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Katrina Journal: New Orleans Now

New Orleans’ election confirmed Ray Nagin as mayor on May 20 just in time for the beginning of the hurricane season on June 1st. The storm trackers predict a busy season of more than a dozen storms – typically culminating in the Gulf of Mexico in August/September. The anxiety in New Orleans is palpable. Will it happen again? Are our levees strong enough to protect the city? Will evacuations of the entire city be staged successfully? Is City Hall prepared? Is FEMA ready? Will the rest of the country care? Can the city rebound from another big one as little post-Katrina progress in rebuilding has been made?

Every day there are signs of comeback. The French Quarter and Uptown of course present themselves as if nothing happened last fall. They are back to normal. Hard to believe, but 8 months after the storm the major thoroughfares of New Orleans out to the Lakefront have traffic lights again. Those who never have driven extended periods of time in a major American city probably have a hard time imagining stopping at every intersection to see whether someone is coming the other way.

Yet in spite of such progress the lag in the overall recovery effort is still palpable. Nine months after Katrina large parts of the city are still vacant, with only halting signs of repopulation. The weirdly tannish-yellowish waterline of the post-Katrina flooding is still visible. Thousands of abandoned cars are still littering the city like beached whales parked under elevated portions of freeway – a constant reminder of how inefficient and broke city government is. FEMA trailers outside of flooded houses are an indicator of where people are gutting their houses and planning to rebuild, and when they do, the innards of houses are still spilling out into the streets. Even though FEMA trucks pick up the rubble regularly, piles of trash intermittently build up when people clean out their mold-stricken furniture etc. One begins to think this gutting-process will never end as many people still have not made a decision on whether and when to return.

People are waiting for money to make decisions about rebuilding. Some 4.2 billion dollars in federal block grants have been scheduled to arrive in Louisiana for months now. The state legislature has passed a plan that would give flooded out homeowners up to 150,000 dollars to rebuild their houses in New Orleans or start a new life elsewhere. Baton Rouge is waiting for the feds to send their money; the people of New Orleans are waiting for Baton Rouge to send them the money to rebuild…. You get the idea?

Meanwhile the Army Corps of Engineers has been busy installing massive floodgates on the northern ends of the canals that drain New Orleans – the infamous canals whose floodwalls breached as a result of inadequate engineering by the Corps (an independent commission of experts leaves no doubt about the faulty engineering designs). The idea is to close the canals in case of storm to stop the flooding of these canals by Lake Pontchartrain storm surges as happened during and after Katrina. The citizens of New Orleans are worried how the rain water will be pumped out of the streets of the city into these canals and into the Lake when these gates will be closed. The choice between getting flooded from a hurricane’s rain waters or Lake Pontchartrain storms surges seems the archetypical position between a rock and a hard place: “you’re damned if you do, you’re damned if you don’t.”

Long term problems are ignored. The crucial factor of land subsidence as a result of decades of Mississippi regulation is going unaddressed. The rebuilding of the South Louisiana wetlands, the first line of defense against storm surges, are currently ignored by lawmakers in Washington who are overwhelmed by too many crises of their own making in their institutions, as well as by the challenges they are facing at home and abroad. Nobody seems to want to tackle this problem.

It seems like a cruel irony of history that right at the moment when Congressman William Jefferson is supposed to work day and night to secure the rebuilding funds for his New Orleans district and coastal Louisiana, he is under an FBI investigation for engaging in crooked telecommunications deals in Nigeria and Ghana. “Dollar Bill” – his nickname in Louisiana politics – has a long record of using his public positions for setting up private deals to enrich himself and his family. He is making it easy for the rest of the country to confirm all its worst expectations of traditional crooked and corrupt Louisiana politics. And if that were not bad enough, he is also creating a major showdown in the constitutional balance between the executive and legislative branches of government.

The political recovery process has been arrested through this entire winter/spring season as a result of the mayoral election, which finally returned Ray Nagin to office as a result of the close run off election against Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu on May 20. A record group of 22 candidates battled all season for an unenviable office that many people think of as a ticket to nowhere – a “Himmelfahrtskommando” -- these days. Among the candidates were verbose black preachers, a gay radio host, a blue-stocking zoo-boss, a racially divisive former city council member, do-good housing activists, a naïve student, and, of course, a number of lawyers. This was an election the political commentators, pundits, and pollsters found impossible to call since the “refugee” electorate had dispersed all over the country after Katrina and nobody could predict voter participation. As a result they voiced even more inanities than usual. Many observers anticipated the first white mayor since Mitch Landrieu’s father “Moon” occupied City Hall until the late 1970s. Nagin’s vision of a “chocolate city” announced on Martin Luther King day in February seemed to many ring in his political death knell. Instead Nagin pulled in 52 percent of the vote – 80 percent of the black voters and enough white cross-over votes to push him over the top. Thus the predicted “Landrieu dynasty” was stillborn. Mayor Nagin was asked in an interview the day after the election whether he feared that business people were now leaving town, he noted that “Business people are predators” and do what is best for them. While the “chocolate city” comment unleashed a firestorm, nobody seemed to be enraged about the comments so uncomplimentary to the business community – a sure signal that Americans prefer to think in “race” rather than “class” categories.

