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Post-Disaster Master

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By Rachel Benioff M.F.A. '85

Published Oct 1, 2007 8:00 AM


One of the greatest urban planning challenges in history isn't stopping this UCLA alum.

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On a sunny spring afternoon, a group of bicyclists glide down a city street. But they're not riding for fun. They're riding to save their city.

This is a bike tour of post-Katrina New Orleans, led by Edward J. Blakely Ed.D. '71, executive director of recovery management for the city, as part of an effort to engage citizens in the recovery process.

Blakely was appointed in December 2006, nearly 16 months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Big Easy, to take on what may be the greatest urban planning challenge in the U.S.

"If the job can be done, if he's given the tools to do it, he's probably the only person who could really pull it off," says Mark Rhoades, land use planning manager for the city of Berkeley, who knew Blakely when the latter was chair of the Department of City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley.

Blakely says he views his role "as a teacher or a coach" rather than "recovery czar," as the media often describe his job. He led Oakland's responses to the 1989 earthquake and 1991 wildfire. And in 2001, Blakely, then a dean at the New School University in New York, coordinated the management of students and the campus after 9/11.

The critical first step in New Orleans' recovery has been an initiative called the Unified New Orleans Plan, which provides a strategy for the city's renewal. But hurdles abound, including the Gulf Coast's economic decline prior to Hurricane Katrina, the city's rise in crime, a widely criticized Road Home Program, and a federal catastrophic disaster-management system experts believe is in need of reform. Blakely also is concerned about whether the levees will hold, and the bigger issue of climate change.

These multiple, complex issues might prove daunting to others. Not to Blakely.

"What if I didn't do it?" he asks. "What would that say about me? What would it say about the nation? I don't think I had the right to refuse. I don't know how anybody can."

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