11/11/2005 02:36 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Goin' Back to New Orleans, Part Six

I've spent the greater part of this week taking you along on my first visit back to my adopted hometown since Katrina, telling you what I saw and heard, smelled and felt--though some of you who commented didn't seem to quite grasp the concept. Now, back out of the zip code where the magic words are "FEMA check" and the most important guy is the insurance adjuster, it's time to tell you what I think.
First, one final observation: on the rental car shuttle bus to the airport terminal, two men, one white and one black, were discussing The Situation (not Tucker Carlson's show on MSNBC by that name). One of the men said that the law of unintended consequences was being fully enforced in Mississippi, where the Red Cross was now giving everyone a substantial check, whether or not they showed any particular need. The result, he said: a lot of people weren't showing up for work, and local businesses were taking another hit. I have no idea if any of this is true or not, but it illustrates one widespread freeling that a lot of people in New Orleans seems to share: More than two months after Katrina hit and the floodwalls breached, this situation remains out of control. People are dealing with their own problems--the roof, the fridge, the adjuster, the city--but they seem to have a vague or not-so-vague unease about where this is all heading. No one is doing a credible leadership act.
My theory is that, as in all organizations and many crises, had strong, effective, smart leadership been shown at the top--in this case, at the Federal level--it would have encouraged, energized or, at worst, shamed the state and local folks into a similarly useful effort. In lieu of anything good coming from the Feds, the Louisianans reverted to infighting--the Mayor with the Governor, the City Council with the Mayor, the rest of the state with New Orleans. The legislature diverted much of the money in a $45 million appropriation to people-pleasing pork projects in areas untouched by storm damage. People in New Orleans are looking across the state line with a certain amount of envy: Mississippi got two special sessions going before Louisiana had any. Of course, given what happens in Baton Rouge when the legislators gather (see above), that may be a blessing.
But forget conservatives--this has been a failure of government on all levels that would make libertarians crow. Despite the Mayor’s town meetings, New Orleanians seem to share a feeling that crucial decisions about the city’s future are being made behind closed doors, by people who don’t have the best interest of a very unique city at heart. And many New Orleanians were enraged this week when
Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Bridge to Nowhere) asked a couple showing him their ruined Lakeview home, in effect, why would you want to rebuild? A city that maintained a sublimely sophisticated culture, musical and culinary, literary and artistic, high-falutin and utterly street, for its size can’t possibly maintain that culture at a tenth of that size.
So, what to do? I think we need an independent Katrina Commission to follow up the invaluable preliminary work by the LSU Hurricane Center, National Science Foundation and American Society of Civil Engineers on what caused the flooding, and to document in detail that will be painful to all office-holders the problems in responding to the disaster. More immediately, I think private companies which do well marketing on a slice of the New Orleans llifestyle--you know which ones I mean--could use their experience and contacts in constructing temporary VIP facilities to get temp housing into the city for the workers who want to come back and take some of those jobs that appear to be going begging. By the time FEMA trailers arrive in sufficient quantity, it’s going to be next hurricane season.
I’ll be going back for Thanksgiving week. I might take you all along.