At Friday’s vision tour, involving a number of out-of-state pastors and local guys, someone said, “I heard a businessman in another state say you’d have to be crazy to invest in New Orleans right now.” Not what we want to hear.
Saturday’s newspaper announces more bad news. Microsoft was scheduled to hold three large meetings in our city, and has moved them all elsewhere due to the lack of sufficient airline service. Two of the gatherings would have brought 14,000 each to the city and the third 2,000. “We’ve made a very difficult decision to hold three of our annual conventions…in other places,” said spokeswoman Robyn Kratzer.
And yet, next month we’re scheduled to host the National Association of Realtors–bringing 25,000 conventioners–and they’re not canceling. Those in the know say the lack of enough air service is only one factor in cancellations, others being the high crime rate and the cost of insurance to cover event cancellation.
The murder rate in shrunken New Orleans is now over 100 for the year, whereas Boston, with several times the population, has only 75. Not good.
A wreck on Interstate 12–the east-west link connecting Slidell with Baton Rouge–has shocked everyone on Thursday of this week. When a 20-foot aluminum ladder fell off a truck, an 18-wheeler swerved to miss it. The driver lost control and side-swiped several vehicles before his truck plummeted across the median into the path of a lovely little Lexus carrying three women. The photo is a sight to behold. Two women were crushed to death and the driver was seriously injured. A highway patrolman said five people have been killed on Northshore highways since Katrina as a result of storm debris or construction equipment falling onto the highways.
This week the owners of a St. Bernard Parish nursing home where 35 residents drowned following Katrina had their day in court. Salvador and Mabel Mangano are (were?) owners of St. Rita’s Nursing Home downriver near Poydras. While family members of victims held signs and posters outside the Chalmette courthouse, the Manganos entered accompanied by their lawyer and surrounded by deputies. Inside, they pleaded innocent to 35 counts of negligent homicide charges and 64 counts of cruelty to the infirm for failing to evacuate their facility as the hurricane approached.
Another Katrina legal situation this week involved the former clerk of criminal court, Kimberly Williamson-Butler. This lady’s history in this city is short-lived but a comedy of errors and misjudgments and bizarre statements. It was all good news for her this week, however: the district attorney failed to convince a grand jury to indict her for misappropriation of funds. She’s free to go. Earlier this year she ran for mayor and received perhaps a hundred votes, and has been largely absent since. I would not be surprised to see her reappear now that she can claim to have been exonerated. This young lady delights in wearing the badge of a martyr.
If the traffic seems worse, there’s good reason. On the Causeway that spans Lake Pontchartrain from Metairie to Mandeville, traffic is up by 10 to 28 percent over the same months a year ago. Much of it may be New Orleanians who moved to the Northshore but are back and forth working on their flooded homes. Or workers commuting into the city for construction jobs.
Visitors who take our 30 dollar tour of the devastated areas ask, “What’s keeping the city from tearing those buildings down and hauling them off? They’re eyesores.” I explain that they have to contact the owners, file legal papers, give owners time to respond, that sort of thing. Thursday, New Orleans began reinspecting more than 3,000 of the worst properties. Owners have previously been warned that these structures are public nuisances and need to be cleared away or cleaned up. Workers will post notices on buildings where nothing has been done, and owners will receive certified letters giving the dates of administrative hearings if they wish to protest the actions. The hearings will begin in November. So many legal hurdles to clear before you can demolish someone’s private property. That’s good, of course. We’re a nation of laws. But it’s slow and cumbersome.
On a similar note, Jefferson Parish has hired a company to tag offending property and notify homeowners that unless something is done, they will be fined and/or their building demolished. A special court has been established to deal with nothing but these cases, with hearings to begin this month. Using the tell-on-your-neighbor policy, more than 700 complaints have come in, reporting blighted yards and ruined houses where nothing is being done.
At Friday’s “Vision Tour,” a number of pastors from Florida, Texas, and Alabama rode the bus, seeing for the first time what this city looks like a year after Katrina. One man of God said to me, “I am so burdened for this city. I don’t know when anything has moved me like this.” Two men told me they are going home and leading their people to commit to beginning churches in certain areas of this city.
The bus stopped at the Habitat village of new homes which we call “Baptist Crossroads” and which the media calls “Musicians Village,” in the Upper Ninth Ward. Twenty or more of the multi-colored houses look ready to move in, and workers clamored over others, painting, hammering, and toting stuff. “Where are you from?” I asked a woman standing in the street. “From Toronto.” When I expressed surprise, she said, “We’re down here with a large group of Junior Leaguers. We have twenty from Toronto.” Where are you staying? “At the Marriott,” she said, “and I can’t wait to get there!”
Junior Leaguers are wonderful women, but they don’t like to get dirty. Although, give them credit, they were sweating like lumberjacks out there.
The Road Home is the official name of the program set up to receive applications from owners of flooded property so they can be repaid up to $150,000. Thursday, this agency had a full page in the Times-Picayune. Around a large photo of a father and son playing ball in front of their house and the wife sitting on the front steps was this text:
“What people don’t get about Louisiana is that the things that matter–really matter–haven’t gone anywhere. This is still my home. You still smell the gumbo cooking and the coffee brewing. People down here are still friendly. Neighbors still kiss hello and ask about your family. We still argue about the Saints and tell tales about the size of our catch. You know, Louisiana isn’t just the birthplace of jazz. It’s my birthplace. You bet I’m rebuilding.”
“Please make sure you complete and submit an official application even if you have already registered for ‘The Road Home’ program. www.road2LA.org – 1-888-ROAD-2-LA (1-888-762-3252).”
“Eligible homeowners affected by Hurricane Rita or Katrina may receive up to $150,000 in compensation for their losses to get them back into their homes. The Road Home Housing Assistance Centers are open and applications are currently being processed. To start your application for Governor Blanco’s Road Home program, visit (the numbers above).”
Mayor Nagin was on the radio this week talking about the exorbitant cost of homeowners’ insurance. “It will be that way for the first couple of years after a hurricane,” he said. “It always is.” The host said, “But if you can’t afford insurance on your home, you can’t afford to live here any more.” And to my surprise, the mayor, who is always telling people they can return to the city, said something like, “Well, some people won’t be able to live here.”
The actual number of people who have already received money from this Road Home program is miniscule. The process is multi-layered and cumbersome in their attempts to weed out the scammers. Meanwhile, good people who want to rebuild and return are standing in a long line that never seems to move. God bless them.
“Go Tigers,” a neighbor called to me Saturday morning. LSU is playing the Florida Gators later today. As I walked on, it occurred to me that one of the real values of having a football team like LSU or the Saints is that it is a pleasant diversion that gets people’s minds off their problems and allows us all to pull together no matter our politics or religion or ethnicity. You plant purple-and-gold banners in your front yard or wear fleur-de-lis stickers on your car and high-five each other, without once asking what church the other fellow goes to or what he thinks of President Bush. It’s all in fun.
Yes, some people make it more than that, but their error should not hinder our enjoyment.
Go, Tigers. Bring us some good news.