Voter confidence in the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board has plummeted in the wake of the Aug. 5 flooding, a crisis that exposed gaping holes in the city's drainage system.
The agency's bungled response, which infuriated many residents, has dominated political discourse in recent weeks and become a major topic in the Oct. 14 municipal elections.
But only 16 percent of the electorate places the blame for the debacle solely on Mayor Mitch Landrieu, even though Landrieu is president of the water board and appoints its members, according to a new poll conducted for The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV.
About 51 percent of respondents said the Sewerage & Water Board was responsible for the flooding, and a whopping 82 percent said they disapprove of the agency's performance.
Every time it rains in New Orleans these days, residents wince.
Six percent of voters blamed the City Council, while 24 percent pointed the finger collectively at the mayor, the council and the S&WB.
"What Landrieu did in terms of handling the issue was a remarkable example of political jiu-jitsu," said Ron Faucheux, president of the Clarus Research Group, which conducted the poll for the news organizations.
"There are still a lot of voters who do blame him for it, and there are a lot of voters who certainly think less of him now than they did before," Faucheux added. "But generally speaking, I think he was effective in making the Sewerage & Water Board, as an entity, the target of blame as opposed to himself personally."
Faucheux's firm interviewed 500 likely voters in New Orleans last week. The poll has a margin of error of 4.3 percentage points
The August deluge flooded scores of properties in Lakeview, Mid-City and other neighborhoods, as up to nine inches of rain fell within four hours in the hardest-hit parts of town. S&WB officials ultimately admitted that numerous drainage pumps had been inoperative during the flood for various reasons, a reversal of their initial claim that all the pumps were working.
On the night of the flooding, Landrieu was in the Colorado Rockies attending a dinner sponsored by the prestigious Aspen Institute. When he returned two days later, he faced perhaps the biggest crisis of his tenure as mayor and took swift action, firing or forcing out four high-ranking officials, demanding information from the S&WB and pushing for the repair of the malfunctioning pumps.
Voters were less forgiving when asked to weigh in on Landrieu's "handling of the recent flooding and drainage pump issue," with 53 percent of respondents saying they disapproved.
"The city administration and Sewerage & Water Board itself has a lot of work to do to get back the public's confidence because they're in a really deep hole right now," Faucheux said. "We've never seen anything like this."
The poll also found that a narrow majority of voters supported Landrieu's recent push to remove several Confederate monuments. Landrieu won high praise nationally for his support of the statues' removal, prompting speculation in some political circles that he might decide to run for president in 2020.
If there had been a public vote on the issue, 51 percent of voters said they would have voted to remove the Jim Crow-era statues, while 34 percent would have voted against their removal. Some 66 percent of black respondents favored removing the statutes compared with 34 percent of white voters.
"It's a bitter issue," Faucheux said. "But I get the feeling, after doing surveys and looking at this, that voters in the city really want to put that battle and those divisions behind them and move forward."