DALLAS – Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission held a town hall meeting here Dec. 6, attracting almost 300 evacuees. The event was one of several planned for cities where large numbers of New Orleans residents have been displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Although the town hall meetings have been widely publicized to include the mayor, Nagin was not present, nor was any member of the city council, prompting frequent complaints from attendees who had many questions for their city’s leaders.

The Fannie Mae Foundation, Urban Land Institute, and American Planning Association are sponsoring the town halls and speakers include volunteers from the mayor’s select commission. The forum included only one representative of the seventeen-member commission. The event was billed as an opportunity for evacuees to learn more about the Urban Land Institute’s recommendations for rebuilding New Orleans’ neighborhoods and making the case for residents to “come home.” Instead, commission member Anthony Patton repeatedly called for evacuees to bring ideas and solutions to the microphone. Yet, without exception, evacuees expressed frustration with the “lack of information” being made available to evacuees, and anger over the commission’s plans for redevelopment.

“Is there anyone on that commission who looks like us?” queried one attendee. “Do we have a choice about what happens to our neighborhoods?” These concerns were particularly poignant in light of the fact that the mayor’s commission and ULI white paper recommendations seem to suggest that reconstruction in some neighborhoods, such as the 9th Ward, Gentilly, Lakeview, Uptown/Carrollton, and New Orleans East, may be delayed for years.

“The mayor and his commission are proposing to shut us out. It is undemocratic!” said Katie Neeson, one New Orleans resident. “They are sending all our resources downtown and to the historic district, leaving none for the 3-tier communities.” The tier system refers to city planner’s stepped approach to rebuilding New Orleans.

Alma Watkins, a life long resident of the Gentilly community, contrasted her family’s life now and what it had been in New Orleans. She cares for her 91-year old mother and a disabled son. “I had a community garden across the street. I had an accessible home. Now, my son has not had a shower since Katrina hit.
“The hardest thing has been to watch my mother stare out a window, and look out on brick walls and cars.”
Responding to the plea to “come back to New Orleans”, Watkins exclaimed, “I never wanted to leave!” She asked to have a few questions answered before she could make the move home. “What plans do you have to accommodate our disabled citizens…the elderly…and children?”

Mr. Patton answered by reading a status report on utilities, schools and hospitals for the area of Gentilly – a sadly inadequate response to the important issues raised by Ms. Watkins.

Additionally, Watkins complained that on Nov. 29 she had received a notice by mail that her son’s Medicaid benefits previously paid by Louisiana would be terminated on November 30th, furthermore if he still needed the benefits, she would need to apply to the state of Texas for coverage.

More than 40 residents with similar stories of frustration and confusion spoke out at the town hall meeting. Concerns over environmental contamination of neighborhoods and resentment at continued billing by electric utility provider Entergy, were voiced repeatedly and cheered by the forum attendees.

Commission member Patton indicated that there currently about 60,000 people residing in New Orleans, leaving more than 400,000 citizens still displaced by the storm. Houston hosted a town hall last week, and the cities of Fort Worth, Texas, Memphis, Tenn., Atlanta, Ga., and Baton Rouge, La. are also expected to host the events.