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Mayor picks panel to revive New Orleans

Commission introduced as more residents allowed to return home

Mayor Ray Nagin is seeking tax breaks, a light-rail system and an upgraded levee system.


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New Orleans (Louisiana)
City Planning

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin on Friday unveiled a panel of civic leaders tasked with developing a plan for the city's rebirth by the end of the year, while more residents were given permission to return a month after Hurricane Katrina.

"This commission is charged with a fundamental goal, [which] is to advise, assist, plan and help the city of New Orleans as it makes recommendations for how we rebuild this city," Nagin said at a news conference flanked by several members of the Bring Back New Orleans Commission.

Faced with the daunting task, commission co-chair Barbara Major said, "I don't know if I'm more scared than honored." (See video on danger awaiting returnees -- 1:44 )

"Part of my responsibility is to ensure that when this city is rebuilt -- and not if, when this city is rebuilt -- that it is rebuilt with the inclusiveness that it never had before, in terms of equity and access," she said.

"That's not going to be an easy task, but we know it's a possible task," she said. "We can create a model not just for here but a model for the nation."

The other co-chair is one of many local business leaders serving on the 17-member commission: Mel Lagarde, an executive with the HCA hospital company. Also on the panel is jazz musician Wynton Marsalis.

Nagin outlined his vision for the help he wants from the federal government, including significant income tax breaks.

The mayor said he also wants the federal government to create an incentive zone in New Orleans that would give city residents a 50 percent credit on their income tax bill. Businesses also would get a tax credit equal to 50 percent of their total payroll.

The tax breaks would last for seven years or until the city's population returns to the level it was before Katrina, he said.

Nagin said he has asked the White House for federal help in "immediately" rebuilding the levee system to protect the city from a Category 3 storm.

Once that short-term project is in place, the mayor said he wants the system to be upgraded so that it can withstand a Category 5 storm, the most intense classification.

Nagin proposed a light rail system he envisions would go from downtown to the Louis Armstrong International Airport, west of the city, and then on to Baton Rouge, about 80 miles away.

It would serve "as another mass evacuation tool that could be used before, during or after a storm," he said.

Nagin didn't request a specific dollar amount from the federal government. But he did ask for a distribution formula covering neighboring states that would ensure aid money is spent where the most damage was done.

"Let's not divert very needed funds from the areas that are most effected," he said.

Nagin's plan is one of several recovery initiatives in the works. Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, the state's congressional delegation and President Bush are also planning a response.

Blanco, who joined the mayor's news conference near its conclusion, said she was asking other communities to undertake initiatives similar to Nagin's.

"We are going to be your right arm," she told the mayor. "We're going to work as a big team."

But U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Democrat who represents a huge swath of southeastern Louisiana, told The Associated Press earlier this week that so far it was difficult even to talk about a plan. (Full story)

Return 'at your own risk'

Nagin invited residents of some of the city's most popular neighborhoods to return at their own risk Friday, a day after business owners were allowed to come back.

Residents of eight ZIP codes were allowed to return on Friday. (Interactive: Returning home)

Those areas include Algiers, the Central Business District, the French Quarter and Uptown.

The rest of the city will reopen Wednesday, except for the Lower 9th Ward in east New Orleans -- which won't be reopened anytime soon. It was hit by a double whammy of flooding, first from Katrina and then from Hurricane Rita.

Authorities have been marking homes across the city with red and green stickers: red meaning residents can go inside, inspect the damage and collect belongings but not live there. Green means they can stay in the homes.

A federal field office dealing with Katrina's aftermath said Friday that residents whose homes are "unlivable" must "find alternate means of shelter for themselves."

That means "staying with family or neighbors whose home is habitable, at a hotel, or a shelter outside of the city of New Orleans," the office said in a statement.

The office also said that "federal, state and local efforts toward creating transitional housing is still in progress, and will not be available to residents for at least one week."

The mayor's office has been providing people returning with a handout cautioning: "You are entering the city of New Orleans at your own risk." It warns of health hazards and advises residents to bring in food.

With more areas of the city opening, doctors prepared Friday for a possible surge in the number of patients.

Contaminated water, mold and the dusty sediment left behind when the city was pumped dry are some of the key health threats facing residents, according to Dr. Frederick Cerise, the head of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. (Full story)

"We've been testing around the city, and it's not consistently clean," Cerise said. "That's because there are still leaks in the system."

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