Of course, it’s not like the storms are lining up in the eastern Caribbean waiting for midnight so they can start their westward trek. It’s only a date on the calendar, yet June 1 has loomed large in the minds of New Orleanians for nine months now, ever since Katrina sashayed through and left us on our knees.
This week so far has been spent in meetings. Monday was Memorial Day. Tuesday, Freddie Arnold and I had separate meetings with the summer intern with the Baptist Message, our state paper, followed by an all day session with several leaders from our North American Mission Board and the state convention, plotting ways and means of doing evangelism in this hurting city. Wednesday, our pastors and church leaders–some 90 of them–spent the day at Oak Park Baptist Church hearing Bob Vickers and Donna Long explain the processes of writing grant proposals to be submitted to big charitable foundations around the country. The afternoon was primarily given to helping the pastors apply for their share of the $20 million available for churches from the Bush-Clinton-Katrina Fund. Bob and Donna–and their families–are in our city for several of these lengthy seminars. Their organization goes by the dual titles of Artful Askers and National Bridge Alliance.
“You’re only going to get 35 thousand dollars at the most,” they kept telling our leaders, “and that isn’t much.” We had asked them to spend the bulk of their time helping our guys complete the Bush-Clinton applications, which they did, but they kept insisting there is a lot more money, bigger money, out there to help the churches if one knows where to go and how to ask.
I did not sense a lot of enthusiasm in our pastors about applying with other charitable foundations for grants to fund their programs, but if two or three churches benefit, it will have been worth the effort and investment. We were the guests of the Louisiana Baptist Convention today. And of the wonderful people of Oak Park Baptist Church, as usual. Running the sanctuary air conditioning the entire day is not cheap, and today was a hot one. In fact, when I was driving across the river shortly after 9 am, the thermometer was almost hitting 90. And it’s only May. A good group of volunteers at Oak Park turns out every Wednesday to prepare and serve lunch for our pastors and other leaders. At the same time, a church group from outside our area had arrived this week to do work at Oak Park. They’re staying in the bunk beds the church has built on the third floor of their ed building just for this purpose.
The front page of Wednesday’s Times-Picayune shows an exciting concept that is being presented to the city, a plan to revamp much of the heart of the business district. People who have attended events at the Superdome know how the Hyatt Hotel is connected to the dome by a short walkway, and the hotel is part of an upscale shopping facility known as the New Orleans Centre. Neither the hotel nor the shopping center have reopened since Katrina, and today we found out why.
The governor, the mayor, and other leaders flanked Laurence Geller, CEO of Strategic Hotels, owner of the local Hyatt, in the announcement. The plan is to demolish the present Supreme Court and Louisiana state office buildings, also City Hall, the Civil Court, and the New Orleans Centre, as well as various other structures. In their place would rise a $715 million, 20-acre project with modern buildings to house the displaced government entities, with a large “jazz park” in the center of the expanse.
Mayor Nagin now says that Geller approached him not more than two weeks after the hurricane with the idea of creating this kind of revitalized district. “I said, ‘Go ahead.'” Nagin adds, “Guess what? They’re doing it.”
How does one pay for something like this? Geller says Strategic Hotels has $430 million, one third of which came from insurance. Half of this total will be spent on redeveloping the Hyatt Hotel. Geller says New Orleans has seen it share of big ideas that fell flat, but this will be different. No matter what happens to the plan, he says, Strategic will invest in the city with a $200 million renovated Hyatt.
Mr. Nagin sounds like he’s still running for office, he’s so excited and upbeat. “Breathtaking” is how he described the proposal. I guess so…it would create an estimated 6,500 permanent jobs. No details on what that means. I think it’s one of those numbers you don’t want to analyze too closely. Still, I love the plan. The buildings that would be demolished have all seen better days. The last two summers, we have attended conventions in Indianapolis and Nashville, both of which feature sparkling new downtowns that are a delight to stroll through. We would love that for this city.
FEMA has closed its volunteer camps as of today. Many thousands of volunteers and returning residents have been housed in their various “base” camps the last several months, allowing for thousands of homes and businesses to be gutted out and some restored. But with hurricane season upon us, FEMA says demand has diminished and others can pick up the slack.
Housing & Urban Development chief Alphonso Jackson is giving lots of folks around here hope these days. He announced that HUD will invest $154 million to rebuild public housing in this city. “Reinvent” might be the better word for what he envisions. Rather than restore the blighted centers of drugs/decay/and crime that Katrina emptied, Jackson wants public housing in better forms, similar to the River Garden neighborhood that replaced the scary St. Thomas project in the Lower Garden District. I know this is what Lionel Roberts is pulling for, as he gets his St. Bernard Baptist Mission up to speed.
HUD’s Jackson joins with the governor and others in urging congress to pass a bill for $4.2 billion in additional housing money for area residents whose homes were destroyed. The plan, put forth by the Louisiana Recovery Authority and approved by the state legislature, calls for grants up to $150,000 per homeowner for uninsured damage, based on the value of the house prior to last August 29. The Times-Picayune reports, “Louisiana sustained 75 percent of the Gulf Coast housing damage…including 82,000 rental units and at least 123,000 owner-occupied homes. (Governor) Blanco said she only wants for her state what Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour obtained for his.” Speaking of the $150,000 minimum, the governor said, “This is what Mississippi citizens are eligible for. I will not allow our citizens to be treated as second-class citizens. We’re going to have equal treatment.”
If Congress approves the money, Blanco promises homeowners they could begin receiving checks by late summer. Late summer…as in the last of August, I wonder? The anniversary of Katrina.
Thursday, June 1, the U.S.Corps of Engineers is having open house at three levee sites (from 1 to 6 pm) for citizens to receive progress reports on the work they have accomplished. I plan to visit the 17th Street Canal, that thin strip of water connecting Jefferson and Orleans Parishes, in the Bucktown area. In the reception area of our associational offices we have framed two large and dramatic photos of this canal after it was breached. The photos were shot from the air, a helicopter probably, one in the day, the other at night. On the right side of the day-time picture, New Orleans lies under water while to your left, Metairie sits high and dry. The night-time picture shows a completely darkened New Orleans half and a well-lighted Metairie. So dramatic. So heart-breaking.
My granddaughters have a softball game Wednesday night. Just the ticket for shaking off long meetings with endless sitting. For an hour and a half, we will forget that at the stroke of midnight, hurricane season arrives.