Sunday, Aug. 29, 2010

How New Orleans is Cleaning Up Its Big Sleazy Reputation

Hurricane Katrina no doubt made us realize how much we'd mourn the loss of New Orleans — and losing it seemed a real possibility to me when I arrived there on a Marine helicopter after the storm hit on Aug. 29, 2005, and I found most of the city underwater. There are just a few places in this hemisphere that embody the New World's elegantly unruly culture. Rio de Janeiro is one, New Orleans another: jazz and jambalaya, it's our boisterous soul roaring from a wrought-iron balcony. It took a disaster as ugly as Katrina to make us appreciate the Big Easy's beauty.

But Katrina also reminded us that we're tired of seeing the Big Easy so chronically darkened by the Big Sleazy. In order to truly recover, New Orleans has to exorcise the civic corruption and carelessness that helped make it an even riper target for Katrina's devastation. Fortunately, five years later, the storm seems to have prodded most New Orleanians — who once found their city's crooked ethos so gumbo-spicy charming — to realize that jazz doesn't mean jobbery. "There has been no greater catalyst than Katrina for changing the corrupt culture here and people's tolerance for misconduct," says Rafael Goyeneche, a former prosecutor and head of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a New Orleans non-profit corruption watchdog.

It's little surprise that it took a blow as jarring as Katrina to alter the Crescent City's attitudes. Based on corruption convictions per capita between 1998 and 2007, Louisiana, whose largest city is New Orleans, ranks No.1 among states with populations over 1 million. Washington's shameful failures during Katrina were bad enough. But activists insist that local and state government rot helped worsen Katrina's effects as surely as flimsy levees and FEMA did. The appalling emergency evacuation response by the city and state is one example, as was the ineffectual maintenance and operation of water pumping stations — not to mention the shocking behavior of New Orleans police, many of whose members were recently indicted for alleged involvement in the murders of civilians during the storm and its aftermath. The condition of the levees themselves was compromised by a dysfunctional array of local boards that functioned more like venal fiefdoms.

A large part of the problem was an utter lack of citizen outrage. "New Orleans is one of the most rooted places in the U.S. — everybody lives next door to their mom," says Karen Gadbois, a respected local blogger and co-founder of another anti-corruption non-profit, The Lens. "But that comes with a curse: the head of that incompetent city department is your cousin, so there tends to be a higher level of forgiveness here than you'd see in many other places."

No more, says Goyeneche, whose organization often conveys anonymous reports about public fraud and embezzlement to state and federal investigators. "Since the storm, we've seen an explosion of information from citizens," he says. And, he adds, it's more reliable: "In the past we'd have a less than 20% meaningful-call ratio. Today it's more like 30%." One result: more top New Orleans-area officials on the take are getting ferreted out, like a St. Bernard Parish judge, Wayne Cresap, who was recently convicted in a bribery scheme that actually let inmates saunter out of jail without paying bond.

Another product of the new vigilance is watchdog bloggers like Gadbois. A textile designer in New Orleans' Carrollton section, she got her start after Katrina by questioning, and ultimately thwarting, the city's suspicious campaign to demolish perfectly habitable homes in her area. In 2008 she blew the whistle on the New Orleans Affordable Homeownership Corporation (NOAH), a post-Katrina project meant to return the poor and elderly from FEMA trailers to decent housing — but which, she said, was paying millions of dollars for housing that never got built or was going to people who were anything but poor or elderly.

When a local television channel, WWL-TV, broadcast her findings, then Mayor Ray Nagin lambasted her. This time, however, weary New Orleanians were on the side of the messenger, and the FBI is investigating NOAH. "Katrina finally turned around everyone's idea of what's acceptable," says Gadbois, 55. "The storm blew the doors off city hall."

The effects may help bring New Orleans into the 21st century — and help bring back more of its population of 455,000, about half of which was scattered across the country after Katrina and almost 80% of which has now returned. A 350-mile, $15 billion system of new and stronger levees is nearing completion, and it will be overseen now by a consolidated and more transparently managed levee board. Ditto with property tax duties, which voters decided to entrust this year to a single assessor instead of a feckless and shady seven-assessor set-up. And the Inspector General office, which was created years ago but whose operation has been hindered by mayors ever since, now looks set to roll under new Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal was also elected in 2007 in no small part because of his anti-corruption platform.

The Crescent City is getting its swagger back in other important ways, and not just because of the inspiring triumph of the New Orleans Saints' Who-Dat Nation in this year's Super Bowl. The city's $5 billion tourism industry is blaring like a Dixieland trumpet again. A charter school boom is raising once dismal education levels; and a recent court ruling that the federal government pay New Orleans $470 million to replace Katrina-ravaged Charity Hospital sets the stage for a multi-billion-dollar medical and biotech corridor. One big result: the city has finally regained its investment-grade bond rating.

Like flood mold left on the walls of a shotgun house, New Orleans' problems — including a 23% poverty rate, double the nation's level — remain hard to scour. But complacency no longer seems to be one of them. "The old mindset was that we liked our food spicy and our politicians equally so," says Goyeneche. "We're not laughing at that stuff anymore." Gadbois agrees: "The charm of dysfunction is much less amusing here than it used to be, especially when you consider the suffering it often led to." If New Orleanians can really purge the Big Sleazy, the Big Easy will look all that much more beautiful.