Okay, while I was out. Attending the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Greensboro, NC this week. More about that below. But first, catching up on the local New Orleans happenings.
Out in the eastern section of New Orleans, the area almost totally underwater in the days following Katrina, 13 percent of our local electrical company’s customers now have power. Some 4,500 sites in that portion of our city are back in their well-lit, fully-powered homes. Businesses make up 140 of those 4500 customers. Not much, but 100% better than it was; it’s a good start.
A drought continues locally. That, plus the stifling heat, makes life miserable for residents, employees, and volunteers who are gutting out and restoring houses and businesses. One leader of a church team of volunteers told me they get to work as early in the morning as possible, and knock off shortly after noon and call it a day. The heat gets worse as the day wears on. While New Orleans was suffering temps of 95 or so this week, Greensboro’s highs were in the 70’s if you can believe it, due mainly to the rain. Beautiful, wet, lovely, refreshing rain. I used an umbrella most of the time but my spirit was buoyed by everything about this falling water and even enjoyed the couple of times I was drenched running from the parking lot into the hotel.
Tax collections in Jefferson Parish–the Metairie/Kenner/Marrero/Gretna portion of metro New Orleans–are soaring above the same time period in pre-Katrina 2005. These days, Jefferson Parish basically has a monopoly on retail sales in the area since so many businesses in N.O. proper are still closed down.
In Congress, the Democrats voted Thursday to strip our congressman William Jefferson of his seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Friday, the full House in a voice vote, ratified that action. Jefferson vows he will prove his innocence of the charges against him and maintains there is no precedent and no House rule for the action being taken against him. He was staying on in this key position, he declared, because New Orleans needs his influence and his vote on that influential committee. Nevertheless, most of the voices I hear around here, including the editor of the Times-Picayune, have called for him to step down. I am not his judge and do not presume to condemn him, but the evidence against him is certainly overwhelming and if he beats these charges, you will know you have seen a modern-day miracle. The one thing New Orleans does not need is one more corrupt politician. We’ve had enough of those to last the next millennium. Mr. Jefferson announces he is a candidate for re-election this November.
Skip this part if you are familiar with the charges against Jefferson. Briefly, the government says it video-taped him receiving a briefcase with $100,000 in $100 bills. On audio tapes recorded with a cooperating witness, Jefferson allegedly said the money was to bribe the vice-president of the African nation they were trying to do business with. Later, he said in a phone call he had given all the money to that official. However, when the FBI raided his house the next day, they found $90,000 of the money–the bills were marked, so this is not guesswork–inside a freezer in convenient foil-wrapped packages. Two of Jefferson’s aids have pleaded guilty to crimes associated with this venture, and they testify that the congressman’s family controls businesses which received more than $400,000 and stock certificates in return for his help in the African ventures.
The Louisiana Recovery Authority has released a survey which indicates that 57% of the displaced New Orleanians would like to return home but are skeptical or ignorant of the plans and programs available to make it possible. Those living inside the state were more likely to plan to return, the percentage being sixty-three. Only 39% living outside the area think they are likely to return.
Almost every day this week, the national news has announced charges of massive fraud connected with FEMA’s distribution of Katrina money. Anyone who knows anything about human nature is not surprised by this, but Louisianians especially groan over such abuses. A number of people who did not live in the area at all or who used to live here but had moved away, claimed hurricane damage and received their $2,000 checks. Prisoners in various penitentiaries across the country pulled the same stunt. One newscast said an address on one application for funds turned out to be a cemetery plot. It’s wrong, it’s to be expected, and it must be dealt with, but unfortunately it also reinforces what some people think about the corruption in Louisiana. As though we had a monopoly on sin.
This week the secretary of HUD, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, announced his plan for the public housing projects the department oversees in our city. HUD intends to have 1,000 units open for tenants by summer’s end. However, the heart of the federal plan is the demolition of several housing developments, including the notorious St. Bernard development in Gentilly, C.J.Peete in Central City, B. W. Cooper off Earhart Boulevard, and Lafitte near the Faubourg Treme. The plan is to turn these areas into mixed-income communities. This, I might add, is what some of our people who live in or near these developments have longed to hear. Others, however, are decrying the plan and wanting to return to the projects just as they left them. HUD has a three-year timetable, which newspaper columnist Lolis Eric Elie says guarantees that many of our former residents will never return.
Here’s a bit of trivia: what individual grave in the United States draws the most people to its site each year, second only to Elvis Presley? Answer: the burial place of voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. Marie who? This patron saint of local voodooism was buried in 1881–some say on June 15–in St. Louis Cemetery No.1 on Basin Street. So on that day each year people flock to her tomb and offer up their prayers. One has to wonder what possible benefit worshipers expect to derive from praying to a dead person. Christians rejoice that Jesus Christ is their “living hope” (I Peter 1:3). A dead hope is surely an oxymoron.