A new role in recovery?

If ever there was a case of excessive governmental optimism, it was the creation of the Office of Gulf Coast Recovery for a period of three years.

Three more? We don’t know, but the Obama administration should either renew the office or otherwise suggest a plan for the Gulf Coast.

Too much remains to be done.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and then Rita just three weeks later in 2005, the nation recognized the huge scope of the problem posed by the devastation along the Gulf Coast. While the Mississippi coast and southwest Louisiana suffered severely from storm surges from Katrina and then Rita, the flooding of New Orleans’ urban core was a major national challenge.

That challenge has only partly been met.

The latest update on the metropolitan area, from the Brookings Institution and the Greater New Orleans Data Center, is sobering reading, although it does make some optimistic points.

As in our region, the national recession has not hurt as deeply in New Orleans. Unemployment is below the national average. From May to November, the New Orleans area added about 6,000 new jobs and some progress has been made in infrastructure repairs. The police force is still taking a lot of heat because of crime, including a recent series of murders, but crime statistics show some decline; the police department still has some supplemental assistance from the Louisiana National Guard, but the state is not likely to pay for that forever.

But there is no way to say that the federal government’s role in New Orleans recovery is complete. “Massive blight and significant flood risk remain the area’s major challenges,” the Brookings report said recently.

Both issues have profound implications for the economic recovery of the city.

The blight and other issues referenced in the Brookings report are going to make it tough to redevelop the city in many ways. An active and engaged partner, in the form of a presidential appointee, can help the state and especially the managerially-challenged city government.

In 2005, we supported the Louisiana delegation’s proposal for the establishment of a comprehensive redevelopment plan for the metropolitan region, under direct federal supervision. The Bush White House shot that idea down.

Today’s system of a recovery coordinator isn’t perfect and perhaps President Barack Obama has a better idea. But lacking a more comprehensive scheme for the greater New Orleans area, it’s still important to have a presidential appointee to help guide the huge amounts of unfinished business in the Katrina inbox.