Tuesday, Apr 24, 2018
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Op-Ed Columns

Forget hype: New Orleans is a mess

NEW ORLEANS - My younger brother recently visited me from Toledo, and I gave him an extensive tour of the hurricane damage in this city.

Almost two years after Katrina howled through the Gulf South, piles of rubble lay everywhere, weeds grew in tangled jungles, and entire streets of destroyed homes made his jaw go slack in disbelief.

"Up North," David finally told me, "this would have been fixed by now."

That wasn't just regional pride speaking - he was right. There are good reasons for the dismal progress, including the shortage in the Deep South of skilled workers. New Orleans is home to plenty of excellent musicians and street performers, but roofers, carpenters, and electricians are scarce as hen's teeth.

That said, there's another reason why many sections of this city still look like World War II Dresden, and no doubt Toledoans will scoff when I suggest it: Up North government works (albeit imperfectly) while here it is a colossal and dismal failure.

Laugh, if you want, but thank your lucky stars for northern politicians. I was born in Toledo and visit regularly, and I've heard the complaints about Mayor Finkbeiner. I also rode down West Alexis Road in May of 2005 and saw more asphalt repairs than I did concrete paving. The Glass City seems more neglected than I remember it being, but in New Orleans the worst street in Toledo would seem like the Champs-Elysees, and that was true before Katrina.

There's cronyism up North, but it's barely a nuisance compared to the culture of corruption down here. Louisiana politicians would steal a hot stove and come back for the smoke.

If the good folks of Toledo had them in charge for even one month, they would double Mr. Finkbeiner's salary and nominate him for sainthood.

As I mentioned, government is not much worse since Katrina than it was before she devastated the Big Easy.

Dead dogs still lay rotting for months until disgusted residents haul them away; traffic lights at major intersections malfunction for weeks, turning uptown streets into demolition derbies; members of the levee boards spend more time in French Quarter eateries than they do inspecting levees, and there have always been more blighted properties than there are buckeyes in Ohio.

Most New Orleanians wouldn't deny these claims, but who needs good government if you have good gumbo?

Many don't want change because the Huey "Kingfish" Long tradition of corruption at every level of government is more colorful and exciting. Laissez les bon temps rouler - "Let the good times roll." After all, would the Sopranos have captivated America if Tony was an upstanding high-school principal who coached Little League?

This "colorful graft," however, can destroy lives just as surely as Katrina did, and the state-supervised Road Home program is a case in point.

Funded by the American taxpayers, this well-intended program is designed to compensate hurricane and flood victims who lost homes by either buying the houses or giving grants to repair them. But when the program bogged down, mired in forms and meetings, frustrated citizens and media complained bitterly at the slow pace.

In response, Road Home did not cut the paperwork or otherwise streamline the process. Instead, in true Kingfish style, they announced they had eliminated the title-search requirement. In other words, applicants claiming they own a house do not have to prove they own it or verify any other names on the title. Road Home admits this has caused fraud, but since they get paid for closing deals, not policing them, they are in essence abetting thieves.

So count your blessings, Toledo. You may get unfairly dissed on M*A*S*H, but when's the last time your congressman got caught with $90,000 in "cold cash" in his freezer? Is the most popular Ohio governor of the 20th century cooling his heels in prison like former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards? Frankly, I'd trade Mardi Gras for reasonably honest government any day, but the locals would ship me back to Toledo wearing one of those suits with no back in it.

I'm not making light of the extensive suffering in New Orleans. Nobody was spared by the great flood, myself included, and every empty, gutted-out house means the family that once lived there has been uprooted from their lives and has to start over. But sadly, government itself hasn't "started over," and the old-style graft, like toadstools after a hard rain, is back with a greedy vengeance.

John Edward Ames, a native Toledoan who grew up in Monroe County, Michigan, is a full-time freelance writer living in New Orleans.

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