The master of post-disaster

Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS -- When Mayor C. Ray Nagin tapped Edward Blakely to be this city’s long-awaited recovery czar, Blakely knew instantly the assignment was made for him.

“Whatever the biggest challenge is, that’s the one I want,” Blakely said during a recent interview in Nagin’s office.

The professor of urban affairs is known as a master of post-disaster. A native of San Bernardino, Blakely is a former advisor to two Oakland mayors who helped develop recovery plans after the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 and the Oakland Hills wildfire two years later.

He was dean of the Milano Graduate School at New School University in New York in September 2001 and coordinated the management of students and the campus in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack.

“I’m discovering that New Orleans is so much like the other places, and I thought it was going to be so much different,” Blakely said.

“The big difference here is the scale. Most cities, you’re dealing with a part of the city. In this case, no one was untouched.”

Blakely spoke before returning to Australia, where he has been teaching at the University of Sydney for the last two years and guiding that city’s latest metropolitan plan.

In his new position as executive director for New Orleans recovery management, which he assumes Jan. 8, Blakely will guide the rebuilding of basic infrastructure and ensure that public and private strategies for resettling the city mesh.

“We think he’s the best in the world to help us to get through the recovery,” Nagin said when he announced Blakely’s appointment this month.

Nagin has been criticized for taking 16 months to hire someone to take charge of the city’s revival, but Nagin has argued that he was waiting for “momentum and clarity” on how the recovery effort would be structured and financed.

Blakely’s “skills are best not at removing debris or dewatering the city, but actually replanning the city,” he said. “So I may not have been able to do very much in that early period, and we might have had to wait until we had this degree of stability.”

The appointment of Blakely, an author with an impressive resume, has been greeted with enthusiasm.

“He is a brilliant, wonderful person who knows how to build and work with teams,” said Robert Cervero, chairman of the city and regional planning department at UC Berkeley, a position Blakely held more than a decade ago. “He brings a world of experience and gets things done.”

Blakely, whose salary is expected to be about $150,000, comes to a city in the throes of scattershot property restoration, increased public safety concerns and widespread frustration among homeowners still awaiting federal funds to rebuild their homes.

Blakely said one of his first moves would be to try to “restore public confidence,” because “clearly that is a big issue here.”

Among his priorities is continuing to “build on the healing process” by ensuring that all residents, even those displaced, have a chance to participate in the city’s revival, and rebuilding public works infrastructure -- roads, mass transit, waste removal and telecommunications.

Blakely also talks about increasing safety, not just police protection, but “hospitals that work, schools that work. All the things that make you feel secure,” including easy access to grocery stores and laundry facilities, he said.

Another task will be diversifying the economy, as well as creating a plan for residential areas that draws on modern urban-planning ideas of people concentrated near the city center with “mixed use” communities of living space above stores and restaurants.

“He looks at cities mainly from the perspective of people,” Cervero said. “He understands that neighborhoods are engines that create a good-quality city.”

Blakely said he envisioned a New Orleans of about 500,000 people, a figure he thinks is achievable in about a dozen years. The city’s current population is estimated at 200,000 to 250,000, down from 450,000 to 485,000 pre-Katrina.

At a speech in New Orleans in July, Blakely said he thought everyone should be allowed to rebuild, though not necessarily in the same place.

“The question is how do we rebuild and ensure that the people in that part of the city are [as] safe and secure as people in the rest of the city are,” he said at the news conference announcing his appointment.

The issue of which neighborhoods can realistically make a comeback has been fraught with controversy, including the belief by some that there is a conspiracy to keep African Americans and the poor from returning to the city.

Blacks constitute the largest percentage of still-displaced New Orleanians, and they lived in some of the city’s most storm-ravaged neighborhoods, where recovery has been slow.

“I think we are striving and struggling to come to something that can fairly be called a consensus on the future of this city,” said Michael Cowan, assistant to the president at Loyola University and head of Common Good, a network of civil organizations. “The challenge for [Blakely] is going to be to forge some consensus across race and class and geographic lines.”

Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Planning Assn., a New York-based urban policy and planning group, said building harmony among differing factions is Blakely’s forte.

Yaro got to know Blakely in the late 1990s during debates over rebuilding New York’s downtown.

“He maintains a type of Zenlike calm,” Yaro said. “He’s like the eye of the storm. When everyone else is getting hot under the collar, Ed Blakely maintains his cool. He exudes confidence.”

He also has a penchant for order, evident in his vision for his workweek.

Mondays, Blakely said, will be used for planning, Tuesdays for assembling teams to work on projects and Wednesdays for contacting external agencies and organizations.

On Thursdays he’ll invite university students, community leaders and activists to discuss relevant issues. Fridays he sets aside to talk to the media and community groups. On Saturdays, he says, he will “walk and ride” through neighborhoods, and on Sunday mornings he will ask neighbors to join him on walks, before he sits down at noon to write. (He has three book deals.)

The respect Blakely commands is expected to attract financiers, which the city desperately needs.

Blakely said he had already received correspondence from a couple of investment bank contacts who offered to put together a fund for him.

“I think I could put together a few billion without any trouble,” Blakely said. “Money is not a problem. Good ideas and good projects are a problem.”