To overgeneralize just slightly, you could call 2017 the year when things came tumbling down.
Stick with us here: the city’s Confederate monuments, the reputation of the Sewerage & Water Board (never perfect, but still), Desiree Charbonnet’s mayoral campaign, First NBC Bank, State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson, a whole swath of homes and business in the path of a tornado in New Orleans East, and — at least in prospect — the last set of working wharves standing between the Mississippi River and the French Quarter.
Much was knocked from its perch in the past 12 months.
And yet 2017 also brought us one stirring example of someone who got back up again — when a beaming Steve Scalise, aided by a pair of crutches but defiantly upright, made his way onto the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time since a gunman with a high-powered rifle nearly killed him.
Two stubborn thematic outliers also made The New Orleans Advocate’s cut of the year’s top 10 local stories.
First, it was a landmark year in Jefferson Parish politics: Newell Normand unexpectedly stepped down as sheriff without having to be shoved, while Parish President Mike Yenni actually bucked the overall trend in managing to weather a recall effort.
And finally, Fats Domino passed away at age 89 but will of course never tumble from the pantheon of New Orleans musical greats.
1. Last stand for the ‘lost cause’
Until they finally came down in May, a stone obelisk and statues of two Confederate generals and the president of the Confederacy held the rapt attention of a public divided over what to do with them. Two years of legal maneuvering on the question finally came to an end. And Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration finally found some contractors willing to take on the job of removing them despite threats of violence. After weeks of rumors, a crew of men with their faces covered arrived in the middle of the night to haul off the obelisk honoring the so-called Battle of Liberty Place, an uprising against Louisiana’s biracial Reconstruction-era government. The demonstrations that followed near the monuments to Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and P.G.T. Beauregard were tense, noisy and sometimes bizarre, but at least without casualties. And as Lee was being plucked from his lofty column a few blocks away, Landrieu delivered a speech at Gallier Hall that would immediately vault him into the national discussion on race and history, where he remains even now as a subject of speculation in the 2020 presidential contest.
2. ‘Full capacity’
You can bet Cedric Grant regrets using that phrase. With scores or hundreds of homes and businesses underwater after a heavy August rainstorm, the head of the S&WB insisted to reporters that the city’s drainage pumps had been operating at full capacity during the deluge. A few days later, one of his top staffers sat in front of the City Council trying to explain that “full capacity” actually meant something like 60 percent or so at some critical pumping stations. Suddenly, in the middle of hurricane season, everyone realized that lack of maintenance for aging pumps and power turbines had left the city vulnerable. Landrieu, pleading ignorance, pushed out Grant and his top deputies and installed a team of emergency managers who are still trying to get their hands around a backlog of repairs that will likely cause headaches well into 2018 and beyond.
Which brings us to the woman who will inherit those headaches: LaToya Cantrell, the first woman elected mayor of New Orleans. This year’s election was an odd one. Figures who attracted much attention before qualifying — Karen Carter Peterson, Kenneth Polite, Walt Leger, Sidney Torres — never took the plunge. Instead, it was a low-profile Municipal Court judge, Desiree Charbonnet, who leaped to the front of the pack with the longest list of endorsements and the biggest war chest. But she attracted a volley of negative advertising, paid for by wealthy donors who mistrusted some of her backers. And City Councilwoman Cantrell proved a formidable candidate despite a dust-up over whether she had misused her city-issued credit card. She won in a landslide, but with the state attorney general still looking into her credit-card spending, she may already have more headaches ahead than just those pumps.
4. Steve Scalise
One of the most rattling events for New Orleans this year took place hundreds of miles away, on a softball diamond outside Washington, D.C., where the Metairie Republican who has risen to the No. 3 post in the U.S. House was shot through the hip by a man from Illinois wielding a rifle and a handgun. Scalise underwent a series of harrowing operations to save his life. And as he convalesced, New Orleans did what it does best — cooked for him, with local chefs packing off meals of shrimp remoulade, oysters and po-boys to speed his recovery.
5. $1 billion
New Orleans also grabbed the distinction this year of being home to the nation's largest bank failure since the end of the financial crisis in 2010. It turned out First NBC Bank had been dealing in some particularly risky loans. The bank was seized and its assets sold; the bank’s founder and CEO, Ashton Ryan Jr., came in for a tongue-lashing from federal regulators over poor lending standards. And the fallout seems likely to continue, with projects all over the city having stalled for lack of financing thanks to First NBC’s collapse.
6. State Police scandal
Someone else who saw his stock fall this year is Mike Edmonson. The State Police superintendent stepped down under a cloud, and a state audit said he took advantage of a range of cushy perks — having troopers chauffeur his wife around and living rent-free in a state-owned house. Edmonson has yet to respond to the allegations in full but has said he wants an investigation into how The Advocate got hold of the audit before its official release.
7. New Orleans East tornado
The folks in New Orleans East, meanwhile, did nothing to deserve what came down on them out of the blue in February: the most powerful tornado ever to strike the city. Months later, residents like Derrick Berkley, who rode the twister out wedged under his kitchen sink, were still struggling to put their homes back together. Not everyone had enough homeowners insurance to rebuild fully. “I’m missing a lot of my neighbors,” Berkley told The Advocate five months after the disaster.
8. Jefferson Parish
Mike Yenni, having refused to resign as Jefferson Parish president after revelations that he had sent sexually explicit text messages to a teenage boy, managed to hold onto his job this year. The people leading a recall effort finally acknowledged they hadn’t collected nearly enough signatures to force a vote — and then that they had lost a lot of them to a thief. Instead, it was Sheriff Newell Normand who left office, shocking local political circles with the announcement that he was taking his talents and his opinions to the airwaves as a radio talk show host. An election to pick his successor is scheduled for 2018.
9. The big swap
City officials worked out a blockbuster deal this year that will transform another stretch of the riverfront. The Port of New Orleans agreed to take over the publicly owned railroad that skirts the city in exchange for giving up a pair of French Quarter wharves that officials plan to turn into more park space. Should be prime seating for fireworks.
10. Fats Domino
Media first reported — erroneously as it turned out — that Fats Domino had died in 2005, shortly after the floodwall ruptured near his home in the Lower 9th Ward. The pioneering rock 'n' roller achieved fame and fortune but declined to leave his old neighborhood until after it had been destroyed. RIP.