This article was published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the Sept. 17, 2012 edition.
Red-and-green traffic lights in New Orleans and nearby Jefferson Parish were mended within two weeks after Hurricane Isaac pushed up the city's West Bank on August 29. Stop signs are still being repaired, however, and streetlights illuminating roads will take longer to fix. Newly damaged streetlights have added to a big backlog that Mayor Mitch Landrieu had hoped to have fully working by year's end. The city's streetlights are still recovering from Katrina seven years ago.
Last week, Mayor Landrieu, Senator Mary Landrieu and U.S. Representative Cedric Richmond announced that the city, along with the state's Office of Emergency Preparedness, had been awarded $27.3 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA grants for costs associated with Issac. Of that, $6 million is to repair traffic signals, replace signs, restore damaged streetlights and clear street drains in New Orleans.
Dozens of the city's Dept. of Public Works employees last week lifted fallen traffic signals and streetlights, repaired signs, cleaned catch basins and made temporary street repairs. At 247 intersections, red-and-green traffic lights damaged by the storm were fully or temporarily fixed, the City said. Repairs to stop, one-way, turn and yield signs were given priority over street-name signs.
By early last week, workers had raised more than a hundred knocked-down or leaning streetlights. But City Hall estimated it would take three weeks to fully assess Isaac's damage to streetlights. Ryan Berni, spokesman for Mayor Landrieu, said:
"Hurricane Isaac has likely impacted the plan to have every streetlight repaired by year-end. Our team is still working to assess the storm's total damage, and we were working to reduce a backlog of nearly 7,000 streetlights before Isaac hit."
If your block in New Orleans feels spooky at night, you're not alone. Nearly 13 percent of the city's 54,400 streetlights aren't working though it's not for lack of trying. Mayor Landrieu's administration has fixed more than 16,000 streetlights since taking office but lights keep burning out or breaking. In May, the city announced plans to spend more than $9 million this year, including $8 million in one-time federal recovery funds, to get all streetlights working again.
On May 2, Cedric Grant, Deputy Mayor of Facilities and Infrastructure, said in a City Hall release "streetlight maintenance has remained a challenge due to the age, diversity and reliability of the city's system." Underground wiring was damaged by flooding from Katrina, making repairs expensive, he said.
City Council members last spring praised the plan to fix streetlights, and Jon Johnson, the District D Council member at the time, was expected to spearhead it within the council. Johnson, whose district included the Ninth Ward and New Orleans East, said in May, "we have heard from our constituents that the lack of proper lighting has deterred them or kept them from venturing out of their homes at night." Johnson has since resigned after pleading guilty to misusing FEMA dollars.
Last week, Jewel Carney, owner of New Orleans Safe Driving School on Tulane Ave. and a retired Greyhound Bus driver, said "since areas with broken streetlights are difficult to navigate at night, drivers in unfamiliar neighborhoods should take it very slowly after dark."
Anika Beasley, owner of Proficient Driving Academy LLC in New Orleans East, advised any residents who are visually impaired at night, including some of the elderly, to stay off the roads after sundown. But even drivers with good vision are challenged by dark city streets, with no visible curbs.
Meanwhile, after Isaac, some of the city's already bad drivers became even more reckless. Carney said he was out driving the day after Isaac passed west of town. "I saw several accidents, one serious, and they appeared to be related to signals and signs that were out," he said. "People were confused at intersections without signals. By law, they were supposed to come to a full stop but some drivers blew right through." He also saw motorists who were perplexed by a red light that was working but was upside down.
Mayor Landrieu said in a Sept. 1 briefing that 71 car accidents had been reported since Isaac's approach five days earlier.
Don Redman, Metairie-based AAA spokesman, said when a traffic signal isn't working, drivers must treat the intersection as an all-way stop. Motorists often don't use or recall what they learned in driver's education, he said.
Syed Kazmi, president of United Cab Inc. in New Orleans, said "we practice safety first, but with traffic signals out after Isaac our drivers had to be more cautious than ever." Kenner, home to Louis Armstrong International Airport, had lots of broken traffic lights, he noted.
Kazmi, who is known as "the Sheriff," said United's drivers did pretty well under the circumstances but added that all of the city's signs and streetlights need to be fixed. "We don't want our passengers -- our residents and our tourists -- to be frightened on the roads," he said.
According to Kenner Public Works on Thursday, all traffic signals were functioning again, but a number of signs remained down and some streetlights weren't working.
Anika Beasley said Isaac-related outages provided a learning lab for her driving school students. "They learned to come to a full stop at a broken traffic light and to proceed very cautiously when stop signs have been blown down," she said.
Locals need that training. Carney said, "as a former Greyhound driver, I've been in most cities in the United States, and New Orleans has the worst drivers I've ever seen. It's partly because the traffic laws, especially at stop signs and intersections, aren't strictly enforced."
Carney said accidents tend to increase right before a hurricane. "People who seldom drive and have cars that aren't highway-worthy hit the road," he said. And accidents occur after a storm because signals, signs and streetlights are out, and drivers aren't cautious enough. "If you're late, just be late because it doesn't pay to rush on the roads after a hurricane or at any time," he said.
To report a broken streetlight or fallen stop sign in New Orleans, dial 311, the City's Dept. of Public Works said.