NEW ORLEANS – As usual, the meeting started with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance.

But from that point on, New Orleans City Council members threw out the rule book, holding an extraordinary, emotional session Thursday – their first since the city they govern was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

With a crippled City Hall still off limits, five members of the council, including three who believe they lost their homes to floodwaters following the storm, gathered in a conference room at Armstrong International Airport to grant emergency spending powers to Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration.

They also took the opportunity to bare their souls about the catastrophe that has rendered New Orleans a partially submerged, heavily fortified ghost town. And they began to plot a strategy to get their constituents – and the businesses that employ them – back home.

That’s not going to happen any time soon. Nagin this week extended his mandatory evacuation order for the city’s east bank through the first week of October, citing contaminated standing water and the lack of basic services. Even after the mayor gives the all-clear, residents likely will be able to return only a section at a time, Chief Administrative Officer Brenda Hatfield said.

Acutely aware that evacuees are anxious about their homes’ security, Council President Oliver Thomas said he’s been told that the military will stay for “as long as it takes” – although he added that he has not seen that pledge in writing.

Business owners might not have to wait much longer to get a look at the damage, though. The council asked the administration to allow local companies to retrieve payroll records and other essentials as soon as possible, so they can temporarily operate elsewhere. Council members also hope to let construction firms pick up their equipment.

Driving home the point that quick action is needed, Councilwoman Renee Gill Pratt said she’d heard from funeral home owners who were forced to delay burials as the storm approached.

“The bodies need to come out,” she said.

For much of the meeting council members spoke somberly, recalling images of floating cadavers, whole neighborhoods under water and rampant looting.

But there were also moments of gallows humor. Noting that he probably won’t salvage much from his flooded home, the 6-foot-6 Thomas said, “It’s a good thing I have tall friends. I have on their clothing.”

The five members present unanimously agreed to hand the administration unprecedented borrowing authority to keep the city afloat, and to draw upon all cash reserves and accounts, regardless of how the money is earmarked. In a rare departure from normal checks and balances, the action allows Hatfield and finance director Reggie Zeno to choose lenders and set terms without returning to the council for final approval.

The council also waived the City Charter’s requirement that such measures be introduced at one meeting for approval at later one.

Unable to recall the official numbering system for city laws, the deputy city attorney improvised and labeled the first ordinance K-1, for Katrina. With virtually no staff on hand, the council drafted deputy fiscal officer Barbara Avalos to step in as acting clerk, enabling her to sign the documents and forward them to the mayor.

One councilman did not attend the meeting because he was en route back to the city, and another had a scheduling conflict in the form of a previously arranged caravan back to his partially flooded district.

With the official business taken care of, council members used the forum to demand that local businesses play a major role in the city’s reconstruction, and that contractors hire local people.

The ultimate goal, Thomas said, is to bring displaced New Orleanians back from places as far away as Utah and Minnesota and re-create a local middle class. His message to the business community: “Don’t pimp us. Help us rebuild.”

That’s a particularly urgent need, several council members said, because a handful of other states are courting evacuees with the prospect of jobs, housing and decent schools.

Much of the remainder of the meeting was spent recounting the horrors of the storm. Cynthia Hedge Morrell listed the thriving neighborhoods in her district that have been lost, including Pontchartrain Park, the city’s first middle class African-American subdivision.

Cynthia Willard-Lewis described a fly-over of her district: “The lake blended into the Industrial Canal, and the canal blended into the Mississippi River. New Orleans East was a body of water. There was no land.”

Later in the meeting, Willard-Lewis trod even more personal ground. She revealed that one of her brothers, Elliot Willard Jr., is among the missing.

Thomas bemoaned the slow initial response by the federal government after the storm passed, and criticized those who blame local and state authorities for not doing enough. Calling New Orleans “this little place,” he said that “it’s crazy to say that we should have taken the lead. Our job is to prepare. We don’t have the ability to manage a disaster of this size.”

“I call this Ground Below Zero,” Thomas said. “We were so far south that they almost forgot about us.”

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