Rebuilding New Orleans: Nagin Overwhelmed, Blanco an Embarrassment

NEW ORLEANS — Mayor Ray Nagin’s proposal to make the New Orleans central business district a Las Vegas strip of giant gambling casinos explains the business community’s disappointment with elected officials reacting to Hurricane Katrina. Before revealing the idea, Nagin did not consult his own commission on rebuilding New Orleans. "It’s not going to happen," one commissioner told me, dismissing the mayor’s gambling scheme.

Nagin is described by business leaders as overwhelmed. His disorganization was reflected when neither the mayor nor his representative attended the first planning meeting last week for next year’s Mardi Gras, an event essential for reviving the city. Nagin at least is trying. Gov. Kathleen Blanco is seen as a total embarrassment. The state’s two senators, Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican David Vitter, are laughed at for begging open-ended multibillion-dollar expenditures. After a slow start, President Bush is intimately engaged. But out of 2,520 small business loan applications, only six have survived the Washington bureaucracy.

What business leaders want most is restored government services and police protection so that businesses can reopen. After that, they feel, the magic of commerce will do its work. Business also wants a property tax holiday to begin building a smaller, better New Orleans. That is a long way from the post-Katrina talk about a new nationwide war on poverty.

A short visit here reveals the scope of the problem. Only about 5 percent of the city’s 460,000 residents have returned or never left. The devastation is complete in the predominantly African-American Lower 9th Ward, 36 percent of whose residents live below the poverty level. Their houses, in poor condition before the floodwaters, are not worth replacing.

Nobody here takes seriously $250 billion proposed for disaster relief by Landrieu and Vitter. Rep. Richard Baker, a senior member of the House Financial Services Committee who represents Baton Rouge, told me that "we’re not just going to dump a lot of money on Louisiana." He proposes a Louisiana Recovery Corp. to acquire real estate, retire mortgages and restore bank solvency.

After the early chaos of looting, law and order has returned (including an enforced midnight curfew). Police are augmented by 2,500 National Guardsmen from around the country who man checkpoints monitoring the slim vehicular traffic into devastated areas.

But other government services are inadequate. Hundreds of refrigerators, filled with rotting food and posing a health hazard, remain uncollected on sidewalks. Electric power has not been restored fully, and many traffic lights do not work. There is no public transportation, and I did not see one taxi during two days in the city.

I stayed at the Soniat, a small French Quarter hotel that reopened the day before I registered. I saw no other guests and sometimes no staff present (I was given a key to let myself into the hotel’s front door). Management said all workers lost their homes, and most would have no place to go if they returned.

The expectation here is that New Orleans will downsize to a city of around 250,000. The Lower 9th Ward can only improve. A second gambling casino probably will be added to Harrah’s present monopoly, but there will be no replicating Las Vegas. Developer Jimmy Riess, a member of the mayor’s commission, calls New Orleans public schools the worst in the country and wants them totally reformed. Educational philanthropist Eli Broad is helping establish a landmark charter school system here.

So many poor black people are expected never to return to New Orleans that the Rev. Jesse Jackson claims a sinister plot by Bush adviser Karl Rove to send African-American voters into "perpetual exile." More than the poor are leaving forever. Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse is moving its permanent corporate headquarters to Orlando, Fla., and New Orleans may never again see its Saints football team.

But the real story concerns those who are staying. John Besh, owner of Restaurant August and the hottest young chef in town, has turned down offers from New York and Florida to stay. He sees a New Orleans rebuilt by the people who live here, not by the politicians who make the headlines and hog the television cameras.