Notes from Atlantis

Random Thoughts from the Crescent City

Friday, April 07, 2006

Notes from Atlantis 17

Dear Folks,

Well, I think we’ve pretty much recovered from Mardi Gras...although we didn’t have much time before St. Patrick’s Day pelted us with more parades, more beads, more floats, and a whole lot of flying cabbages!

They throw them from the floats, you see. The cabbages. Also potatoes, onions, garlic, and carrots. Everything but a raw brisket. You come home laden with green necklaces and all these slightly bruised vegetables, and two days later (St. Joseph’s Day) you go out and do it all over again, except this time the beads are green and red and white and there isn’t quite so much flying produce.

And then there’s my new favorite local tradition, the St. Joseph’s Day Altar. Italians and non-Italians alike down here build large, elaborate displays of food--cookies, breads, cakes, everything but the meat denied for Lent--in honor of the humble carpenter, and then on the saint’s day the food is distributed to the poor. Houses are opened and strangers are invited in to eat. I truly think this is the nicest idea I’ve heard of in a long time, especially for people like Bill and me who like to entertain! This year, the altars were constructed in FEMA trailers, in reclaimed community centers, in hastily repaired churches and in living rooms redolent of freshly-cut lumber and sheet rock, and a lovely expression of charity and thankfulness was carried on, by people who in some cases had little, giving to those who had less.

And, in addition, if you keep a piece of St. Joseph’s Day cake and then throw it into rising water, it’ll keep a flood away!

Why do I have more faith at the moment in St. Joseph’s Day cake than I do in the Army Corps of Engineers?

Maybe because the Army Corps of Engineers actually admitted (this morning) that “you could say” there had been design flaws in the construction of the levees protecting New Orleans against storm surges from the lake. Gee, who knew? Clearly not them, even though there are internal Corps memos dating from before the storm citing just those design flaws. Now the Corps says it’ll cost another $6 billion to fix what it still refuses to admit it allowed to break. And the 2006 hurricane season is less than two months away. There’s a good deal of not-so-quiet anger down here, even though it’s mitigated by our still being dependent on the Corps to get any 2006 protection built at all.

And then there’s the fact that a lot of people here are going to be heading into the 2006 season living in trailers, which...well, let’s just say there’s not an enormously encouraging track record regarding trailer parks and hurricanes.

It’s a weird time. What can I say? The New Orleans Archdiocese shut down historic St. Augustine’s parish in Treme due to lack of funds, which resulted in the church being occupied by out-of-state protestors who disrupted the mass. Now, even though the Archdiocese was going to allow the church itself to remain open for services, the whole thing’s padlocked.

And there’s Judge Charles Elloie, whose judicial philosophy apparently comes down to “our jails are too full already” and who recently released a known drug-dealer on his own recognizance despite his being caught red-handed with a large cache of cocaine, $100,000, and an assortment of assault weapons. He later said “he didn’t know” about the facts of the case.

People down here are very nervous about crime in general, even though all the statistics are still way down. I think it’s all part and parcel of the way the city is still working through its ongoing trauma. It’s been seven months since the storm, and people down here aren’t numb anymore. They’ve come down from the adrenalin high of just surviving, and realize that in many ways their lives are still difficult, and in some cases impossible, and in other cases just really lousy. They’re raw. They’ve dealt with callous politicians and panicky insurance adjusters (who know if they really pay out all the legitimate claims, they’ll go bankrupt, and are hence reneging) and they’re tired and broke and scared and, as traumatized people always are, worried that something EVEN WORSE may be coming down the pike.

If we get through this next hurricane season without a major hit I think people’s confidence down here will soar.

Of course, if we do endure another hit, there are outlying areas of St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes that simply won’t exist anymore.

And in the context of all that, in two weeks we’re having an election.

Maybe this is the best time in the world to hold an election here. Not that the timing itself hasn’t been debated. Is it too soon, with so many residents displaced? Is it too late? Should we have held the election two months ago, as originally mandated? Whatever, we’re having it on April 22, and the general feeling is “it’s about time”. What New Orleans desperately needs now is a leader. It needs a charismatic visionary like Fiorello LaGuardia or F.D.R. or...well, Huey Long. And yes, there have been more than a few people voicing the opinion that we could use the Kingfish right now. I’ll devote the next blog to a run-down of the candidates, and my personal two-cents, but for right now here’s some general observations:

Whoever becomes New Orleans’ next mayor is going to have a dog’s job. If he (or she, there are a couple of women running) can manage to pull it off, it’ll be the most public display of leadership and guts imaginable, and whoever DOES pull it off could presumably write his or her own ticket from there. But it’ll involve taking over a near-bankrupt city government and a school system that’s still beaten to its knees and a cumbersome, bickering City Council and an on-going, back-breaking fight against a system of spoils and graft and cronyism, not merely locally but on the state and federal level as well. Yikes.

Whoever gets elected to our City Council (there are various districts) will do so in the face of widespread disgust with the status quo, which means (I hope) that we’ll see a lot of new faces. New Orleans’ whole system of having a powerful City Council is problematic, since each council member plays to his or her own power base at the expense of the city at a whole, and this usually results in acrimony and endless dithering. It’s like trying to turn a train around when there’s an engineer in every car. Yikes again.

If Mitch Landrieu doesn’t get elected mayor, he’ll probably try for governor in 2007, which wouldn’t be a bad thing either.

If Ray Nagin gets reelected, he’ll have a mandate the size of, well, Louisiana, and it’ll be an amazing comeback story, and he might end up doing a great job. But I think there are too many people who blame him (fairly or unfairly) for the storm and its horrific aftermath. Plus, his record in dealing with the City Council is dismal (see above).

And if Kimberly Williamson Butler gets elected we’re all in trouble. Here’s the story: this woman was originally from Buffalo, was brought down to New Orleans in 1999 to direct the Downtown Development District and then became Mayor Nagin’s CAO in 2002, at which job she apparently stank. She left after a year and then won an upset election to become Clerk of Orleans Parish Court in 2003. I guess people thought she couldn’t do much harm there; after all, she was charge of elections! The Sept 18, 2004 elections were a nightmare, with missing machines, closed polling places, and finger-pointing on all sides.

After the hurricane, when city records were flooded, Butler refused to work with FEMA to salvage the documents. She in fact refused a court order, went on the lam, then showed up several days later at the courthouse to tell reporters “I don’t think I’m the right person for clerk of court” (a statement with which many people agreed). She went on to say, “I think I’m the right person for mayor” and announced her candidacy. She was promptly put in jail (for three days). On her release, she compared herself to Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi.

She is currently in charge of the 2006 elections.

Yikes indeed.

More later,



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