10 differences in New Orleans since Katrina

“Work for the shalom of the city where I have sent you…and pray on its behalf. For in its shalom, you will have shalom” (Jeremiah 29:7).

New Orleans is safer now than in 2005. The Corps of Engineers has raised the levees protecting the city by five feet, and spent billions of dollars on pumping stations to empty the city of water should it be flooded.

Streetcars travel up and down Canal Street now, and soon will head down Rampart Street toward the Bywater neighborhood.  This is all new and we’re excited about it.

Oh, and the Baptist Seminary has a Wal-Mart across the street.  And speaking of NOBTS, the enrollment is back up to pre-Katrina numbers, although a large number of those students are strictly on-line and not in the city.

But here is my personal list of the 10 greatest changes in New Orleans since that fateful August 29, 2005….

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Weekend New Orleans Things

For a long time, we were beginning to think the First Baptist Church of Chalmette, just below New Orleans, would never finish with their rebuilding. Hurricane Katrina had ruined their facilities and they were razed. New plans were made and volunteers came in by the thousands to help construct the plant. Finally, this weekend, this church is having an open house and a dedication.

Today, Saturday, I spent several hours at their open house sketching people and listening to the oohs and ahhs from those taking the tours. It’s a lovely building and I am beyond excited for Pastor John Jeffries and his people.

I said to one member, “I know you’re tired of meeting in Chalmette High School.” She hesitated. “They are the sweetest people in the world to us. But we’re ready to be here and I know they’re ready to see us go.”

Almost every Facebook friend I have has been commenting today on various football games this weekend. I’m a fan, but these days have a hard time sitting down to watch a complete game. I thought of a great line from Scripture, however, in the pyschological give-and-take that has been going on between the teams and fans of the Universities of Tennessee and Florida.

First year coach Lane Kiffin of Tennessee had commented that he was looking forward to singing “Rocky Top” (the Volunteers’ song) all night long “after we beat the Florida Gators this year.” Well sir, that didn’t sit too well with Florida Coach Urban Meyer and his people. They are, after all, the defending national champions and presently number one in the nation. According to the Sportscenter people–I’m unsure how reliable they are–that comment really pumped up the Florida fans and inspired its team to rub Tennessee’s nose in it.

One ESPN guy said he’d not be surprised if Florida tried to score as many as 100 points on Tennessee, they were so infuriated by Kiffin’s comments.

Sooner or later, young coaches have to learn the hard way not to say anything which will inspire his opponents. Kiffin will learn.

In the meantime, I thought of the line from an Israeli king to a bragging Syrian ruler found in I Kings 20:11. “Let not him who puts on his armor boast like him who takes it off.” (I love the subtlety of that little comment.)

When all was said and done, Tennessee held their own for the most part, and even though they lost, returned home with their heads held high. They’re going to beat some good teams this year, I expect.

Would it surprise you to learn there is political infighting occurring in New Orleans?

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Heaven, Hell or Maybe Just a Fallen Earth

Brand-new Baptist Director of Missions Duane McDaniel entered a local store the other day. A clerk said, “I detect an accent that’s not from around here.”

Duane said, “We must moved here from Honolulu.”

“You moved here from Hawaii?”


The clerk called, “Hey, Charlie, come here! This guy just moved to New Orleans from Hawaii.”

Charlie comes over, takes a good look at Duane, and then says dramatically, “Welcome…to…hell.”

The Jefferson family probably thinks it’s hell these days.

Nine-term Congressman William Jefferson was found guilty last week in a federal courtroom on 11 charges of corruption and racketeering. A jury nailed him for misusing his office in order to line his pockets (and stock his freezer, you may remember).

Jefferson will be in court in October when the judge reveals the number of years he will be serving for his crimes. Most people expect between 15 and 20.

Decades ago, the mayor of New Orleans, Dutch Morial, called the future congressman by a nickname that stuck with him all these years, identified his achilles’ hell, and proved to be his undoing: “Dollar Bill.”

