11 September 2005

Behind the scenes in New Orleans

There's a lot of fulminating over FEMA's mishandling of the catastrophe in the Gulf Coast. I don't excuse it - didn't Michael Roberts say over that horrible weekend following the storm that they didn't know how bad things were until Thursday - excuse me?? - but I don't want to lose sight of Mayor Nagin's inexcusable stalling before issuing evacuation orders, leaving fleets of buses unused, then his and the Governor's inexplicable refusal to give the orders and permissions necessary to allow both public and private agencies into New Orleans afterwards.

When I read Christopher Cooper's front-page article in last Thursday's Wall Street Journal entitled "Old Line Families Escape Worse of Flood and Plot Future," I had a strong feeling that Cooper was putting down some very clear dots for his readers to connect.

Cooper set the stage by describing how the extremely rich had recourse to private helicopters, both for evacuation and for the delivery of supplies and small armies of private security guards. He painted the picture of people completely detached from the realities of the misery rampant after the storm. Then he got down to the interesting stuff about these privileged few:

Their social pecking order is dictated by the mysterious hierarchy of "krewes," groups with hereditary membership that participate in the annual carnival leading up to Mardi Gras. In recent years, the city's most powerful business circles have expanded to include some newcomers and non-whites, such as Mayor Ray Nagin, the former Cox Communications executive elected in 2002.

Oh, really? How nice for him.

The article included quotes from James Reiss, who "became wealthy as a supplier of electronic systems to shipbuilders, and [he] serves in Mayor Nagin's administration as chairman of the city's Regional Transit Authority."

Hmm. Regional Transit Authority. Gee ... wonder if that includes, you know, buses?

Mr. Reiss and a number of the other "power elite" are already planning the rebuilding of NO, according to the article.
The new city must be something very different, Mr. Reiss says, with better services and fewer poor people. "Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically," he says. "I'm not just speaking for myself here. The way we've been living is not going to happen again, or we're out."

Not every white business leader or prominent family supports that view. Some black leaders and their allies in New Orleans fear that it boils down to preventing large numbers of blacks from returning to the city and eliminating the African-American voting majority.

Leading Democrats fear that the demographics of the city will change. Even though the city's government has been controlled by black politicians since the 70s, "(w)hite voters often act as a swing bloc, propelling blacks or Creoles into the city's top political jobs. That was the case with Mr. Nagin, who defeated another African American to win the mayoral election in 2002."

Christopher Cooper draws no conclusions from all this in his article, and neither will I, beyond noting that it seems inevitable New Orleans will be very different after it's rebuilt, not only because of all the new buildings and infrastructure. The article's on WSJ.com for another 85 days or so; I don't know if you need a subscription to access it, but it is fascinating, and worth a read.

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