Lesson from New Orleans Flooding: Money Matters

August 5th, 2017

New Orleans    Rolling from the dry of central Wyoming to the humid of New Orleans always takes a little climatic adjustment, but it’s not a bad thing. The weather forecast says rain and thunderstorms are expected daily throughout the week. The same prediction has been largely fulfilled over the last week. In New Orleans, this rainy season in the near tropics is called, “summer.”

Thoughtful people and friends ask, “how’s the flooding,” given the constant Weather Channel and news reports of the 9 or 10 inches of rain that fell within hours a week ago inundating parts of the city, especially the center of the bowl that defines New Orleans geography around the Mid-City section, close to where our main Fair Grinds Coffeehouse is located off Esplanade. Really, the local response is more shrug than a sigh, because from all local reports, it wasn’t that bad, though it is hugely worrisome for other reasons as we fear the storm next time. An estimated two hundred houses flooded. That’s terrible and tragic for the families involved, but, frankly, it’s a long way from “call out the lifeboats.”

Heads have rolled, but understand this clearly, they have rolled because of something rare in government anywhere today. These Sewerage & Water Board and Public Works officials were forced to resign or fired not because of the flooding or the inability of the drainage system to handle the deluge, but because they were not transparent: they didn’t tell the truth. They claimed the system was working at full capacity, and it was not. It was working at about 56% capacity. Of some 200 odd pumps about 15% were inactive, which isn’t good, but neither would have normally been catastrophic, but, welcome to climate change, this was an unusual rain event. The drainage system is New Orleans, when it’s working a full tilt, is amazing and, frankly, world class. It can handle almost 3 inches of rain an hour. Storms that would shut down other cities, are routine in New Orleans, and the system has been designed historically to deal with a lot of water.

Perhaps the usual strength of the operation has lured too many New Orleanians into a false security from city hall to stoop steps though, and that has been the current awakening. The horror is that the deluge revealed that three of the five turbines that run the drainage system were offline, two since an early downpour this summer and one for almost four years. For that to be allowed to happen without preparations during hurricane season is unconscionable, and has to be addressed.

A high ranking board member resigned in protest, blaming the city officials for not having produced cash to improve the system and claiming S&WB was being unfairly singled out. Once again, they fell – or were pushed – on their swords, as they should have been, because they were not forthright with the citizens, not because of a big rain and some flooding. Brickbats are being thrown at a couple of million that has been stuck in planning and unspent to clear out storm drains, and that’s a valid beef, but most of that was for drains in common spaces. There’s a drain across the street on my block. I’m not confused though. It’s my responsibility to get shovel in hand every couple of months and clean it out. Why would I take a chance?

Some of the system, including the corkscrew apparatus, that sucks the water out of the drains is more than 100 years old. There are estimates that it could take $1 billion dollars to totally upgrade and modernize the drainage system, which is a pretty steep price tag for a lower income city. This is part of the national crisis that Trump and others like to talk about, but few are willing to pay for.

We are close to the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Daily we read about the dangers of climate change on challenging environments like those of our precious wetlands and coastal areas in Louisiana.

We really don’t need too many more wake-up calls. We need everyone up and down the line to start putting their money where their mouths are.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

New Orleans Monument Fight Triggers Newspaper Rich Spit Wars

Removable of Robert E Lee Statue at Lee Circle in New Orleans

New Orleans   One footnote of the fight to take down four racially divisive Civil War and segregation monuments in New Orleans, has been a seldom seen dogfight highlighting the divisions among the rich elites that are rarely publicly displayed in front of the city’s commoners. Locals might argue that too much has been said and written about the contrasts in leaders, ideology, and positions stated by the various sides publicly contending for prominence in the dispute. Most of that is just the usual bare knuckled grist for the mill of local issues and politics, but the “ad” war has brought a new dimension to this bizarre and overdue dismantling.

Mitch Landrieu, the Mayor of New Orleans, has obviously been the man in the middle of the monument dispute every bit as much as he has been the public leader who invested the greatest political capital in getting the job done over the last several years. The Landrieu name owns a rich political legacy in the city. Maurice “Moon” Landrieu was a transitional mayor in what had seemed the permanent exchange of power from white to black political leadership finally recognizing the emerging demographic majority of African-Americans moderating the tensions of the civil rights struggle by diversifying public employment practices and modernizing the city’s position in the South, while later serving nationally as Secretary of HUD and then retiring as a Louisiana elected appeals court judge. Mary Landrieu his daughter of course, served several terms until recently in the US Senate as a moderate Democrat. Mitch Landrieu before winning two terms as the first white mayor in New Orleans after a generation and losing a previous contest, had been Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana for several terms.

Outsiders would have thought just a strong political blood line would make the family immune from personal attack even when there were political disagreements, especially in a city like New Orleans that likes to only reveal the comings and goings of the rich elite in the stagedpageantry of Mardi Gras. As the monuments came down, so did the darker “uptown” veil. Frank Stewart, the former kingpin of Stewart Enterprises, and its efforts to build a national network of funeral homes, until its sale, has always been a crotchety conservative voice in business circles, but suddenly he was signing one and two full page ads in both of the local newspapers regularly attacking the Mayor, derisively calling him “Mitch” in the ads with ad hominem slaps at his monument positions as being nothing but ambition and opportunism. His inner bad dog was off the chain. As one monument after another came down and his pro-monument position was rendered increasingly impotent, it seemed to mainly loosen his checkbook to pen even lengthier, largely incoherent “letters to Mitch.” And, that’s not all. Some side swipes he took at John Cummings, rich lawyer and owner of the Whitney Plantation, which has become a well-regarded destination for many to learn about the impact of slavery, prompted Cummings to also take out a full-pager to defend his operation and family from Stewart’s claims he was just money grubbing. Pres Kabacoff, a local developer in an after the fact “letter to the editor,” felt it necessary to weight in.

Wow! Rarely do New Orleanians ever get to witness such a bizarre public revealing of the fissures of the local ruling class. The last time may have been when former Councilwoman Dorthy Taylor led the fight to integrate the Mardi Gras clubs forcing the big whoops to come plead their case in open hearings in council chambers.

Sadly, this is still all about race, more than class, and the roots of these divisions are not as old as the Civil War, but are certainly embedded in the civil rights and desegregation fights. Any rudimentary scrutiny of voting records in the precincts of Uptown New Orleans over many decades bares the continued grievance that the Landrieus somehow “sold out” the white elite. From Moon to Mary to Mitch, their political lives have depended on strong black majorities. Often they have lost or only narrowly carried a majority of white votes.

Stewart and the circle of friends, associates, and others in his echo chamber may continue to egg him on, but he’s not fighting the last battle of the Civil War, but the ongoing struggle around civil rights and equality for African-Americans. He and the many like him will lose this fight, just as they have had to watch the monuments come down, and they can shout their rationalizations as often as they want to pay for the newspaper ads, but, tragically, this an is uncivil war that will continue for many years to come.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail