Less than a month before the start of the 2008 hurricane season, Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans offered a surprisingly sunny outlook for NOLA, given that his State of the City speech one year ago castigated both state and federal government with the refrain that Hurricane Katrina "was not our fault." During this year's 57 minute speech, Nagin offered only a veiled swipe at former Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco, and none at the Bush administration.
Nagin's speech opened a wide door for fact checkers, and we are going to walk right through it, armed with state, city and federal statistics, and commentary. Nagin lauded Blanco's successor Republican Governor Bobby Jindal and Louisiana's new aid czar, Paul Rainwater, for "cracking the code" and releasing millions of dollars in federal aid to the city.
The Louisiana Recovery Authority offered a breakdown of New Orlean's plans for state- approved $125 million in recovery-related rebuilding projects. These statistics were released immediately after Nagin's speech. Funding includes, but is not limited to, reinventing the Crescent Downriver Park, ($30 million), a theater and performing arts district ($15 million), and 17 streetscapes throughout New Orleans ($14.9 million). The category of "Other Recovery Projects" is earmarked for $9.1 million. In addition, the state is making $28 million available to the Finance Authority of New Orleans for a program to create homeownership opportunities. For a map of proposed projects and funding amounts, click here.
To date, a dumpster load of money has either been allocated or earmarked for New Orleans. It is a long and winding road to follow the money trail, but money is distributed through the Louisiana Recovery Authority. The LRA is a 33 member body created by former Governor Kathleen Blanco, but Blanco's contribution has now been eradicated from the official press coming out of the Governor Jindal's offices.
In addition, Louisiana's Long Term Community Recovery Program provides funds for recovery plans in the most heavily impacted communities in the state. In February, the LRA approved reallocating $500 million to the program, bringing the total amount of funding that will be available to the parishes to $700 million. But, The Action Plan reallocating the $500 million needs Legislative approval before it moves to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for final approval, according to statements by the LRA
For a by-parish breakdown of proposed funding, click here.
For all of the money, for all of the rhetoric, all you have to do is take a stroll down Banks Street in mid-city to see the formaldehyde FEMA trailers, blighted, abandoned, rat-infested buildings, pot-hole filled side streets, and enough mufflers and hub caps along Carrollton Avenue to open a small auto parts store. And this was a middle class neighborhood before Katrina.
OK, we just have to say it: Where's the money? It sure as heck is not in the lower ninth which now resembles a cow pasture. Brad Pitt's pink cardboard homes aside, less than 10 percent of the former residents have returned.
The Times-Picayune reports that LRA money is still untapped. Officials said they are working with the Nagin team to plan the expenditures. "161 recovery projects have reached the drawing board, with some minor jobs under way. Other projects, such as rebuilding libraries, police stations and playgrounds, are in design or contracting phases," the Times-Picayune said in a mid-term assessment of Nagin's job performance. Find entire report card here:
A Very Bad Joke
Just a couple of weeks ago Nagin made a very bad joke to the American Association for Public Opinion Research when he said that the best way to deal with the city's homeless population was to ""find some bus tickets. We'll see, one way."
The New York Times, among other news outlets, was not amused. Some estimates indicate that there are 12,000 homeless living on the streets of New Orleans. Of those, 40 percent suffer from some type of mental illness and another 19 percent have disabilities or addictions. Some joke.
The American Medical Association concurs that Hurricane Katrina left a legacy of "anxiety-mood disorders" with a "strong associations of hurricane-related stressors." In other words, people are still freaked out.
Freezing out the Press
It is obvious for anyone who spends any time here that New Orleans has had minimal recovery, a significant crime problem, and a homeless catastrophe that was compounded by the demolition of the public housing projects earlier this year. NOLA bloggers report that Nagin's office has now refused to cooperate with WWL TV (Channel 4) because the station investigated his work schedule. This writer sees a pattern. We were frozen out of the Mayor's office in October 2007 because we wrote that we could not find anyone in the office after cooling our heels there for a day. Press credentials are the first thing writers obtain when in a new area. Plus, it is good to have access and contacts in the local press office. In a place like New Orleans, a current city street map is a godsend.
Told I did not need any credentials, my first stop at Police Headquarters resulted in the question, "Where are your credentials?" In fairness, this writer has got to say she likes the LRA press office because of the easy access they afford free-lancers. From the moment we dialed their number last November, LRA has answered every question, intelligent and ignorant, that we have fired at them. The press person at the helm now, Christina Stephens, is smart, efficient and patient, and it makes our job a whole lot easier. It is not easy to find facts in the Big Easy.
As far as credentialing in New Orleans for any event goes, hell, we didn't get any at Jazz (Shell) Fest either. You have to be "Big Media." Since Big Media has become a bit like Big Brother, perhaps it's safer to take our journalistic chances on the street and anywhere else one can get the skinny from local folks who really know what is going on. After being patted down by security at Jazz Fest because someone said I snuck in, I was able to produce my ticket after fumbling through the safari vest I usually wear in Africa. Several residents gathered 'round during the incident and remarked afterwards that "Now you know how we feel." Yes, I felt their pain. A friend remarked that it probably happened because I was dressed in African khaki, and this was Jazz Fest after all. What I needed was more colorful clothing.
Tell that to the flamboyant Mardi Gras Indians and the second line.
Veteran rock and roll music critic John Swenson described the street scene outside of Jazz Fest in this month's issue of OffBeat Magazine:
"As brass bands were playing for well-heeled tourists at Jazz Fest, a short distance away police were breaking up a jazz funeral under the Claiborne Avenue overpass, part of a funeral service for a local educator. This kind of banana republic disconnect is more than just an embarrassment to the Jazz Fest; it's a threat to the culture the festival is built on. The festival and its corporate backers really ought to register some very public opposition to what looks like deliberate harassment of the legitimate New Orleans cultural institution by the mayor's office and the police department. Otherwise, the only brass bands will be in a museum and the only Indians will be on a reservation."
And I was griping because I was not allowed to walk through the tony reserved section in front of the Acura Stage. New Orleans is tough.
The Times-Picayune reported that:
"there was mostly silence when more than a dozen political, community and business leaders were asked to assess Nagin at midterm. Most said they feared losing city financing, or Nagin's political support, for pet projects if they spoke with candor. Some said they simply had nothing nice to offer."
Time to take a deep breath.
In fact, hizzhoner suggested his city do just that.
Take a deep breath. In a bizarre intonation that opened his State of the City Speech Nagin said:
"Now I want you to close your eyes for a moment, take a deep breath and clear your minds. There is an incredible recovery taking place right in front of us and we need to step back and reflect. I'm going to take you on a river journey, and tell you about the strides we've made since we last met, and what I think our challenges are. I'll tell you about some exciting new initiatives-- funded initiatives-- that are in motion, and then spell out my vision, your vision for our future."
Watching the video of this segment you half expected him to take out a pocket watch and slowly swing it past the masses. The scene would have been complete with a snake charmer, a few scented candles and a New Age music track. This was the mayor's personal Voodoo Fest.
Nagin gave a few sketchy details of the "new" New Orleans as he slouched along on his mystical river journey. He laconically described visions of outdoor concerts, a redeveloped Mississippi shoreline, more streetcars, and a new and improved Canal Street.
In interviews afterwards, City Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell praised the idea of the economic package, but questioned how enthusiastic her constituents would be. "It's going to be very difficult to sell that to my residents in District D when they're dealing with things like I can't drive down the street the infrastructure is not there," she said.
Of course Hedge-Morrell was cited for driving 100 miles per hour last year, which may account for her concern about street infrastructure. But if I were she, I would be more worried that Nagin might take away her credentials for implying that New Orleanians will not immediately embrace the idea of more streetcars instead of getting the FEMA trailers off the streets three years post Katrina. Hedge Morrell also mentioned that perhaps Nagin should have said something about education. That comment's gonna get her hands slapped with a ruler, for sure.
Did I mention that this was reported on WWL-TV?
