New Orleans has always been out of step with the rest of the country — we march to brass bands and second lines, not John Philip Sousa — and this year it paid off. The recession swept across the nation and the overall unemployment rate hit 10 percent, but in New Orleans it never went above 7.8 percent. While states were looking for a share of the Obama stimulus plan, our recovery was already almost four years going strong with construction booming — yes, Eddie Blakely, there really are cranes in the sky.
But it hasn't been easy. Businesses tightened their belts, tax collections were down and there was a significant jump in the number of households receiving food stamps. Folks were working, however; home sales increased, and the New Orleans Saints, America's team, have given us Who Dats and an economic, psychological and spiritual boost that we hope will keep going straight through the Super Bowl.
If only we could get a handle on crime, health care and hurricane protection.
Part of the construction boom came from storm reduction projects, but as New Orleans City Council President Arnie Fielkow said at a recent council meeting, "There's very little trust in the Corps." The Corps did little to change that perception. Eight projects are behind schedule for the 100-year storm protection system, which the Corps promised would be completed for the 2011 hurricane season, and when the Corps released a $23 million draft of its Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Study in March, it was a year and half overdue. Plus, it didn't provide a plan for Category 5 hurricane protection — just a list of possible options.
Spurring distrust and disgust further was the debacle surrounding the permanent pump stations at the three outfall canals: London Avenue, 17th Street and Orleans Avenue. Three options were proposed, and — surprise— the Corps endorsed the cheapest, Option 1, which would continue to rely on the inferior-designed and storm-weakened floodwalls with pumps only being used when the floodgates are closed. Options 2 and 2A would create full-time pump stations, eliminate some of the older interior pump stations, and, reduce the floodwalls to ground level, paving them so water would gravity-flow to the lakefront. But when Senators Mary Landrieu and David Vitter proposed an amendment for studying and giving independent cost estimates on all of the options, Landrieu says the Corps plotted behind the scenes and succeeded in defeating the measure.
Landrieu was more successful in political gamesmanship when it came to the nation's health care. U.S. Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao (R-New Orleans) stuck his neck out in November and cast the only Republican vote in favor of the House's health care reform bill, but Landrieu, a Democrat, remained uncommitted. The senator bided her time, however, and when her fellow Dems came wooing for her vote in November, Landrieu landed hundreds of millions in federal aid for low-income Louisiana residents. With money in hand, Landrieu declared her support for reform.
Health care reform was a breeze compared to the battle over Charity Hospital. In January, it appeared the $1.2 billion combined LSU/VA medical campus would be a reality, but preservationists fought back hard, and have argued this process was far from democratic. By late fall, the Louisiana Commission on Streamlining Government recommended an independent study to determine if old Charity should be preserved, or if there should be a new hospital complex. Everyone agrees this city needs a teaching hospital and state-of-the-art medical care, so 2010 is the time to make a good, considered decision and move forward.
The criminal justice system made some progress in 2009, and the cops and district attorney's office have worked together to pump up the number of violent felony arrests, felony prosecutions and convictions. Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro has led the way, and by year's end he had convictions in two high-profile cases, the murders of Jose Vasquez and Robin Malta. If only the same could be said of New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren Riley, who wasted time arguing over crime stats and giving short suspensions to cops who falsify time sheets. NOPD needs new leadership, and it will get it sometime in June after the mayoral election.
What none of us needs is more articles like the one in Time magazine that asked: "Is Baghdad Now Safer Than New Orleans?"
The national spotlight can be good, and President Barack Obama's visit in October let the rest of the nation know we're still recovering from the worst manmade disaster in U.S. history. If only that damn balloon boy and his lying parents hadn't stole our fire as Obama spoke. There are other opportunities, though, and when HBO debuts its highly anticipated series Tremé this spring, the country will see surviving after the levee failures was hard but worth it in this unique, unbeatable city.