Blanco appeared before the New Orleans City Council and proposed a series of small meetings that she will convene with council members and Mayor Ray Nagin. She hopes to forge a compromise on the FEMA trailer issue, which has soured the already testy relationship between Nagin and the council. When Nagin first proposed a series of trailer sites, the council balked and tried to stop certain locations from opening. The council passed an ordinance aimed at taking control of the sites. Nagin vetoed the measure, but the council overrode his veto unanimously.
The override vote was a slap at Nagin but hardly the worst sting he's felt since Katrina. He simply announced that his emergency powers supercede the council's authority in this matter, and he moved forward -- but even then at an uneven pace. All acknowledge the issue could become bogged down in court, and that would just slow things down even more.
Meanwhile, thousands of displaced New Orleanians are hoping to return home and start rebuilding. Local businesses that have reopened find themselves with lots of customers but not enough workers. Contractors likewise need places for work crews to live. All this comes amid talk of demolishing homes -- and even some neighborhoods -- possibly without actual notice to property owners in some cases. Long-simmering issues of race and class are boiling.
"It would be shortsighted to assume that the working and unemployed poor will not return to New Orleans, even if there is no affordable housing," wrote Lance Hill of Tulane's Southern Institute for Education and Research in a recent essay. "In December of 2006, FEMA rent supports will end across the nation and tens of thousands of homeless New Orleanians will likely attempt return to their hometown where their only family support networks exist. Without adequate planning, New Orleans could become home to thousands of homeless living in sprawling tent cities in the parks and massive squatters communities in abandoned housing."
On the other side of the coin, homeowners whose neighborhoods were spared (or are rebuilding quickly) fear that federal trailer parks in their areas will become permanent slums that hurt property values and otherwise adversely affect their recovery efforts. There is a strong NIMBY ("Not in my back yard") sentiment across many parts of the city. Such sentiments have come under fire from many quarters, but they are real, and New Orleans is on the cusp of citywide elections.
Politically, this is a powder keg with the fuse already lit.
And now The Governess has decided to put her foot down right on top of the keg.
To those who have questioned Blanco's fortitude during and after Katrina, this is a clear signal that she's not afraid to tackle tough issues head-on. She assured the council last Thursday that she has no intention of taking sides in the dispute, but prefers instead to find some common ground on which to build a compromise.
Council members initially were skittish about her offer, but eventually agreed it's worth the effort. Nagin likewise agreed to meet.
In many areas of town, there are signs that the city is coming back to life. Getting more workers and residents back home would go a long way to building on that momentum. It will not be easy, but recovery never is. Nor is leadership.