) Commission, that devised a series of high-level, subject-specific plans in January of 2006 to address a full spectrum of recovery and community improvement issues. By far, the most controversial of these was the Urban Planning Committee report, which endorsed the idea of shrinking the city’s footprint and replacing certain low-lying neighborhoods with green space. The report also recommended that more detailed, neighborhood-based planning be conducted to evaluate the long-term viability of heavily-damaged neighborhoods. This next phase of the BNOB process did not materialize, as funding and political support for the controversial document faltered, but the concept of neighborhood-based planning endured.

In the spring of 2006, the New Orleans City Council stepped into the post-BNOB planning void and funded a neighborhood-based effort, called the New Orleans Neighborhoods Rebuilding Plan, which proceeded through the end of the summer. This process focused on the immediate needs of slightly more than half of the city’s officially-recognized 73 neighborhoods – known as the “wet neighborhoods.” Essential to the plan’s recommendations was an assumption that 100-year flood protection would be provided expeditiously to the entire city, and future flood risk would be reduced to a more acceptable level. In contrast to the BNOB plans, the New Orleans Neighborhoods Rebuilding Plan contained few recommendations for hazard mitigation and flood risk management and focused instead on restoring the neighborhood housing, infrastructure, and quality of life lost in Katrina.

By early summer 2006, it became clear that these and other previous planning efforts lacked either the political support or the comprehensiveness of other parish recovery plans that were being submitted to the Louisiana Recovery Authority, most of which had been prepared through the FEMA-led Emergency Support Function 14 (ESF-14) long-term recovery planning processes. (FEMA did conduct an ESF-14 planning process in Orleans parish from September 2005 until August 2006, but the resulting document has not been a major part of the city’s planning debates.)

BNOB had produced a high-level (albeit controversial) framework for rebuilding, and the Neighborhoods Rebuilding Plan provided a more detailed set of recovery plans for a portion of the city’s neighborhoods. In addition, many neighborhoods were continuing to organize and undertake planning efforts of their own, with the assistance of universities and consultants from around the country.

Finally, in late August 2006, New Orleans’ mayor, City Council and City Planning Commission (CPC), and the Louisiana Recovery Authority signed a memorandum of understanding to support the development of the Unified New Orleans Plan. Funding for UNOP came mainly from the philanthropic community, largely through grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, and the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund.

Highlights of the UNOP Process

New Orleans’ CPC staff helped design the five-month UNOP process, using its Neighborhood (Recovery) Planning Guide (adopted by the CPC in June 2006) as a partial guide.

From the start, the process took a two-tiered approach to planning. A citywide planning team had two key charges: assessing the more systemic, citywide recovery needs, such as infrastructure recovery, and unifying the previous and ongoing planning efforts into one comprehensive Citywide Strategic Recovery and Rebuilding Plan. Another group of planning consultants worked at the “district level,” constructing District Recovery Plans for each of the city’s 13 planning districts (administrative areas delineated by the CPC during the 1980s). Consultants were selected through a national “request for qualifications” process overseen by a panel of national planning experts. Citizens and neighborhood groups also had input into the selection of the district planning consultant teams.

Both the citywide and district teams followed a similar three-phase structure: (1) conducting a comprehensive recovery assessment; (2) developing and selecting recovery scenario preferences; and (3) constructing the recovery plans and prioritized list of recovery projects. The UNOP process also had an extensive communications component, including the project Web site (www.unified, newsletters, media relations, neighborhood meetings, and other innovative communication strategies to address the unique conditions of the project.

District planners held four rounds of meetings in each planning district of the city during four designated weekends. AmericaSpeaks, a nationally renowned non-profit focused on engaging citizens in public decision making, joined forces with UNOP to design and conduct three “community congresses” that brought together 300 to 2,500 New Orleanians (both locally and those still displaced by the storm) to provide input into the citywide planning process. Community congresses II and III were conducted as simulcast meetings in New Orleans, Houston, Dallas, and Atlanta, with many others linked via the internet at libraries and other meeting sites across the country.

In these congresses, residents from a variety of neighborhoods shared their views on what was best for the city “as a whole” and voted on priorities for flood protection, neighborhood stabilization, housing, infrastructure, public facilities, and public services. Throughout the process, the planning teams maintained a top-down and bottom-up interaction that, coupled with the broad citizen input, helped establish the recovery scenario preferences and principles for the plans.