A curious side-show of the mayoral race was the publication of Tulane historian Douglas Brinkley’s Katrina book at the beginning of May just in time for the election. Brinkley had signed a contract within days after the storm, even before all people had been picked off the roofs of their houses. Eight months later the prolific historian had penned a 700+-page book. Some people doubted whether serious historians should tackle such “recent” history. Brinkley had no such compunctions. He wrote a book that was much rightly admiring of the amazing rescue efforts after Katrina, much of it by private citizens, which he observed first-hand as a reporter. He blasted Mayor Nagin and President Bush as inefficient in the crisis and the mayor’s failures in evacuation as nigh-criminal. Many commentators felt the book’s publication date and his anti-Nagin animus was timed right before the election date to influence the outcome. If that was the “Hintergedanke” Brinkley fails again. His book on Senator Kerry’s Vietnam heroism appeared a month before the 2004 Iowa caucuses. While it may have helped Kerry in Iowa, in the long run the acid criticism of the book by the “swift boat” crowd may have hurt Kerry. Similarly, a New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist actually argued that Brinkley’s rants may have helped Nagin as it increased the sympathy factor for the beleaguered mayor.

The recovery of the New Orleans institutions of higher learning is a slow and tough one to boot. All universities have to downsize and furlough or fire personnel, professors included. The number of freshman registrations for the fall semester are down by 20 percent and more. Many parents from the New Orleans suburbs would rather send their kids to safer campuses and higher ground in Hammond, Baton Rouge, and Lafayette than to New Orleans. The University of New Orleans (from 17,000 pre- to 11,500 students post-Katrina) seems to have traded places with Southeastern Louisiana in Hammond (from 12,000 pre- to 16,000 post-Katrina) as the premier public university in the area.

UNO followed Tulane and Loyola with its “exigency” planning and the expectations of a fall budget reduced by 16.5 million dollars for the fall semester as a result of the reduced tuition income. Program and faculty cuts are the results. The Graduate School is discontinued and so is the College of Urban and Public Affairs, which will return as a “school” to the Liberal Arts College; many people think that this is a strange closure of a college that that could lead the way in the rebuilding the New Orleans neighborhoods. Majors in economics, classical music, and communications are cut too, along with individual positions such as linguistics. The result is the loss of some 80 faculty, most of them due to early retirements and moving to other institutions. But 16 faculty, some of the tenured, will actually lose their jobs! To someone who grew up in Austria where the status of tenure (“Pragmatisierung”) is sacred, this action appeared unduly harsh and severe, signaling the arrival of the neoliberal order to the universities too, where no job protection is guaranteed anymore other than the positions of the CEO’s. It seems amazing to me that state or federal governments do not have emergency “solidarity” funds to help such embattled institutions after a great natural catastrophe (and preserve at least the positions of the 16 colleagues who are on the chopping block). After World War II, professors lost their positions if they had served the Nazi state. They did not lose jobs due to the “financial exigency” produced by the catastrophe of the great war. Universities were vital in rebuilding the war-torn societies. But there are also suspicions floating around that the UNO leadership used the post-Katrina “exigency” to push through a previous hidden agenda of restructuring the university, which they could not have done without the Katrina disaster. The strange thing is that no major protests and no great debate among the UNO faculty occurred. Is this mere apathy, or sheer demoralization?

Dejection seems to be a prevalent mood in the city of New Orleans these days. The U.S. Census Bureau reports in a sweeping new study that the New Orleans area parishes lost 385,439 people (nine times the combined losses for Mississippi counties hit hard). 448,570 residents called the city of New Orleans home on January 1, 2005; 158,353 did on January 1 of this year (an astounding loss of 278,833 residents). Estimates are that about 200,000 people live in the city now. “The storm’s impact left the New Orleans area somewhat older, whiter and more affluent,” concludes the Times Picayune in a front page story. In the coffee shops you frequently hear people asking the most important question these days – will you stay? In a poll conducted by my UNO colleague Susan Howell, almost 70 percent of New Orleansians worry about what the future will hold in store for them. 40 percent have problems sleeping at night and complain about the difficulties in rebuilding their houses and just getting things done. Meanwhile, the Times Picayune reports how World War II veterans are a group among the elderly particularly traumatized by the storm as many don’t have the means to rebuild on their meager pensions.

It remains to be seen whether the newly re-elected Major Nagin will be able to change this mood quickly – a mood that in part stems from the still stand of city government during this spring election season. If we survive the current hurricane season unharmed, and once Baton Rouge will begin to dole out those housing recovery funds, the mood may begin to change towards a more positive and hopeful one. We’ll see.