New Orleans–Politicians here should not undervalue two finite resources: first, the goodwill of Americans and their federal representatives, and second, taxpayer dollars. Maintaining the former boosts the odds of seeing the latter. Thus, Louisiana policymakers must recognize that news of local graft, favoritism, and incompetence will evaporate this city’s reservoir of empathy more swiftly than New Orleans flooded in the first place. Reverting to pre-Katrina mischief would condemn this area to rebuilding without much help from an exasperated Congress and appalled citizens.
”In Louisiana, they don’t tolerate corruption; they insist on it,” laughs Louisiana native Fred Smith, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Competitive Enterprise Institute. In that spirit, St. Tammany Parish councilman Joe Impastato was arrested in a November 15 FBI sting for allegedly accepting two cashiers’ checks totaling $85,000, after arranging for OMNI Pinnacle, LLC, to dump storm debris on a local businessman’s raw land.
Despite facing federal extortion charges, Impastato told reporters on November 18 that there was nothing unusual about his Tammany haul. This was “no different than any other business deal,” he said, adding that he acted as a private citizen, not as a local official.
OMNI’s influence stretched past St. Tammany, which is just north of New Orleans. In fact, New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin rejected an experienced firm’s lower bid to discard storm debris and accepted OMNI’s pricier bid the day before Katrina struck. OMNI is perfectly connected. OMNI attorney Charles Rice was the city’s chief administrator until June. Rice’s brother, Terrance, has met with officials of the city and the Army Corps of Engineers. As municipal sanitation director, Veronica White oversees contract bids. She originally was hired by a former city official named Charles Rice.
“People with familiar names and faces are making money–often in areas where they seemed to have no particular expertise before the storm,” the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported on November 20. “Perhaps the Louisiana way wasn’t washed away with the storm’s floodwaters.”
Although it only recently acquired a new-trailer sales license, Bourget’s of the South, a motorcycle shop, scored three contracts, worth $108 million, to provide FEMA with 6,416 trailers. Bourget’s owners are the father and uncle of the company’s registered agent, Democratic state representative Gary Smith, a member of the house’s Special Committee on Disaster Planning, Crisis Management, Recovery, and Long-Term Revitalization.
Further demonstrating that politics, if nothing else, has returned to normal here, the Democratic house rejected Republican state representative Walter Boasso’s proposal to merge the east Jefferson, Orleans, St. Bernard, and St. Tammany parish levee boards. These conflicting authorities complicated decisions and inspired such deadly absurdities as a pumping station where a concrete wall abutted a much shorter earthen levee. Three different government bodies controlled the site, and, as the National Science Foundation concluded, “It was not clear which agency had responsibility for what.” Katrina failed to ask, and instead forced storm water over the lower levee, compromising both structures.
As a preliminary report to the U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee observed more clinically:
Many of the breaches of the levee system in this region could be attributed to one or more “transition” problems characterized by different wall types, material types or adjacent levee crest elevations, or combinations of the above. Transitional issues also occurred where levees crossed from one jurisdiction to another.
State representatives endorsed this arrangement. Boasso’s reforms failed on November 20, by a margin of 51 to 38.
Levees nonetheless will stay newsworthy thanks to the FBI’s and Louisiana attorney general’s criminal probes. Sonar tests reveal that the ruptured London Avenue floodwalls reached 10 feet below sea level, not 26, as engineers recommended. The 17th Street Canal sinks 10 feet below sea level, not 17, as the Corps claimed, nor 18.5 to match the canal’s depth. Researchers suspect inadequate construction undermined the levees, but “there may have been some malfeasance,” U.C. Berkeley engineering professor Raymond Seed told a U.S. Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing on November 2.
For its part, the Orleans Levee Board (OLB) stayed busy managing an airport, marinas, and the lease on the Belle of Orleans casino. “We protect against hurricanes, floods, and boredom,” an OLB brochure once promised.
While some call these activities important, state-mandated revenue streams, the OLB clearly drifted far from its knitting. As former board member Peggy Wilson said in the November 25 Wall Street Journal: “We never talked about levees.”
According to itineraries the Times-Picayune analyzed November 25, the OLB’s, Corps of Engineers’, and state Transportation Department’s formal 2003 and 2004 inspections of the 101 miles of hurricane barriers were slapdash, half-day affairs. Examiners spent about five hours eyeballing several structures, skipped the doomed 17th Street and London Avenue canals (partially to protect the privacy of then-adjacent, now-homeless, property owners), broke for lunch, and then split.
“The biggest problem that we have in New Orleans is we think [corruption] is fun and games. We think that that’s acceptable behavior,” laments Jim Monaghan Jr., proprietor of Molly’s at the Market, a famous New Orleans saloon that kept regular hours (10 a.m. to 6 a.m.) throughout the entire Katrina crisis. A “major concern is that when the money is allocated to come down here, that it’s not stolen,” Monaghan adds. “That’s the story that the nation should be watching–how these politicians figure out . . . the proper thing to do, not for themselves, and not just for connected constituents, but for everybody.”
Like Monaghan, Americans expect that billions of their hard-earned tax dollars not stick to the fingers of crooks, cronies, and knuckleheads.
If it can manage this, this ever-alluring locale should get the help it deserves to restore its former glory. If not, America’s easily distracted Congress and citizens will wish it well and await a postcard once things are fixed.
–Deroy Murdock is a New York-based columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a senior fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation.