With less than a year left in his final term, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu is in the midst of making a long closing statement.
The advent of a new election generally signals the start of an incumbent's lame-duckhood, and Landrieu's facing an unusually long stretch, what with a schedule change that puts the election to replace him nearly six months ahead of the end of the term in May. So, he's got plenty of time to talk about what he's accomplished and to urge his successor, whoever that might be, to stay the course.
That was the plan, anyway.
If the takeaway Landrieu hoped to impart to his constituents and the outside world was that New Orleans is on solid footing, well, this week's events have complicated things.
Saturday's surprise flash flood probably would have overwhelmed the city's pumping system even if it had been working at full capacity. As officials have said over and over, no system could have cleared five to nine inches of rain over just a few hours, certainly not without an impossible increase in investment.
The number of pumps that were out of service in Saturday's flooding was 16, not 14 as previo…
But that was little comfort to residents who later learned that capacity was reduced by both maintenance on 16 of 121 pumps and power generation problems, a reality that only came to light once Sewerage & Water Board executive director Cedric Grant, a longtime fixture in City Hall and a top lieutenant to the mayor, admitted as much in a Tuesday statement announcing his resignation.
Grant wrote that staff members had not been "forthright" with him, that he understood that the agency had lost the public's confidence, and that he'd leave his post at the end of hurricane season "rather than be a distraction to the hard work of fixing the system."
And indeed, residents saw the problem firsthand at a special Tuesday City Council meeting, where the board's general superintendent Joe Becker just couldn't seem to produce a straight answer to a straight question. Councilman James Gray tried to get at what happened at a pump station serving Lakeview from several angles, and he even asked Becker for help in rephrasing his questions in order to get the information he obviously sought. It was still an ordeal to get Becker to specify that the station's pumps for a time dropped to 52 percent of capacity.
"I thought we were on a witch hunt," a disgusted Gray said, "but we have found witches." Even before the meeting ended, Landrieu said Becker and S&WB Communications Director Lisa Martin would lose their jobs, along with city Public Works Director Mark Jernigan.
The fallout from last weekend's New Orleans flash flood continued Thursday.
The next night came word that, with three of five turbines powering east bank pumps already sidelined, one of the remaining two had caught fire. The city did a better job of communicating this time around, issuing an alert to cellphone subscribers at just after 3 a.m. and scheduling several press briefings.
But if the information flow improved, the underlying news wasn't reassuring. Landrieu said that the system should work if nothing went wrong and that it should be able to handle an inch of rain, anyway. But he also admitted that there was no backup and set out with the state's help to secure generators, which kind of makes you wonder why they weren't in place to begin with.
With rain in the forecast, schools shut down and the city recommended that people move their cars to higher ground, all "in an abundance of caution," the mayor said. Landrieu said the damaged turbine might be up by Thursday afternoon, but added that he'd believe it when he saw it. He then announced that he'd look to hire a temporary private management company to help set things right with the water board.
Much of New Orleans is at high risk of flooding during the next 24 to 48 hours because a fire overnight damaged the power source that runs most of the city’s pumps, Mayor Mitch Landrieu said early Thursday.
None of this comports with the impression Landrieu is hoping to leave behind, that he has lived up to his campaign vow that "I know what to do and I know how to do it." And to be clear, he has indeed improved city functions in numerous ways and deserves credit for leaving City Hall far more functional than how he found it.
Still, when your brand is based on good management and your message to the world is that New Orleans is open for business, a week full of news like this is bound to be a black eye.