jason berry author

Big Easy's difficult recovery


AUG. 29 MARKS the second year since Hurricane Katrina pounded New Orleans. TV coverage of looters sloshing in flooded streets, masses of poor folk stranded in Third World misery, government unable to rescue citizens -- these realities trashed George W. Bush's presidency. His ratings plunged; as Iraq continued to unravel, he never recovered.

Nor has New Orleans recovered, despite President Bush's sweeping promises in a speech here days after the flood.

The city where jazz began is like a skeletal sailor, searching for a fruited plain. The reasons behind this failure lie in Bush's failure to deliver on his rosy promises, in state-level blunders -- and, more recently, in the utter pathology of local politics.

Abandoned to its fate
I write in a raised house on the fringes of tony Uptown. The yard fence has a 16-inch waterline. A dozen blocks away, homes took as much as 7 feet; some are still abandoned. Drive toward Lake Pontchartrain and you'll see more of the dead or gutted houses -- standard-issue, middle-class neighborhoods -- waiting to be rebuilt. By the most optimistic estimate, the population is down by 40 percent from "pre-K" levels, to 300,000.
New Orleans flooded because of flawed design and maintenance of the levees by a federal agency: the US Army Corps of Engineers. Soon after the storm, then-House Speaker Denny Hastert revealed his social Darwinism in grumbling that the city might be better off bulldozed.

These days, stories abound of insurance companies short-shrifting policy holders on damage from water that came in through wind-destroyed walls and rooftops -- damage that those policies ought to have covered. Critics charge the industry sloughed off its responsibility onto federally backed flood policies.
Federal help has come slowly. Early media coverage kept pressure on Congress and Bush, as state officials lobbied for relief. A federal package of $7.5 billion to help property owners with inadequate insurance ended up $3 billion short of what's needed.

Reacting to Republican concerns about Louisiana's history of corruption, Governor Kathleen Blanco outsourced the dispersal of the money that did come in to a Virginia company, ICF, which for its $700-million-plus fee dribbled out grants to property owners, retarding desperately needed growth. For ICF's role in this stillborn recovery, the CEO earned a $1 million bonus, which so damaged Blanco politically that she chose not to run for reelection.

Political wounds
Yet Blanco is hardly the only elected official to mishandle the recovery of New Orleans.
Mayor Ray Nagin, who contributed $1,000 to Bush in 2000, won reelection in March 2006 with help from Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, casting himself as a champion of discontented black New Orleanians. After winning only 20 percent of the African-American vote in 2002, he took in 80 percent in 2006. He has since made allusions to a white conspiracy to stiff-arm the displaced poor, even as he stood by passively in the face of plans by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to demolish well-built housing projects, keeping the poor away.

Nagin's interviews with TV networks have made him an odd celebrity -- one known more for verbal gaffes (for instance, deriding New York's Ground Zero as "a hole in the ground") than his lone-wolf political style. Nagin has blamed everyone but himself for failing to mount a strong case for rebuilding the city in the national media. Thanks to funds from the black banquet circuit, Nagin is eyeing a run for governor this fall.
He can't win, but the visibility could position him to run next year for the congressional seat of William Jefferson. The congressman's ability to advocate for his city is compromised by a 16-count federal indictment on charges of influence peddling in a telecommunications deal between Nigerian officials and a Kentucky entrepreneur now in prison.

An FBI raid of Jefferson's suburban Virginia home last year found a suspicious $90,000 in cash in his freezer. Jefferson is the central figure in a web of family-related businesses. A New Orleans grand jury is now investigating the congressman's brother, Mose Jefferson, for a $900,000 fee from a vendor selling a software system to the scandal-mired Orleans Parish schools system. Indeed, a prominent school board member recently pleaded guilty to bribery, underscoring how politicians sold out the pre-Katrina public school system.

Crisis in the streets
Beyond the pains of recovery, New Orleans faces a more traumatic problem: crime. As homicides skyrocket, the criminal justice system is in crisis as well. An understaffed police force, which took more than a year to restore its flooded record system, struggles to arrest criminals.

Public outrage is mounting against District Attorney Eddie Jordan for his office's dismal record of prosecuting offenders and for the disarray resulting from Jordan's wholesale firing of veteran staffers, most of them white, when he took office in 2003. Jordan replaced them with supporters of his mentor -- Jefferson. The fired staffers won a $1.9 million reverse-discrimination judgment. With interest, it's now at $3.5 million.

To pay, Jordan needs a bailout from the Legislature, where antipathy toward the city deepens by the week, or the cash-starved city coffers.

Meanwhile, the intrigue goes on. A politically connected wheeler-dealer, Stan "Pampy" Barré, pleaded guilty in federal court to skimming funds in an energy contract for the city under former Mayor Marc Morial, a ruse that saw a former Morial aide go down too.

To shorten his sentence, Barré snitched on City Councilman Oliver Thomas, the city's most popular politician. Thomas apologized for taking $19,000 to help Pampy maintain rights to a parking lot franchise on city land. Thomas resigned and awaits sentencing. In another season, so much dirt might mean little. "I'm not going to condone machine politics," Massachusetts-born FBI Special Agent James Bernazanni said as Thomas went down. Referring to the famous James Michael Curley, he continued, "But in Boston we elected a mayor from prison. Machine politics in the North will skim the cream. Here in Louisiana, they skim the cream, they steal the milk, hijack the bottles and look for the cow."

Signs of resilience
And yet, for all this political depravity, there are signs of resilience in the many young people who have moved here as activists and to teach in schools; in the artists and musicians who have made New Orleans a cultural mecca even now, and in a civic ethos of people working across the lines of race and class to rebuild a better city.

Nagin's best move was hiring Ed Blakely, a visionary urban planner from California who worked on the Sept. 11 recovery and left a professor's job in Australia to become the recovery czar. Blakely organized 17 target areas to spur commercial development with federal funds and bond revenues, and is managing the complex financial machinery to make it happen.

Blakely envisions a cosmopolitan city with medium rises clustered in downtown commercial areas that missed the flooding. Half of New Orleans is above sea level: that's where the bulk of the money will go, as it slowly trickles in.

The most frustrating barrier is politics, so local, so dumb, and so maddening.
Jason Berry is the author of "Lead Us Not Into Temptation," "Vows of Silence," and "Last of the Red Hot Poppas."