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Levees and Wetlands
Strengthening the levees alone will not protect New Orleans from a Category 5 hurricane, a veteran environmental activist says. "You can build Category 5 levees, but if you don't have a wetlands barrier, it (stronger levees) is never going to work, says Darryl Malek-Wiley, a veteran organizer of the Sierra Club in Louisiana. Sixty miles of marshland between the Gulf of Mexico and the city would have reduced Hurricane Katrina's deadly storm surge and possibly weakened her winds before she slammed into the city on Aug. 29, Malek-Wiley said. However, 30 years of coastal erosion had already chewed away at the city's natural defenses. As a result, Katrina (a Category 4 storm) and Rita, a weaker hurricane, brought devastating floods to Orleans and St. Bernard Parishes. Malek-Wiley says Louisiana should seek congressional support for the proposed 2050 coastal restoration plan, a joint project of the state Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (www.coast2050.gov). A pre-Katrina Congress dismissed the plan's $14 billion price tag as too expensive. In the wake of Katrina, which wiped out one-third of Louisiana's economy overnight, the 2050 plan looks like a bargain. "The research on 2050 has been done, all the hearings have been held, Congress just needs to write the checks," Malek-Wiley said. -- Johnson

 

High Drama, Low Levees
Like sands through the hourglass, so are the levee districts of Louisiana. And with all the passing days of our lives, the debate over consolidating levee boards becomes more soap opera than public policy. Sen. Walter Boasso, an Arabi Republican, filed a consolidation bill during last month's session, but it failed without the support of Gov. Kathleen Blanco. Undeterred, Boasso plans to file another version next year and is holding a series of public meetings in preparation. In a surprise move the weekend before Boasso's first hearing, the governor released a memo supporting the consolidation -- in concept -- but she wants to draft her own proposal. As a result, media coverage of Boasso's initial hearing was overshadowed by Blanco's announcement. The freshman senator garnered more ink responding to her move than he did commenting on his own plans. Moreover, Blanco has left it up to a recently created coastal panel to draft her version of the plan, and administration officials say it won't be ready in time for a January special session that she was considering, thus lessening the chances of such a session. Boasso pounced at the opportunity to accuse the governor of "circumventing" a much needed session and told a group in Jefferson Parish last week that lawmakers may have to call themselves into a special session without the consent of the governor. Stay tuned. -- Alford

 

Vote Late, Vote Often
An age-old legislative practice that allows Louisiana House members to change their votes on issues after final votes are tallied is now a flashpoint for reformers. By custom and House rule, representatives (not senators) are allowed to switch their floor votes, or even vote late, as long their actions don't change the final outcome of a vote -- and as long as they were physically present in the House Chamber when the vote was taken. The Times-Picayune has been blasting the rule ever since seven lawmakers changed their votes -- days later -- on a bill to consolidate levee districts. The bill was killed, and its demise has become a cause cŽlébre in southeast Louisiana. The seven late-voting representatives apparently wanted to get on the "white hat" team while they could. The Times-Picayune reported on Dec. 1 that Rep. Jalila Jefferson-Bullock, a New Orleans Democrat, was among those changing their votes to "yea." In a fiery response, Jefferson-Bullock wrote to the paper that she was in the Senate when the vote transpired. Thus, according to House rules, she should have never been allowed to vote, even later. Rep. A.G. Crowe, a Slidell Republican, says he will propose a resolution to clarify the rules. Crowe says he would like to allow House members to change their recorded votes, or vote late if they are absent, only on the same day that a bill passes or fails. Currently, lawmakers can suspend the rules of the House to change or record votes later. As described, however, Crowe's proposal would change nothing, because House members could still suspend the rules and continue to vote however they want, whenever they want. -- Alford

 

Gunning for Blanco
Roger F. Villere Jr. , the chairman of the Republican Party of Louisiana, has given the governor an ultimatum: hold elections in Orleans Parish as scheduled or step aside. "If Governor (Kathleen) Blanco will not allow an election, then she must forfeit her own," Villere said in a press release. It's not the first call for an impeachment or recall. Just visit www.impeachblanco.org to see more. -- Alford