Risk-based Approach to Recovery Planning

The UNOP plans are developed around a strategic recovery framework that works to balance citizens’ preferences with two key risks that could undermine the city’s future and any recovery investments: the pace of repopulation and the risk of future flooding. As of January 2007, only half of the city’s pre-Katrina population had returned, but forcibly shrinking the footprint to respond to a smaller population was not a politically palatable option. The plan proposes that the phasing of infrastructure and public facilities investment reflect post-Katrina population shifts. Through public investment decisions and direct financial assistance to residents and businesses, the plan seeks to “incentivize” the recovery of repopulating areas and the “clustering” of residents who reside in areas slow to repopulate.

Following Katrina, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the Corps) set about repairing and enhancing storm-damaged levees and floodwalls; additional upgrades are scheduled for completion by the end of 2007. The U.S. Congress also directed the Corps to develop a project report for providing a category 5 level of protection for coastal Louisiana that includes a full range of flood control, coastal restoration, and hurricane protection measures. The report is scheduled for release later this year.

Throughout the UNOP process, district and citywide planners worked together to communicate the uncertainties in future protection plans and schedules, as well as the future risks of flooding in different parts of the city. At both the district meetings and the community congresses, citizens strongly endorsed having a more comprehensive flood risk management system that combines enhanced levee/floodwall protection with coastal wetlands restoration and that also provides the resources for citizens to better protect themselves through more effective building practices. The citywide plan advocates for securing permanent funding to upgrade the external flood control system of levees, floodwalls, and a restored coast, and it also proposes some key voluntary incentives for rebuilding that give residents more options to protect themselves. A proposed neighborhood stabilization program will encourage residents of areas where less than a quarter of the population has returned (also the areas that experienced the most acute flooding) to rebuild in clusters at higher elevations, which will help ensure vibrant neighborhoods and more efficient infrastructure costs in the context of a smaller overall population. The plan also calls for substantial incentives to encourage homeowners to either elevate their structures or reconstruct slab-on-grade structures to (at a minimum) the latest FEMA advisory base flood elevations released in April 2006. Funding for these programs still needs to be secured as part of implementation, and the plan recommends that the state’s hazard mitigation and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds be considered as potential sources.

Next Steps and Approval Process

As of mid-March 2007, New Orleans’ CPC has held four public hearings on the draft citywide plan, and UNOP consultants are now responding to the comments received and will submit a final draft to the CPC for a decision in April. Under New Orleans’ Home Rule Charter, the CPC is charged with preparing and recommending post-disaster reconstruction plans to the City Council. If the citywide plan is approved, the city can then submit it to the state and federal governments and any other investors it chooses to pursue. Citizens are also calling for updates to the city’s Master Plan and Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance so that both documents better reflect the planning principles and policies, programs, and projects proposed in both the citywide and district plans.

Leadership for the recovery has also now been transferred to the city’s newly-designated Office of Recovery Management. In December 2006, Mayor Nagin appointed Dr. Ed Blakely as the city’s new Executive Director for Recovery Management to coordinate and direct recovery efforts. Blakely has now staffed the Office of Recovery Management and has already started developing action plans that are based, in part, on the UNOP plans. He has also begun laying the groundwork to form a parish-wide recovery council—one of the principal implementation actions called for in the citywide plan. To help coordinate and facilitate the recovery effort, this council will include representatives from all key city departments and other parish agencies with major recovery and rebuilding responsibilities.

It is important that UNOP not be viewed as an end point. Rather, it is a critical milestone along the long road to recovery, and in the case of the recovery underway in New Orleans, most of the journey lies ahead.

Laurie Johnson (
Disaster recovery and risk management consultant to UNOP

Raphael Rabalais (
Planner, GCR & Associates, Inc.; Data management and district planning team coordinator for UNOP


Boston, B., and V. Herr. 2006. Category 5: Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration (LACPR) Workshop Transcripts. For U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New Orleans District. By Group Solutions, Inc., Alpharetta, GA.

City of New Orleans, Home Rule Charter, Sections 5-402 and 6-104.

Horne, J., and B. Nee. 2006. “An Overview of Post-Katrina Planning in New Orleans.” Unpublished manuscript.

Unified New Orleans Plan, “Draft Citywide Strategic Recovery and Rebuilding Plan, January 29, 2007.” www.unifiednew

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