Moving on from the hypnotic introduction to the State of the City, Nagin said:
"Now what is the state of our city? Ladies and gentleman, we are reinventing ourselves in recovery. "
Reinventing ourselves in recovery.
"Today our population is strong at 72 percent of pre-Katrina, or 327,000 residents."
Oops. The United States Census Bureau puts the numbers at 240,000, which are even less than 2007.
"The police department and District Attorney's office are now on the same page. Last year we had 1,509 "701" releases, where criminals who had committed serious crimes were out walking the streets 60 days after their arrest. This year we have had zero. That's right, not one."
A law enforcement officer offered another interpretation of the Mayor's factoid:
"A 60 day release is also known as a "701 release." 701 releases may have significantly been reduced this year, however, the D.A.'s office now just 'refuses' the case within 60 days with the right to reinstate the charges. Whatever the case may be, criminals are still being released from jail (now due to refused charges, not 701 releases)."
Yep, folks, just take a deep breath.
On May 5, New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren Riley released statements which indicate violent crime and armed robberies surged 20 percent in New Orleans during the first months of 2008. This is an increase over the same time period last year. A 10.4 percent drop in murders during the first quarter of 2008 was immediately erased by murders in April--there were 70 killings in New Orleans this year and 63 killings by May 2007.
The interpretation of the statistics is complicated by the disagreement over actual population numbers between the Mayor's Office and the Census Bureau.
"Two weeks ago I spoke to the American Association of Public Opinion Researchers, the nation's leading survey scientists at their annual conference right here in New Orleans. They were amazed at the many studies about us and how we have progressed. They were stunned that we had gone from less than 50 percent who wanted to return after Katrina to 70 percent now who are hopeful about our future. They have reduced us to a three letter term and call us KAPS, Katrina Affected Populations. Go figure."
Go figure indeed. This is the same speech that spawned the "get a bus ticket" joke.
And, it seems the United Nations might disagree with this sunny prognostication.
The United Nations' Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination late last year had questions regarding housing assistance programs for predominantly African American displaced residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as well as other governmental responses. Said Monique Harden, a New Orleans resident and co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, a public interest law firm:
"The demolition of public housing, the growing number of homeless people, the utter failure of the Road Home Program, the complete disregard of renters, police harassment of African Americans, and racial disparities in flood protection are evidence of ethnic cleansing by our government that abuses the human rights of mostly African American residents of New Orleans, Louisiana and the Gulf Coast region."
By treaty, the United States government must periodically report on its compliance with the human rights issues.
Senator Mary Landrieu introduced a bill in April that calls for an 8/29 investigation team, but as of this writing the bill has not been voted on in the Senate.
Just a "Little Wet Spot"
"Federal commitment for levee improvements is approaching $10 billion. We're not totally there, but every hurricane season that we get through brings us closer to the type of protection system that we all envision and deserve."
In May the New Orleans News Ladder quoted the Associated Press regarding water leaks on the infamous 17th Street Canal Levee, which failed catastrophically during the floods post-Katrina.
"In this area, water seeps under the levee. Outside engineering experts who have studied the project told the Associated Press that the type of seepage spotted at the 17th Street Canal in the Lakeview neighborhood afflicts other New Orleans levees, too, and could cause some of them to collapse during a storm."
"I personally do not at all believe that this little wet spot is anything that is going to cause a breach or a failure of any kind," said Donald Jolissaint, an Engineer with the Corps.
That "little wet spot" ain't supposed to be there, dear readers. $10 billion should provide some mitigation. Or, we have the old fall-back scenario of the finger in the dike.
New television ads produced by www.levees.org push for a new investigation into levee failures during Hurricane Katrina.
"The river contains much of our past, present, and future".
The storm surges from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita disinterred approximately 1,300 remains. Many have not been found along with missing residents and are presumed washed away. FEMA is still working with state and local officials to recover and identify disinterred remains.
FEMA's Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team (DMORT) estimates 90 percent of disinterred remains have been recovered.
Lest we forget, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated South Louisiana, claiming 1,464 lives, destroying more than 200,000 homes and 18,000 businesses.
Nagin is set to leave office in 2010