Katrina's Opportunity: A New Federalism?

Article excerpt

If the nation's heart in responding to the challenges of Hurricane Katrina is even half as large as President Bush now says it is, we face a set of perplexing "how's."

How does a lumbering federal bureaucracy, its domestic departments starved for attention and funding, position itself as a true partner with the ravaged states and localities and people of New Orleans and the broader Gulf Coast region?

How, in an alarmingly hurricane-prone part of the country, does Washington make sure its dollars don't put people and homes once again in harm's way, unprepared to weather future killer storms?

How does the federal behemoth work to serve the poor and disadvantaged when the Gulf Coast state governments have historically led the race to the bottom in terms of social assistance?

Only, I'd suggest, by a very new New Federalism for the 21st century--not some form of Washington-mandated command and control, not federal disengagement, but rather a process of direct engagement, mutual respect, consultation and open democratic processes.

The idea began to jell for me when Robert Grow, the former steel industry executive and a founder of the remarkable Envision Utah process, called to suggest that with the nation spending untold billions on recovery, it also ought to bring its best minds to the table to consider the hard choices and "how's."

Why not assemble, around a very big table, a visioning team for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, Grow asked.

All the governments would be there, he said, but also people from America's highly skilled nonprofit sector--organizations like the American Planning Association and the American Institute of Architects, the Urban Land Institute and the Alliance for Regional Stewardship, independent and noted experts in hydrology and flood control, transportation and housing, builders, insurers, mortgage bankers and others.

And, Grow said. the table should be large enough for the direct victims of the flood.

Skeptics might predict a cacophony of voices, producing noise but zero conclusions. But Grow said at least a set of scenarios, clear choices for public debate and then governmental decision, could emerge.

Robert Yaro, president of the New York Plan Association, suggested a broad geographic focus--governors from the entire, multistate "megaregion" stretching from the Florida Panhandle to East Texas, debating guidelines for developing flood-prone locations, guiding economic development and transportation links, creating a sustainable region for the century.

A science and art of reshaping communities is emerging in America, notes Yaro, citing not just the post-9/11 efforts in Manhattan but such citistate regions as Salt Lake City, Austin and Chicago. …