When the summer of 2016 dawned, Kip Holden was almost done.
The three-term Baton Rouge mayor-president was closing out his 12-year tenure with plenty to show for it, including a revived downtown, some notable infrastructure improvements, and a victory over the St. George breakaway movement. There was more to do, as there always is. Traffic continued to clog the city, and North Baton Rouge still struggled. But overall, he was on track to be considered a success.
Then came a series of events so horrific that it felt almost biblical. Alton Sterling was killed in a showdown with police, which set off tense protests. Less than two weeks later on a quiet Sunday morning, a lone gunman ambushed area law enforcement officers, killing three and injuring three more. And then the already on-edge city was hit by a catastrophic flood.
More than a fifth of all jobs within the embattled Sewerage & Water Board this year have…
Through it all, Holden often came off more like a bystander than leader. And his strange passiveness became the final chapter in an otherwise pretty positive story.
A year has passed, and down in New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu is now at the same stage in his own eight-year tenure. He's not as close to leaving office as Holden was this time in 2016, only because of a quirk in the election calendar that will keep him in office until some six months after voters pick his replacement.
As the extent of the problems with the drainage pumps at various stations was coming into fo…
But like Holden, Landrieu entered his final summer in winding-down mode, with his legacy seemingly set. Landrieu too was positioned to be remembered as a successful mayor, one who stabilized the city's financial picture, professionalized management, attracted investment and presided over the long, hard but ultimately impressive recovery from Hurricane Katrina. As with Baton Rouge, not everything was fixed; crime remained a worry, and the fruits of the city's success were not evenly spread. But overall, Landrieu too seemed poised to go down as one the city's best leaders.
If rain clouds hadn't stubbornly settled over New Orleans on Aug. 5, none of that would have changed. Landrieu would still be doing what he was doing before then, shifting his attention to larger matters as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and a potential national figure in his own right. In a parallel universe, he'd likely be making the cable news circuit right now, talking about New Orleans' decision to remove three Confederate monuments and a memorial to a white supremacist uprising, now that the deadly Charlottesville white nationalist demonstration has put the prospect of keeping these monuments on display front and center.
Instead, Landrieu's in full damage control mode. The rainstorm, and the flooding that ensued, was bad but not nearly as widespread or destructive as previous New Orleans rainfalls, or the floods that hit Baton Rouge and surrounding areas last year.
It's what the flood revealed that has the potential to do lasting damage. The city's ancient, elaborate system to pump out water was hobbling at partial capacity, something residents didn't realize and even Landrieu, who presides over the Sewerage & Water Board as president, says he hadn't been told. As facts slowly and painfully emerged, we learned the system was badly understaffed and possibly not at all up to the task of removing water from city streets. When an electrical fire hit one of the system's few functioning turbines, officials were so nervous they canceled school and warned residents to move their cars to higher ground.
Landrieu was out of town when the flood hit, but he's been all over the situation since, and no wonder.
He fired the board's top managers and is now communicating regularly about the system's status, which are the easiest things to do under the circumstances. Far more challenging is the task that will now likely dominate the rest of his time in office, fixing what ails the agency and restoring shaky resident confidence that threatens to undermine his administration's entire reputation.
The flood that hit New Orleans isn't the last word on Landrieu. What he does about it will be. And unlike Holden, he's acting like a man who knows it.
Email Stephanie Grace at firstname.lastname@example.org.