Moving toward Christmas in the Crescent City

After I complimented Mayor Nagin for his warm, pastoral approach in dealing with complaining and demanding citizens, the next day someone called for him to “please start acting like a leader; stop acting like you’re running for office!” In electioneering, you listen and nod and agree, I suppose. True leadership, however, sometimes requires you to tell people when they are out of line and announce this is what we are going to do and that’s how it is, deal with it. For instance, Nagin agreed with the Urban Land Institute’s study that urges allowing certain sections of the city to lie fallow for a time, perhaps turning them into parks with bike trails, then build adjoining planned neighborhoods alongside. He agreed, that is, until citizens started hollering, “Not my neighborhood.” At that point, he decided, “Well, maybe we need to give this some more thought.” So far, according to the paper, Nagin has promised everyone their neighborhood would be coming back, and that is not about to happen.

As of Monday, the Bring New Orleans Back Commission seems to be proposing that rebuilding be allowed in all neighborhoods for the first year, after which we take a look and see where people are not rebuilding. Then, a federally funded buyout program would take over all “moribund” areas. (“Moribund,” an adjective, literally meaning “bound in death,” but basically “dead or inactive.” Use that word in a sentence today and I guarantee someone will be impressed.) This land would be turned into parks with bike and walking paths and devoted to other public uses. “A park in every neighborhood” has become their mantra. They’re promoting a longterm plan for a light rail line extending from Baton Rouge to New Orleans across the Gulf Coast all the way to Biloxi. Originally, there was talk of extensions of the line in other directions, but the commission wisely decided they’d better stay within reason.

“Big aid package nearing House passage,” announces a headline in Monday’s paper. How much money? $29 billion. I would predict this is just for starters, however. Stay tuned, as we say.


Galveston was destroyed by a hurricane in 1900. Likewise Charleston, SC, in 1989 and Homestead, FL, in 1992. Kobe, Japan, was leveled by an earthquake in 1995, and Grand Forks, ND, by a flood in 1997. Over the last week or two, our paper has featured articles analyzing how these cities came back from disaster, and the lessons to be learned from them. Here are FIVE LESSONS they’ve gleaned from these survivors.

1. Change is often necessary. In many cases, neighborhoods were erased in order to make the city safer. Not everyone was happy, of course. “People complain that it’s not the way it used to be,” said a scholar familiar with Kobe’s rebuilding. But he adds, “The way it used to be was perfectly designed to collapse and burn in an earthquake.”

2. The private sector can lead. Listen to the locals around here and you’d think nothing can be done until the feds step in and take control. Yet, in Homestead, a group calling itself We Will Rebuild took the lead.

3. Not all development is good development. You want to save your historic buildings if they are salvageable, even though development would be easier.

4. Help yourself. The city manager for Homestead says, “What we learned early on was that we were on our own.” Interestingly, when the city begins to take responsibility, it encourages congress and others to assist them.

5. Decide something. Community leaders need to hear from everyone, but ultimately they’re going to have to realize no decision is going to please all. Not to decide is to leave everything in limbo. Kobe and Charleston attribute their success to strong leadership by elected officials.

Sunday, Hilary Clinton, New York’s junior senator–you’ve probably heard of her–toured the devastation of New Orleans with our Senator Landrieu. Along the way, she pointed out that it’s the Bush administration’s fault. When her husband left office, the Treasury ran a surplus. Because of Bush’s tax cuts for the rich and the high costs of the Iraqi war, aid for New Orleans will be a hard sell. She was careful not to get into the failure of the Clinton administration to put sufficient money into shoring up Louisiana’s wetlands and strengthening our levee system.

Citizens returning to rebuild their homes in New Orleans are being warned to “keep your expectations low.” In many neighborhoods, the watchword is “think rural.” That means few neighbors, irregular trash pickup, infrequent police patrols of the neighborhood, and miles to the nearest drug store or grocery. And if “rural” means the kind of rural I was brought up in–we’re talking Nauvoo, Alabama, here–it also means woodlands filled with deer and turkey, ponds of catfish, and fields of clover. Too bad that’s not what they have in mind.

The cover story in Monday’s USA Today focuses on New Orleans: “Amid ruins, ‘island’ of normalcy in the Big Easy.” It’s all about the two faces of the city–the high ground that runs alongside the river, called “the river sliver” or “the island”, and the three-fourths of the city that lay under floodwater for weeks, now lying in darkness and ruin. At least 100,000 homes are “destroyed or uninhabitable.”

Not a lot new in the article, except a couple of details. Out of 3,000 restaurants in the city, only 700 have reopened. Seventy-five percent of medical doctors have not returned. Only two of the nine pre-K hospitals have opened.

Bear in mind, that’s New Orleans proper. Across the line in Jefferson Parish–Metairie, Kenner, etc.–it’s a different story. More like 90% of everything is open and running to a great extent.

Monday morning, Margaret had cataract surgery at Ochsners Hospital. The surgical waiting room was as filled as normal, and everything seemed to be perking. A large sign inside the facility thanks the many hundreds of employees who, during the hurricane, “did what Ochsner people do best–stayed and took care of the patients.”

They took care of us well today. We were back at home by 9:30. “Can we buy an egg mcmuffin,” my wife asked, after the morning’s ordeal. “You bet.” “We’re not serving egg mcmuffins,” the voice in the speaker said. Another result of the hurricane. Even the businesses that are open are often limping along. We drove 2 miles further and found the sandwich in question. That’s the result, too, of Katrina. You may find what you need, you just have to search a little longer and harder.

Life goes forward. Christmas will be here Sunday. We’re ready.

3 thoughts on “Moving toward Christmas in the Crescent City

  1. Brother Joe: I haven’t written in a while, but I have not missed a column since August 29th. I have also not missed a day remembering you in prayer as you continue to lead in the rebuilding of our true foundation in New Orleans: FAITH Faith stands when earthquakes shake. Faith stands when floods overwhelm. Faith stands when tsunamis wave. Faith stands when wildfires engulf. You are a true web warrior. You should be the mayor of New Orleans. +B+B+

  2. Bro. Joe,

    Yours has been a reasonable and true voice through the aftermath of a storm that effects, not only NO and our MS Gulf Coast, but the whole country. We thank you for your tireless efforts to bring your home town back to “better than normal”. You warm our hearts.

    God Bless you and Merry CHRISTtmas.

    Lara Johnson

    Greenville, MS

    Second Baptist

  3. Bro. Joe, I want to wish you and your family a Merry Christmas and we hope, a better New Year.

    I have really appreciated all of your wonderful journals that you have written about the hurricane. I have kept them all.

    May God continue to bless you and your work,

    Irma Glover

    Smackover, Arkansas