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Report Card: The Class of '08 

click to enlarge Principal Nagin
  • Principal Nagin

While there was no march on City Hall in 2008 demanding accountability from city leaders on the issue of violent crime, there is one already planned for 2009. Why? Mayor Ray Nagin and New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren Riley — thankfully, the other weak link in the chain, former Orleans District Attorney Eddie Jordan, resigned in 2007 — still don't get it: Even if we have the cleanest streets in the world, if residents don't feel safe, they will be forced to abandon New Orleans.

Thankfully, the city won't suffer the staggering 210 murders of 2007, but it will come close, and part of the blame has to be assigned to Riley. When the chief is confronted with high per capita murder rates, his first reaction is to dispute the population figures on which the rates are based ... or blame it on something in the Mississippi River, as he did at a press conference in November. So, there's no chance it could have something to do with NOPD leadership, but if we could somehow force violent criminals to drink milk, or at least Abita Springs water, we'd all be a lot safer.

C. Ray thinks the best approach to solving crime is to spend millions of dollars on the 200-plus crime cameras that don't work. While it's been reported the cameras have been used in just three criminal cases in 2008 and have cost the city more than $5 million since 2004, Nagin still wanted another $1.6 million in the 2009 city budget for these blind eyes. The city council recognized Nagin's shortsightedness and slashed $1 million from the request.

Another of Nagin's inexplicable budget moves was upping the funding for the cops, but, at the same time, not allowing enough money to preserve two-thirds of the investigative positions in the DA's office. Once again, the council stepped in to fix the mess, twice putting the necessary funds back in. (Nagin vetoed their first attempt to increase funding.)

C'mon, Ray, give new District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro at least a chance. Is it because when you had Eddie Jordan, somehow his ineptitude made yours less egregious?

The next march on crime is scheduled for January 9, 2009. There were more than 5,000 people at the last one. How many more citizens will it take this time before Nagin starts listening?

New Orleans may have dodged the bullet, but our neighbors took the hit.

The real story of the 2008 hurricane season for Louisiana isn't that the city was unscathed by Hurricane Gustav (or, as our boy-who-cried-"Hurricane" mayor described it, "the mother of all storms"), but the estimated $8 billion to $20 billion in damage and more than 40 deaths in south Louisiana from hurricanes Gustav and Ike. While more than 200,000 people, including thousands of Cajuns and Native Americans, live in Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes, and Port Fourchon services more than 20 percent of the nation's total oil supply, national leaders barely noticed.

click to enlarge New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Warren Riley
  • New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Warren Riley

For more than 25 years, Washington has discussed the Morganza-to-the-Gulf Protection Project, which includes 72 miles of levees for protecting much of Lafourche and Terrebonne, but so far about the only result the project has produced is hot air. Meanwhile, the wetlands of south Louisiana vanish with the rising tides, and Port Fourchon continues to slake America's thirst for oil. The country needs to realize this isn't just a Louisiana issue, but a national issue as well.

As for the city's massive evacuation for Gustav, those who needed assistance were successfully transported out and everybody else heeded the warnings and emptied the city before the storm made landfall. The city had more reporters than actual citizens, and anyone who stayed became an instant media star. The real problems occurred after the near miss. The mayor instituted a tiered re-entry plan, but failed to provide any real instructions, and the plan soon fell apart under a barrage of citizen protest.

Next time the mayor needs to level with people, not scare them, so folks will leave and not take a chance riding it out.

Hurricane Gustav provided the first real test for the incomplete 100-year Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System. (It's quite a mouthful, isn't it?) By most accounts, the system fared well: none of the levees failed, the floodgates at the outfall canals closed and the then-untested pumps at the gates kept up with interior pump stations, keeping the city dry — and New Orleanians can all breathe a sigh of relief that the U.S. Corps of Engineers is watching over them.

Not exactly.

Plugging holes in expansion joints on floodwalls with newspaper still sounds as infuriating as it did when it was first reported in May. The real problem isn't with the materials the Corps uses, but with the Corps itself. As Tom Jackson, a longtime civil engineer and a member of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority East (the consolidated East Bank levee board) has repeatedly explained, the Corps is a military organization and not open for debate or discussion.

Maybe that explains the Corps' reluctance to listen to the citizen group Safe Pumps for NOLA when the organization tried to point out that low-rise pumps for the new pump stations at the outfall canals would be more efficient, less costly and have less impact on the neighborhood than the older, traditional pumps the Corps proposed. And perhaps that's why the Corps, through its position as a member on the Breaux Act Task Force, is trying to close the state's largest coastal restoration/diversion project unless dredging costs are paid for by the state.

One thing is for sure: The Corps doesn't follow orders very well. Since the levee failures more than three years ago, Congress has been waiting for a coastal restoration report, including plans for Category 5 storm protection, but the Corps has failed to deliver. When the report does finally arrive, it won't include Category 5 protection, but merely a template for decision-making.

If the Corps won't take responsibility, Congress should lead the way by establishing an 8/29 Commission, based on the proposed legislation written by grassroots organization Levees.org and supported by Sen. Mary Landrieu and U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon. The commission would examine why the levees failed and how to prevent this manmade disaster or others from occurring in the future. One place to start is reforming the Corps.

It was the kind of story any investigative reporter would love to uncover: A city-financed nonprofit agency with a multi-million-dollar contract for gutting and boarding homes for poor and elderly homeowners bills taxpayers for work that was either not done or completed by volunteer groups. Meanwhile, completed renovations were reported for homes owned by slumlords and for homes that didn't even exist. Plus, some of the contractors hired by the agency to do the work had previous business arrangements with the agency's former director (Stacy Jackson) and one of the contractors was the mayor's brother-in-law (Cedric Smith).

The New Orleans Affordable Homeownership (NOAH) scandal had it all, except for your standard Woodward or Bernstein to report it. Instead, the story was broken by a blogger, Karen Gadbois — a middle-aged, married mother — who, along with her partner, Sarah Lewis, requested from NOAH in late spring a copy of the properties the agency had supposedly remediated. The two found all of the now well-publicized problems, photographed many of the properties in question, and posted them on their blog, www.squanderedheritage.com. Reporter Lee Zurik of WWL-TV was paying attention, and in late July, working with Gadbois and Lewis, he blew the roof off the story with a series of televised reports.

Nagin's response to the scandal was typical: He blamed Gadbois and Zurik for hurting the city's recovery, rather than praising them for uncovering corruption. But by then, it was too late for Nagin, or any of the NOAH apologists. Federal investigators stepped in, raided NOAH's offices, subpoenaed city officials and contractors and an investigation is ongoing.

In the end, all Nagin could say was, "I love that we have professional investigators involved now." We bet you are, Mr. Mayor, and we're just as happy that Gadbois and others decided to get involved in the first place.

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