New Orleans, Louisiana, December 21, 2010. (Photo: Ã
We probably should have stayed in New Orleans.
At the end of a brief Christmas holiday there, last week's blizzard was edging up the east coast and we checked the status of our flights back to New York every couple of hours or so.
A part of us hoped one or both legs of our return would be scrubbed so we could spend another day or two in a town that knows how to celebrate any and all occasions with music and dance, food and drink, and feathers and bows. As Christmas began at stately and majestic St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square, even the solemn midnight mass was enlivened by the arrival of several Asian teenagers wearing balloon animal hats.
But alas, all went according to schedule. The trip from New Orleans to Atlanta was uneventful and although it seemed every other ongoing flight to the metropolitan area was canceled, for some reason ours went forward like a jet-fueled version of the Little Engine that Could, landing at Liberty International in Newark, New Jersey, just as the storm hit full throttle. No cabs or trains and a perilous nighttime bus ride into the city followed by the subway downtown took more time than the plane from Atlanta.
That long journey home made us even more regretful that we hadn't stuck around New Orleans, especially at this time of year. It is, of course, a place where the philosophy of life falls somewhere to the left of "Whoopee!" and the open go-cup of beer or other spirits carried along the streets is as much a symbol of the town as Mardi Gras, the fleur-de-lis and the "Who Dat?" football Saints. But it is especially grand at Christmas: an afternoon concert of carols performed Dixieland-style at Preservation Hall, holiday lights spelling out "Peace Yall" in the French Quarter, the steam calliope on board the Natchez Queen riverboat pumping out "Jingle Bell Rock," Christmas Eve bonfires on the Mississippi levees.
Almost five and a half years ago, when levees along the canals burst in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, flooding 80 percent of the city with as much as ten feet of water and killing hundreds, many in the Bush White House wrote off New Orleans completely; others apparently saw the catastrophe as a convenient way to create a new city both smaller in size - 100,000 who fled have yet to return - and whiter.
But New Orleans is a city of survivors, and if you have an ounce of soul coursing through your veins, the moment you arrive the idea of this vibrant place going under is simply unthinkable. And in fact, in conversations, including the overheard, local residents said progress was being made and recovery efforts were succeeding, even in the Lower Ninth Ward, the African-American neighborhood most devastated by the hurricane - and the last to get its water and power back.
But the obstacles facing the town and its mayor, Mitch Landrieu - less than a year in office and the first white mayor in 30 years - remain daunting. As Justin Vogt writes in the latest issue of Washington Monthly, "Piloting New Orleans successfully will require all of Landrieu's political gifts and more. The Big Easy faces tremendous challenges. More than 40,000 abandoned properties fester all over the city. New Orleans boasts the highest murder rate in America. Its out-of-control police department is currently the subject of a massive investigation by the Department of Justice; a dozen officers have already been indicted. As a parting gift, former Mayor [Ray] Nagin left behind an $80 million budget deficit. And although the city was not impacted by the BP oil disaster as directly as surrounding rural parishes, three pillars of the metro area's economy - oil and gas, tourism, and seafood - are all threatened by the spill's still-unknown long-term effects. Governing under these conditions will require making the kinds of difficult choices that inevitably create serious political vulnerabilities for any elected leadership - but especially one like Mitch Landrieu's, which has the added burden of holding together an unlikely biracial coalition."
What's more, eventually the billions in federal recovery money fueling much of the city's rebuilding will be gone - and how those dollars have been used will doubtless come under scrutiny by the new Republican House of Representatives. Add to that deficit reduction mania and cutbacks in both public works and public employees and you've got trouble.
We certainly had trouble as New York City grappled with its biggest blizzard in the last four years. In years past, squadrons of plows worked their way down busy Seventh Avenue outside my Manhattan apartment building several times during a storm; the night of this latest, a single plow came through on just a couple of occasions, and the outer boroughs were crippled for days. The morning after, the door to my building was drifted in and blocked - not the city's fault, but indicative of what they were up against. Investigations have been announced as to whether disgruntled Sanitation Department employees implemented a slowdown to pad overtime or in protest of recent rollbacks, which included layoffs of several hundred employees (from a total of 6,300) as well as demotions and reduced salaries for many supervisors.
Whatever the truth, there weren't enough hands on deck. The Obama $787 billion job stimulus two years ago helped many states balance budgets and protected or created state and municipal jobs - in fact, the government says about half the jobs generated by stimulus money were funded by state or local governments. But now that money's almost gone, too. According to the official recovery.gov web site, 92 perfect of the monies have been made available, excluding tax benefits. And regardless of the stimulus, according to The New York Times, in 2009, local governments eliminated 210,000 jobs.
Over the next years we'll continue to see states and local governments grapple with recession fueled deficits, unemployment and conflicts with public employee unions, which in many instances are being used to deflect blame from the real culprits: big business, the banks and government. As the Times' Michael Powell reported Sunday, "A growing cadre of political leaders and municipal finance experts argue that much of the edifice of municipal and state finance is jury-rigged and, without new revenue, perhaps unsustainable. Too many political leaders, they argue, acted too irresponsibly, failing to either raise taxes or cut spending.
"A brutal reckoning awaits, they say."
If what New York City briefly underwent last week is any indication, the fun has just begun. As we clambered over unplowed drifts and were carried by howling winds down frozen streets and sidewalks - and despite the post-Katrina hell that great southern city has experienced - our frostbitten hearts knew what it means to miss New Orleans. Happy New Year.