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Remaking New Orleans

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               THE CONSERVATIVE REVIEW   
                  February 15, 2008
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Remaking New Orleans
By Robert D. Novak
Townhall.com 

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 signal-
ed 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 over-
sight 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. 

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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 trans-
formed 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. 

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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 bring-
ing 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. 

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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 Manage-
ment Agency (FEMA). 

Katrina's assault on New Orleans and the failure of govern-
ment 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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