On the night of Aug. 5, as residents of Mid-City, Lakeview and other neighborhoods grappled with the unexpected flooding of their homes and cars, Mayor Mitch Landrieu was in the Colorado Rockies at a dinner sponsored by the prestigious Aspen Institute to honor two high-profile lawyers.
The next evening, Landrieu participated in a panel with a congressman from Massachusetts and a senator from Alaska before the high-powered Aspen Strategy Group, chaired by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The mayor’s decision to remove four Jim Crow-era monuments in New Orleans this year put him in high demand nationally and won him widespread praise among progressives, fueling speculation that he is positioning himself to seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2020.
By the time Landrieu returned to New Orleans, on Monday, Aug. 7, however, many of his constituents were furious — not only over the flooding, but also because Sewerage & Water Board officials were now admitting that numerous pumps had been inoperative, which they had earlier denied.
The resulting mess is easily the biggest political crisis Landrieu has faced in his seven-plus years as mayor.
“He was caught flat-footed,” said Oliver Thomas, a former City Council member who hosts a daily radio show on WBOK-AM, which caters to an African-American audience. “He has prided himself on controlling the message, controlling the narrative and everybody speaking with one voice. What we heard was a lot of voices, and you didn’t hear his voice at all. He wasn’t here. He lost control of the message.”
Since his return, Landrieu has shifted into characteristic overdrive, seeking to fix the problems and regain control of the political narrative. He has demanded accurate information from the S&WB, fired four high-ranking officials and pushed for a speedy repair of malfunctioning pumps, broken power turbines and clogged catch basins.
He has held more than a dozen press conferences, nearly one a day, including one at 3 a.m. when a fire knocked out the only then-working turbine dedicated to powering drainage pumps. City workers have since repaired that turbine.
Pumping stations serving the two New Orleans neighborhoods hit hardest by Saturday's flood w…
LATEST: Turbine repair successful, but New Orleans still at high risk without more fixes
What will take more time to repair is Landrieu’s reputation — in particular, amid the fumbling response, his reputation for delivering competence.
'A full-blown catastrophe'
Reputations are often made and ruined in crises. Several prominent elected officials — President George W. Bush, Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard, to name a few — all suffered lasting political damage from their perceived mishandling of Hurricane Katrina.
This month’s flooding has put Landrieu on the political defensive at a time when he would otherwise be taking a valedictory lap, boasting of straightening out the city’s finances, touting his other accomplishments in office and preparing to play a central role in events next year celebrating the city’s 300th birthday.
“Everywhere I go, people are talking about the Sewerage & Water Board, the flooding and the mayor’s role,” said Jeff Crouere, who hosts a daily radio show on WGSO-AM aimed at conservatives and who lost a 1995 state House race to Landrieu.
“Now he has a full-blown catastrophe on his hands that he needs to manage. He’s trying to engage in damage control to restore his reputation and get a handle on the situation. For some people, he’ll never be able to make up for what happened.”
Landrieu declined to be interviewed for this story. At a news conference on Thursday, he batted away the suggestion that he is sailing into the stiffest headwinds he has faced as mayor.
“This is another crisis,” he said. “It seems like for the past 7½ years we have been in crisis. It’s part of what is necessary to turn this city around, and we’ll do our responsibility as we always have.”
He lamented that he happened to be out of Louisiana at the time of the heavy rainstorm — some 9 inches in four hours in the hardest-hit part of town.
“I got back here as soon as I thought practically possible given the circumstances that I had,” he said. “I pride myself on being on the ground and hands-on. Had I been given the information that I needed, I certainly wish I had been on the ground when it happened.”
'I know what to do'
At the heart of the fallout from the flooding and the post-flooding revelations about the dysfunction at the S&WB — a quasi-autonomous agency that has its own board of directors — is the fact that Landrieu, as mayor, serves as its president.
For many, this undercuts a central theme of his administration — that he is a good manager who has things under control. In his 2010 election campaign, he told voters repeatedly: “I know what to do, and I know how to do it.”
If so, many are asking today, why wasn’t the S&WB better prepared to do its job?
In recent days, Landrieu has said that top S&WB officials did not inform him that so many pumps and power turbines were broken.
