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Remaking New Orleans

An Inside Report by Robert D. Novak

Thursday, February 14, 2008

NEW ORLEANS -- The imposing presence of Robert A. Cerasoli as the city's first inspector general is the clearest sign that Hurricane Katrina's changes wrought on New Orleans in 2005 were not limited to physical devastation. By declaring war on municipal corruption, Cerasoli has signaled that life in the Big Easy no longer will be so easy.

I spent two days here with Donald E. Powell, federal coordinator for Gulf Coast rebuilding, who conducts oversight on remaking New Orleans. Physical reconstruction is slow, and the city never will regain its former size or appearance. But civic leaders I met here agreed that law enforcement, criminal justice, education and health all are better than they were before Katrina.

Louisiana politicians grumble that the flow of around $120 billion from Washington is insufficient and mourn for some 180,000 New Orleanians who have left the area. But that does not worry the rebuilders. "We don't want to rebuild an old New Orleans," insurance executive and civic leader John Casbon told me. School reformer Sarah Usdin said of the improvement in schools that "it never would have happened" save for the storm.

At the heart of the Katrina-inspired revival is a transformed mindset in a city traditionally more interested in good times than good government. For the first time, New Orleans elites are concentrating on something other than Mardi Gras.

A sign of change that transcends federal dollars was the arrival last August of Cerasoli, the nation's foremost inspector general, who served 10 years as Massachusetts state IG. "I was amazed when I arrived to find that just about everybody I met had been the victim of a holdup," Cerasoli told me. He wondered why crime was much more rampant in New Orleans than in Atlanta, a larger city with a smaller police force.

Cerasoli is working closely with U.S. Attorney Jim Letten to crack down on corruption. In a city whose good-time image belies high murder rates and violent crime that preceded Katrina, the new local district attorney, Keva Landrum-Johnson, and police chief Warren Riley are bringing reform to a law enforcement system notorious for putting arrested criminals back on the street. As founder of the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation, Casbon has led business community pressure for reform in the D.A.'s office.

Those efforts followed the Katrina catastrophe, as did the replacement of half of the city's public schools with charter schools. I visited the Langston Hughes Charter Academy, whose principal and founder, John Alford, is a recent Harvard MBA graduate who has sacrificed making big money. He and the school's students are African-Americans, as are nearly all the city's public school students. The children in their red uniforms were orderly as they followed Alford's strict instructions against jostling and fighting in the corridors.

This spirit of reform seems to have eluded re-elected Mayor Ray Nagin. He is not tarred with corruption in a city where his former possible successor, Councilman Oliver Thomas, last year pleaded guilty to taking bribes and some 85 other New Orleans officials have been convicted or indicted recently. But neither is Nagin considered a reformer at city hall. There, the new spirit is typified by City Council President Arnie Fielkow, elected in 2006 after running the New Orleans Saints football team's front office.

Federal Coordinator Powell, a rich banker from Amarillo, Texas, and generous contributor to George W. Bush, knows that the progress in New Orleans stems not from billions sent by Washington. He told the National Press Club on Nov. 29 that "the real reason I'm optimistic -- the reason I have hope for New Orleans -- has nothing to do with government." Powell openly sympathizes with locals over the infuriating red tape of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Katrina's assault on New Orleans and the failure of government at all levels to cope with its damage has been cited by critics the past two years as proof that more, not less, government is needed. While "government harnesses tax dollars and administers programs," Powell contends, "in this country it has never been and never will be a substitute for the creativity and can-do spirits that individuals possess." A visit to New Orleans proves his point.

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