 

Ties Unbound
The state Board of Ethics ruled last week that The Shaw Group Inc., the second-largest publicly traded company in Louisiana, can perform repair work on the Louisiana Superdome -- even though the company once used a Dome official as a lobbyist. Tim Coulon, chairman of the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District, previously worked as a lobbyist and consultant to the Baton Rouge-based Shaw when he was affiliated with the New Orleans law firm of Adams & Reese. Because Coulon is no longer with the law firm, and therefore no longer receiving money from Shaw, the board ruled that "no ethics code issues are presented based on the facts provided." -- Alford

 

Coroner's Holiday Advice
Dr. Bryan Bertucci, a family doctor and the elected coroner of hurricane-ravaged St. Bernard Parish, is urging residents to count their blessings rather than their losses over the holidays. "You have to look at where you were and where you are now," says Bertucci, who lost his home, private office and retirement retreat during flooding from Katrina. "I initially slept with a sheet on a hospital roof, then a mattress in the parish jail, then an air mattress with a quilt and a pillow," he said. "Now, I am in a trailer -- but I am so much better off than I was." Bertucci also encourages residents to give handmade gifts rather than presents from a commercial store. Nearly all of the parish's 67,000 residents were left homeless by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Moreover, the parish population has dropped to 7,000 since the hurricanes. The storm-related death toll hit 127 on Dec. 9 and the search for more bodies continues, amid hardships for the survivors. "We had one suicide (since Katrina) and we have a lot of depressed people, but we have a lot of mental-health people helping them," Bertucci says. The Red Cross and FEMA provide free mental-health counseling for parish residents. -- Johnson

 

Trailer Treasures
St. Bernard Parish spokesperson Steve Cannizaro says St. Bernardians are known for their resiliency and sense of humor in hard times. He cited the recently organized satirical contest to replace the annual "Christmas Tour of Homes" in Chalmette. "When there's precious few homes to decorate for Christmas in St. Bernard Parish, then it's time for Plan B: a "Christmas Tour of Trailers,'' according to the parish Web site. Prizes were awarded for the best decorated trailer, as well as the most creative, the most unique, the most "childlike" and the tackiest. "We are all in the same boat and we are going to have a little fun ... that is the essence of the spirit of New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish," said Cannizaro, a former Times-Picayune reporter. -- Johnson

 

Homebuilders' Tips
Worried about getting gouged on home reconstruction after the hurricanes? The Web site of the Home Builders Association (HBA) of Greater New Orleans, a local chapter of a national trade organization, now offers pricing and repair guidelines for everything from roofing shingles to carpet (www.home-builders.org). The estimates are designed to help consumers who are unfamiliar with home building and renovation, says Jon Luther, executive vice president of the HBA. The group provides free tips to protect consumers from getting ripped off and offers to match them with a state-licensed and insured contractor from its list of 1,000 members. In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the homebuilders organization lobbied the Legislature for a statewide building code. The new law takes effect in January. -- Johnson

 

Unbalanced Relief
There is little relief in sight for growers of mudbugs and satsumas and Cajun cane in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has yet to create a program for the distribution of $250 million in aid that was originally announced in October. That has U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-Napoleonville, crying foul. When Hurricane Charley hit Florida in August 2004, it took only two weeks for President Bush to get the program moving. But in Bayou Country, Louisiana farmers are still waiting for a simple sign-up procedure. "While I can appreciate the damage brought by the storms of the past few months differs from what took place in Florida, our producers deserve, at a minimum, a response similar in size to that which was provided for Florida only one year ago," Melancon wrote in a letter recently to Andrew H. Card, the president's chief of staff. And it's not as if the USDA is strapped for cash. Records indicate that, as of mid-October, there were $778 million sitting in a departmental account containing disposable, non-obligated funds. -- Alford

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