As the rain fell on Aug. 5 and floodwaters began to rise, the city’s Emergency Operations Ce…
“If he didn’t know about the pumping stations, shame on him,” said Pauline Patterson, who with her husband owns Treo, a Tulane Avenue bar that nearly flooded on Aug. 5. “And if he did know, he should have let the public know.”
Some 675 households have filed valid insurance claims with the National Flood Insurance Program since this month's flood.
One of the candidates running for mayor, Troy Henry, has called on Landrieu to resign as president of the S&WB. Henry, who finished a distant second to Landrieu in the 2010 mayor’s race, claims credibility on the issue because he previously oversaw municipal water systems for Atlanta and other cities when he was an executive at New Jersey-based United Water. He also ran the power systems at Enron Energy Services.
“You hire the wrong people, put the wrong people in place on the board, and then you act as if you didn’t know when you should have known,” Henry said, referring to Landrieu. “A good executive would have known.”
To be sure, the mayor has his defenders.
“It’s not like he denied there was a problem, at all,” said famed national Democratic political strategist James Carville, who lives Uptown and is close to Landrieu. “It’s fair to say that the people he appointed didn’t do their job. He fired them, which is taking ownership of it. A good part of the criticism is related to other issues that they’re unhappy about.”
Carville wouldn’t specify the “other issues,” but Landrieu’s decision to take down the Battle of Liberty Place monument and statues of three Confederate heroes, culminating with the removal of Gen. Robert E. Lee's statue from Lee Circle, angered numerous white New Orleanians, especially older ones.
Fuel for criticism
The flooding crisis gave those critics fuel for their complaints that the mayor's priorities have been misplaced. Regardless of whether that's true, the drainage snafu is likely to force the mayor to change his plans in the coming weeks and perhaps months.
“It’s not something a mayor wants to have in their last year of office,” said Ron Faucheux, a former state representative and 1982 mayoral candidate who has become a nationally known pollster. “It’s a negative thing that focuses on management, competence and a problem that maybe was fixable earlier with the right management and supervision. In the last six to eight months in office, you want to tie up the loose ends and say you’re leaving the city in better shape than you found it.”
With his tenure winding down, the mayor has positioned himself to devote more and more time to activities outside of New Orleans.
People close to him have said that Landrieu, 57, wants to seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2020, a long-shot bid but one that would give him a forum to be a major political player and perhaps win a high-level position in the next Democratic administration.
In May, he became president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a one-year stint that makes him a national spokesman for the nation's mayors on the Trump administration and Congress.
On Thursday, Landrieu pledged that straightening out the flood system “won’t get in the way of any of my outside duties. I will not go outside of the state and the city while we’re in this current crisis.”
Landrieu has canceled planned trips to Washington and New York City, according to Tyronne Walker, the mayor’s communications director.
Landrieu will participate in the Conference of Mayors’ winter meeting in Washington in December, Walker wrote in an email. “Additionally, USCM staff and leadership will organize events in the fall around infrastructure, tax reform and opioids.”
One person who can relate to Landrieu’s current situation is Aaron Broussard. What happened to him in the aftermath of Katrina could prove instructive about what’s ahead for the mayor.
As parish president, Broussard followed the existing emergency plan in Jefferson Parish, ordering pump operators to evacuate before the storm because the parish couldn’t provide a safe operating place for them in the case of high water. Many residents blamed him for the massive flooding that resulted, though a lawsuit in 2016 absolved him of liability.
“When you are the head of government and there is an act of God, and there is human error intertwined, then the full impact of the outcome of that tragedy is attributed to a face who is considered to be the cause of human error,” Broussard said. “I took on the slings and arrows of that criticism. I did not scapegoat anyone.”
He won re-election in 2007. But the margin — 52 percent to 41 percent — was much closer than expected against a little-known opponent, and was a sign of Broussard's fallen fortunes.
“The race ended up as Me versus Not Me, and Not Me almost won,” said Broussard, who later went to prison for an unrelated scandal.
The term-limited Landrieu will not face the voters again in New Orleans, at least not as a candidate for mayor.
Staff writer Jeff Adelson contributed to this article.
The article has been corrected to note the correct year for Ron Faucheux' mayoral run, 1982.