Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Having a good Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras has reached its All Star break right along with the NBA and heads into its sprint to the finish Wednesday seven straight days of parades, wall-to-wall music and continual merrymaking. Everyone who visits New Orleans asks how the recovery is going and the answer continues to be inconclusive. Downriver the French Quarter, Marigny and Bywater districts are thriving and renovations are ongoing everywhere. The houses on North Rampart Street that burned down around the corner from me last year are being rebuilt. Piety Street studio is going strong and Caffea is as reliable a coffee house as any in the city. Upriver the Garden district and generally everything from Napoleon Avenue to the river is going strong. But recovery in the rest of the city is pretty spotty. Monday's Times Picayune reported that half of the blighted houses in the city are still untouched. The story suggests a scandal that the Nagin administration has covered over so far but is illustrative of the corruption that has kept the recovery to a few high profile projects while funds for rebuilding New Orleans have been diverted or stolen. Millions of dollars were earmarked for the destruction of houses that were too damaged in the flood following Katrina. Much of that work was clearly not accomplished. Contractors neverthless submitted bills for the work and were paid by the city without verification that the work was done. It took community activists to do the research and discover that the city was paying for work that wasn't being done. This lack of accountability on the city's part smells as bad as the rotting fish and dead animals that blanketed the city after the floodwaters receded. The same goes for the fight between the mayor and the city council over the outrageously expensive waste removal contract Nagin handed out after Katrina. When the city council asked for accountability on how this money was being spent it was rebuffed by the mayor's office, which resorted to the despicable use of racism charges to muddy the waters. It is not racist for public officials to demand that the city use the public's money wisely and be able to show where that money actually went. This is an insult to our president Barack Obama, who is trying to bring American politics into a new era where the divisions of color and religion are not the central issues but honesty, accountability and good government. Nagin is undermining Obama's agenda by calling his detractors racists when he can't defend his actions with honest numbers. This is especially true since New Orleans is such a high profile example of what needs to be fixed if the United States is going to overcome its current economic crisis.
Every now and then New Orleans gives us a glimpse of what the city really can accomplish when the chips are down. The police, fire and sanitation departments do an amazing job of organizing the action around the scores of Mardi Gras parades with a minimum of obstruction to traffic flow. Within minutes of each parade's end the streets are clean and traffic is rolling. If this kind of effort was put into rebuilding the neglected areas of town the recovery would be a lot further along than it is now.

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