Over the last three years since Katrina did her work on our part of the world, I have wondered if I’ve been too hard in this blog on our city leaders for their failure to provide the visionary leadership the rebuilding effort has needed but not received.
In Monday’s Times-Picayune, the front page features a far harsher assessment of the poor leadership of New Orleans than anything I’ve ever given. The speaker is General Douglas O’Dell, Federal Recovery Coordinator and the personal representative of President Bush down here. He succeeded Donald Powell in this position last April, after a long career in the Marines. As the Recovery Coordinator, O’Dell “troubleshoots recovery efforts among federal, state and local officials in New Orleans and across the Gulf Coast.”
Evidently the general is a fast read. He has wasted little time in getting to the heart of matters. Here’s the gist of his statements.
About Mayor C. Ray Nagin and his administration:
There is a growing frustration in the nation’s capital over the slow pace, inefficiency, and incompetence of City Hall’s efforts to manage the recovery of this city after the hurricane of August, 2005.
New Orleans’ recovery efforts are “convoluted” and “bewildering.” The gears do not “mesh at any level.” When O’Dell met with key leaders several months ago, he found them “as bewildered as I was.”
About the city’s recovery czar, Dr. Ed Blakely:
Blakeley is often absent, unavailable, and does not return phone calls. He produces “ethereal visions” of great recovery plans that are unrealistic and cannot be financed with federal dollars. O’Dell said, “I’m basically asking Blakely, who’s probably getting paid a whole hell of a lot more money than I am, to do his damn job.” (Excuse me, Mom.)
Plain words. Strong sentiment. Good point. Blakely sits on too many boards, consults with too many groups around the world, and speaks at too many conventions, yet still draws a full-time salary from New Orleans, and seemingly only shows up to make grand pronouncements on plans that never get done or to take credit for what others actually have accomplished.
“He’s failing, in my view,” O’Dell said of Blakeley. He said Blakely’s office sometimes seeks recovery money for projects “based on rough sketches, arm waving, ‘imagineering,’ whatever.”
Blakely was quick to defend himself, pointing out that General O’Dell has been here only since “the end of May” and is wrong on many issues. Blakeley says his office shows he has returned every one of the general’s calls, but admitted “there has not been the level of visible accomplishment that we would like in our neighborhoods.” He insists that he has worked out matters with FEMA and federal resources are flowing this way much better. He blamed FEMA for designing some of those “ethereal” plans O’Dell criticized.
Dr. Blakely reminds me of a staff member I used to have who rarely did his work, but was a big talker and always had an alibi why something did not get done and knew whom to blame. Eventually, we asked him to find other employment.
About the city’s Inspector General Robert Cerasoli:
General O’Dell says he’s as “tough as a woodpecker’s lips, and smart.” On the October 4 referendum, voters will be asked to make the inspector general’s position a permanent part of the City Charter. “I want to be sure I’m hammering home the importance of that ballot measure,” O’Dell said.
The news was not all bad from O’Dell’s perspective. He praised State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek, Bill Chrisman, the city’s new capital projects director, and Cynthia Sylvain-Lear, the city’s deputy chief administrative officer, as officials who are on top of their jobs.
Overall, O’Dell says, Dr. Blakely and City Hall seem to be operating under the erroneous premise that with a new president in the White House next January, the administration will “reload the cannon and start shooting money down here.”
I’ll keep an eye on the letters to the editor, which O’Dell’s comments are bound to generate. They’re rather depressing, frankly, but oddly comforting. Not sure why that is. Maybe it just feels good to know you’re not hallucinating, that someone else sees the system as broken as you do.
Monday night, a local resident spoke at the Democratic Convention in Denver, and naturally blamed the failure to restore this city on President Bush. Then former President Carter was the star of a video about the devastation to hit our city and the failure of the Bush administration to do what they should have.
But it’s not quite that simple. Granted, in the days following the storm, the present administration was asleep at the wheel. However, once FEMA and the Corps of Engineers got on track, they knocked themselves out trying to put this city back together.
As with so much else that will be said this week in Denver and, yes, later in the Republicans’ gathering, I fear the speechmakers are not so much concerned with facts and truth as with saying what will please the crowd.
The administration change that is really going to do this city a great deal of good will come when City Hall gets a new occupant. Unfortunately, that’s still two years away.