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New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, thankfully in the last year of his second term, delivered his final “state of the city” report on Wednesday, May 20. His main thrust was to gloss over his time in office, dressing up the failures, spinning the goofs, and issuing more promises.

No one is better at promise-making than our mayor. Time and again, he has called news conferences to unveil a grand scheme for this section of the city or that development, only to have it all disappear like morning fog in the noontime heat. The media finally learned to quit running these announcements as though the millennium had arrived.

“Nagin asserted that under his leadership, city government has begun to regain solid financial footing and is poised to usher in an era of an unprecedented building boom.” (My hunch is he’s right, and that era will begin just as soon as a new administration walks in next year.)

“The naked truth,” he said, “is that we are positioned for full recovery.” (He reminds me of something Jerry Merriman once said about a campus ministry leader at Mississippi State when Jerry led the Baptist student ministry there. When I inquired about the president of the group, Jerry said, ‘We had to terminate him. He never did anything. Everytime we spoke, he was always getting ready to act. ‘We’re going to do this in a big way,’ he always said. But he never did anything, and I finally got enough of it.”)

When the mayor “claimed to be moving forward with streetcar extensions along Convention Center Boulevard and Loyola Avenue near the Union Passenger Terminal,” a spokesperson for the transit office commented that “those projects remain in the conceptual stage.” (No matter. It fits the mayor’s pattern of presenting concepts and ideas as fait accompli.)

Referring to various legal investigations going on concerning people in his administration, Nagin said he had done nothing wrong. I expect that he’s right. He’s done nothing wrong and little right.

When one of my neighbors in River Ridge got married recently, he had no idea he would spend his wedding night in jail. Friday evening, May 15, John had just entered the Crystal Plantation reception hall with his bride. A cop on duty approached his nephew Samuel and told him his pants were too low. There is actually a parish (state?) law about this, something involving obscenity, no doubt. The teenager protested, although he admitted his belt was loose. His cousins all agreed that his pants were fine.

But his cousins were not the cop. The policeman insisted.

That’s when the groom and his father got involved. A pushing and shoving and cursing match followed, and all three were hauled off to jail.

A family member groaned, “They spent $1500 on dance lessons and didn’t even get to dance!”

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Blurred Reality in New Orleans

The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune has long since quit trying to maintain an objectivity about some of our community’s leaders. Concerning Mayor C. Ray Nagin, the paper has lost patience with his posturing, his evasions and his lack of transparency (the very quality he promised would distinguish his administration).

Several times a week, the paper gives a little more detail of an expensive vacation trip the mayor and his family took at the expense of one of the city’s contractors a few weeks following Hurricane Katrina. The trip to Montego Bay would have been impressive to most of us, but Hizzoner says he remembers almost nothing of it, that it was “just a blur.” The contractor, who usually palmed himself off to outsiders as “deputy mayor,” a position that does not exist, had intimate contacts with other companies with deep pockets which he engaged to work for the city. Turns out the trip was paid by one of those companies.

Were there shenanigans involved? Especially when you consider that this company was paid huge bucks to install the traffic-light-cameras, most of which ended up not working? Hard to tell. To my knowledge, nothing has been pinned on the mayor. However, he’s not helping the investigation and says he has forgotten all about the trip.

I’m leading up to something, so bear with me a moment.

Dr. Ed Blakely has resigned. We’ve written about him before. Mayor Nagin brought him in to be something of a savior for New Orleans, to work with our city’s departments and come up with a master plan for the redevelopment of the flooded city. Blakely, owning a resume most people would drool over, arrived with grandiose promises of “cranes in the sky” within a few months. In time, when almost nothing was accomplished under his leadership, and when it became apparent that Blakely’s primary job was drawing a big salary while jetting around the world to appear as expert spokesman on this or that program, always at huge fees, Blakely found another way to get the job done: take credit for what others have done.

So, now, Dr. Blakely gives himself an ‘A’ on his report card and flies back home to Australia.

Local columnists are not letting him depart without a few choice words.

