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A New Way of Life
Although fictitious and planned, "Hurricane Alicia" offered state and federal officials last week an opportunity to roll out their new plans for evacuating and sheltering thousands of people fleeing the path of a major Gulf storm. For Gov. Kathleen Blanco, the exercise was a chance to return to the heart of operations in the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness -- a place where she told the world that massive deaths were expected after the levee system failed and where she broke down and cried in front of live news cameras. "The feeling of coming back in here is really difficult," she says. "I'm just concerned about the potential suffering that could reoccur." If a catastrophic hurricane had really been 48 hours out, the exercise revealed that more than 6,000 National Guard troops would have been activated, a voluntary evacuation called for low-lying areas and the flow of traffic reversed on the major interstate out of New Orleans for a multi-lane exodus. That's quite a bit of hustle and bustle, especially if a hurricane doesn't make landfall. Blanco notes that such aggravation is now a way of life, but it could cut another way in coming years. "I'm concerned that if we evacuate over and over, and a hurricane doesn't hit our coastline, people will begin to feel inoculated," she says. -- Alford


Layers of Blame
Merging the Orleans Levee District and the Sewerage & Water Board might be one way to help avoid the kind of catastrophic flooding brought by Hurricane Katrina, according to Raymond Seed, a geo-engineer on the Independent Levee Investigation Team led by the University of California, Berkeley. "In most of the world, there is a single district" for providing flood control, drainage and water service, Seed said last week during a local forum on the study of Katrina. The forum was conducted by 36 volunteer scientists. Dissecting a complex series of events that led to the disaster, Seed said a "300-to-400-foot gap" in an unfinished levee system at the south end of the Orleans Avenue canal (near City Park) left a "spillway" for Katrina to "flood the heart of the city." Construction could have closed the gap. However, the "spillway" remained open because of disagreements between the Levee Board, which maintained the levees, and the S&WB, which oversees the city's network of pumps and drainage canals. "It seems to be a rule down here -- when you have two agencies, they have to be in conflict," Seed told the crowd. The Orleans Canal gap is just one example of the failure of multiple jurisdictions during Katrina, he said. "Everybody wants to blame the Corps of Engineers [but] ... this is very much a layered cake." -- Johnson

 

Mary's Numbers Up
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu recently got a nice "bounce" in her approval rating as tracked by SurveyUSA, which surveys voter attitudes and opinions about national political figures month to month. In a survey completed on May 15, Landrieu, a Democrat, registered a 58 percent approval rating -- the highest marks she has received in the past 12 months. Her "disapproval" rating in the same survey fell to 39 percent, tying the second-lowest negative number she received in the past year. Landrieu's previous approval ratings had hovered in the low-to-mid-50s and even dipped to 46 percent in mid-February, at which time her disapproval numbers exceeded her approval ratings by 3 percentage points. That was the only time in the past year that she recorded an overall negative rating among Louisiana voters. Now, just three months later, voters say they approve of the job she's doing by a margin of almost 20 points. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent. One explanation for Landrieu's bounce is her high-profile role in securing billions of dollars in federal aid as a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Another explanation may be that it is an unexpected consequence of her brother Mitch Landrieu's campaign against Mayor Ray Nagin, who does not poll well outside New Orleans. Louisiana's junior senator, Republican David Vitter, received a 60 percent approval and a 33 percent disapproval rating in the same survey. Vitter's approval numbers have consistently run in the high-50s to low-60s over the past year, with his disapproval numbers never exceeding 35 percent. -- DuBos


To Vote or Not to Vote
A new policy debate has surfaced over freebies that some lawmakers receive from lobbyists and other special interests -- namely tickets for football games and sold-out concerts. If a legislator wants to accept a 50-yard-line ticket or a seat for a Bruce Springsteen concert from a university, it's legal as long as the value doesn't exceed $100 per event. On the other hand, the state Ethics Code bars lawmakers from voting on bills in which they have an economic interest -- meaning they can't vote on legislation that would give them anything of monetary value. So, when a bill was filed to repeal the ticket exception to the Ethics Code, Rep. Loulan Pitre, a Republican from Cut Off, wondered if voting on the measure would violate the "economic interest" section of the Ethics Code. "The bill prohibits a gratuity that we can accept," Pitre says, adding that voting against the bill would mean voting in favor of potentially receiving tickets, which clearly have value. Seeking an answer, Pitre queried the state Ethics Board and requested an emergency opinion. R. Gray Sexton, the board's administrator, told Pitre to go ahead and vote because his interest in the bill is no greater than any other lawmaker's. The law states that one person voting on the measure must benefit more than the rest of the decision-making public body for a violation to occur. -- Alford


Hardball Update
Gov. Kathleen Blanco is still threatening to veto federal offshore oil and gas leases if Louisiana doesn't receive a larger share of the related royalties. The feds get more than $5 billion a year from drilling off the Louisiana coast, but the state gets less than 1 percent of that. Meanwhile, states such as New Mexico get upwards of 50 percent of the mineral royalties flowing from their public lands. Critics have chimed in over the months, claiming Blanco's threat is more of a bluff because she couldn't possibly hold up the process -- unless she pulls it into court. Last week, Blanco dispatched some of her team into a legislative committee to insert an amendment into a coastal management bill by Sen. Reggie Dupre, a Bourg Democrat. The amendment would help make the threat a reality. In the early 1990s, the federal government gave coastal states more say in rejecting or approving offshore leases, but states had to include permissive language in their statutes. Florida, for instance, has used the wording to prevent drilling rigs from damaging its water bottoms, says Dupre. Louisiana never took advantage of the provisions, because the state never had a reason to restrict mineral development -- a staple of the state's annual budget. Last week's amendment changed that. "We've always been flying by the seat of our pants on this, but now it will be a part of state law," Dupre says. He adds that the language wasn't exactly snuck in, but its insertion was a "subdued" way of handling the situation by the governor's staff. "I guess they're out of the closet on this one," he says. -- Alford

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