Old habits can still kill New Orleans

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 policy makers 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 Pelican State native Fred Smith, president of the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute.

In that spirit, St. Tammany Parish councilman Joe Impastato was arrested in a Nov. 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 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.

“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’s Gordon Russell wrote. “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 6,416 trailers. Bourget’s owners are the father and uncle of the company’s registered agent, state Rep. Gary Smith, a member of the House 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 Rep. Walter Boasso’s proposal to merge the east Jefferson, Orleans, St. Bernard, and St. Tammany parish levee boards.

These conflicting jurisdictions 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.

Boasso’s reforms failed by a vote of 51-38.

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,” University of California engineering professor Raymond Seed told a U.S. Senate hearing on Nov. 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 read.

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 Nov. 25 Wall Street Journal: “We never talked about levees.”

According to itineraries the Times-Picayune analyzed, 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, homeowners), broke for lunch, and then split.

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 citizenry will wish it well and await a postcard once things are fixed.

As one of New Orleans’ biggest fans, even I cannot escape this conclusion: It’s up to you, New Orleans.

(Deroy Murdock is a columnist with Scripps Howard News Service and a senior fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in Fairfax, Va. E-mail him at deroy.murdock(at)gmail.com.)