James Gill, resident curmudgeon for the Times-Picayune, writes: “Mayor Ray Nagin and his Recovery Director Ed Blakely complement each other admirably. Nagin cannot remember things that did happen, while Blakely can effortlessly recall a bunch of things that didn’t.”

“Thus,” Gill continues, “Nagin can prostitute his office and promptly block the memory, while Blakely, as he announces he is getting out of town, continues to bask in the glow of imaginary accomplishments.”

They do have a lot in common, Gill says: “Hardly anyone believes a word either of them says.”

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New Orleans at the Start of 2009

1) The population of the city proper, we’re told, is now 75 percent what it was prior to Katrina. This information is gathered from the number of households now receiving mail from the U. S. Postal Service.

2) Funeral services for Dr. Marshall Truehill, pastor of First United Baptist Church on Jeff Davis Parkway in New Orleans, will be held Saturday morning, January 3, at 11 a.m. at Christian Unity Baptist Church (corner of N. Claiborne and Conti Streets) where Dwight Webster is pastor. Pray for Marshall’s wife Miranda and their family. I’ll be speaking very briefly representing the churches and pastors of our association.

Two scriptures that come to mind for this faithful brother who devoted his life and ministry to being a voice for the helpless, the homeless, and the hopeless, are these:

“He judged the cause of the poor and the needy, and it was well with him. Is this not what it means to know the Lord?” (Jeremiah 22:16)

“God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love that you have shown toward His name in having ministered to the saints, and in still ministering.” (Hebrews 6:10)

Friday’s Times-Picayune carries a tribute to Marshall from columnist Lolis Eric Elie, who writes, “While the public housing debate was the most visible of Truehill’s battles, the very size of that fight tends to obscure the fact that his thirst for justice and reconciliation was part of a much broader humanity.”

Elie quotes Miranda Truehill, “He was a bridge builder. He cared about unity. He might disagree with someone on one issue, but he would work with them again no matter what.”

Jackie Clarkson, head of the New Orleans City Council, announces the council will honor Marshall at the beginning of its January 8 meeting.

3) Tragically, we live in a brutal city where people kill one another with regularity. On New Year’s Day, two murders were committed and another fellow was shot to death when he fired on police for no apparent reason. Family members of the 22-year-old shot by police say they can think of no reason for this, their son worked for a local telephone company, he’s never been in trouble with the law, there is nothing on him in police files, and he had a permit to carry a pistol.

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Inspecting Things in New Orleans

In late summer of 2006, we reported here of the hiring of Boston’s Robert Cerasoli as the first Inspector General for New Orleans. Provisions for this office had been on the city’s books for years, but nothing had ever been done. With the post-Katrina upheavals and scandals, a hue and cry went up from citizens for the city council to staff the position. The plan called for the IG to see how business is done in New Orleans government and identify wrongs as well as suggest changes to prevent wrongs.

In that introductory piece, we wished Cerasoli well and said a prayer for him—and got an e-mail response from him (to my amazement).

“Mr. C” identified himself as a fellow believer and said we’d have to get together. We set up an appointment at Loyola University which was providing temporary office space for him. The day I went by, Cerasoli was conducting assembly-line interviews. One television news crew was interviewing him in the college’s conference room while another waited in the off-room where I was. The crew and I chatted, I pulled out my pad and sketched them, and when Cerasoli came out, he invited me to sit in on the interview. That was educational.

The most interesting part of the interview came after the cameras were turned off. The news anchor mentioned to “Mr. C” that he was conducting his own little investigation into the take-home cars the city was providing for employees. There seemed to be no oversight to the program and no accountability for either the cars or the fuel. Cerasoli mentioned that ever since a car had been offered to him upon his arrival, he had had some of the same thoughts.

That would be the subject of one of his first investigations.

Wednesday night, Inspector General Cerasoli revealed the results of that investigation. The lead paragraph on the front page article in Thursday’s Times-Picayune reads:

“Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration allows too many take-home vehicles, does not keep track of the fleet, and could save close to $1 million by eliminating the expense, the New Orleans inspector general stated in his first report in 16 months on the job.”

The 53 page report covered 13 city departments. Here are some of its findings:

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