Will the Good Times Continue?

Last Thursday, passengers flying out of our international airport with a need to answer nature’s call were prompted to exit outside, wait on line in 35-degree weather, and account for luggage while they hovered inside a port-a-potty. After leaving the row of plastic outhouses delivered curbside that morning, they removed their shoes to pass through security a second time, then waited for their plane departure while temperatures inside the airport dropped. Passengers arriving into our airport were notified not to drink New Orleans water via paper signs posted in the terminals – Perhaps they caught their first glimpse of one while passing under our, “#1 in the Nation for Liver Transplants” banner that hangs proudly (Welcome Home).

If you visited our city last week as an academic scouting convention accommodations, or an enterprising businesswoman seeking new locales – how likely would you be to risk that experience for yourself and others in the future?

I wouldn’t.

In fact, we’ve been told by big businesses recently, such as Amazon, that they are not willing to take the New Orleans risk. They’d rather have potable water than a portable potty.

While the airport is beyond our parish lines, it’s notable that Jefferson Parish responded to damages from the freeze by successfully repairing 115 water main breaks between Tuesday evening and Friday morning. Meanwhile, this was the scene in New Orleans East on Tuesday afternoon (1/16/18), pre-freeze when a 12-inch water main break caused a portion of pavement to collapse.

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Residents nearby were warned – prior to temperatures dropping – that they may experience drops in water pressure. New Orleans East was also the first area of the city to be officially issued a boil water advisory around 3pm the following day (1/17/18) after the cold had finally settled in overnight.

Mike Yenni, Jefferson Parish President, claims the boil water advisory issued in his parish last week was the first since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Whether that’s true or not, Orleans Parish has issued three boil water advisories in the last six months – that’s not including the warning issued shortly after the New Year urging residents to stop their taps or risk boiling their water (in other words, “Bust your pipes, please”). Six months ago, late June of 2017, was around when Tropical Storm Cindy make landfall in southwest Louisiana. This was one of several times the city would experience flooding over the following months. As summer went on, we would learn a tropical storm isn’t needed to flood our streets – a simple rainstorm will do.

August 5th seems to be the marker, the flood we point to and remember when the pumps failed and the city lied to us, but the city experienced mild to moderate, and even severe flooding throughout the summer months last year. However, just as we will forget the warning issued to stop our taps after the New Year, or the major water main break in New Orleans East preceding the freeze, those other summer floods before and following August 5th, 2017 will fade into our foggy memories where all the city’s malfunctions collect and blur.

In fact, by the time you read this, the weather has warmed since our arctic blast, and you’ve probably had a shower after the boil water advisory was lifted (one would hope). So, we forget. But, the people who visit us during those times – they don’t forget. You see? Because, this isn’t normal. It will be a topic of conversation at the dinner table when the prospect of revisiting arises, “Hey Cathy, remember that time? That time with the port-a-potties?”

This isn’t normal to most Americans in major cities, but it is normal to us, sort of – or, at least we’re doing an excellent job of normalizing it. If you live in New Orleans, you’re taught part of the territory is – you risk wading in water or not being able to drink it. And, when problems arise, most of the time – no one is available to address it. The message we receive is, “Call a neighbor, call 9-1-1, pray you find a plumber who has parts, Godspeed.” Government offices, schools, universities and some of our medical centers were not open the majority of last week due to low water pressure. We also experienced permanent facility closures as a result of the August 5th floods, among other outstanding issues. We cannot allow ourselves to chalk that up to, “Third World business as usual,” and, I’m going to tell you why.

The decline and eventual “death” of a place is complicated. It involves many factors – economy, geography, environment, culture, politics, and so on. Yes, believe or not, we still have room for dis-improvement despite our successful history of mishandling. Plenty of room, actually. In fact, I’d argue that our insistence we remain in this, “It’s always been that way, it will always be that way,” mentality of apathetic nostalgia is bringing us to occupy that space of decline. The world is changing, and yet, our approach to it is about as active and modern as our pumping stations. We’re becoming a nonfunctional city – I’m sure that was apparent to the travelers who stopped over for a stay after leaving the outdoor airport thrones on Thursday. But the signs may not be as apparent to us – We’re used to it, after all. Like crawfish in a slow boil (don’t do that), we seem to be getting a little too used to the increasingly dangerous waters around us (as well as the water we cannot drink).

So, let’s start with a look at economy. Thankfully for us, while Amazon and some of the folks standing outside for the loo the other day may have said, “No,” to New Orleans, it seems most tourists are still on board. In fact, the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism has our city forecast for increases in visitation and spending over the next couple of years. But, as our streets continue to flood during rainstorms and our businesses close – whether temporarily for low water pressure, or permanently due to repeated flooding – How many of those tourists will think, “Maybe I’ll see how that pans out, maybe next year,” as they watch national news stories about our repeated malfunctions? It’s tough to say. This is a temporary locale for them, a vacation from the rest of the working (functioning) world. Perhaps more importantly, though – How many of our locals asked themselves over the past year, “Is this still worth it?”

Our city’s economy is largely based on tourism. It’s how a lot of people here make their money, pay bills, stay afloat – figuratively, of course. We’ve made attempts at advancing past that – some of them successful, some of them not. But, just as our water pressure came to a lull last week, whatever (mild) successes we’ve had establishing new forms of industry will surely dwindle if we do not address the outlandish, almost cartoonish issues we’re experiencing due to the S&WB. Repeated flooding, occasional hurricanes, increasing instances of non-potable water, business closures, schools closed, government offices and hospitals shut down – Well, there are plenty of cities that DON’T offer that. If I were a corporation or entrepreneur looking to expand, I’d probably look elsewhere – understandably. And, I’m pretty sure tourists would like to avoid wading or showering in sewer water. So, the horizon doesn’t look promising on both old and new economy drivers if we do not address whatever is going on with our city council and the S&WB (your guess is as good as mine, it’s reached ludicrous status). And, finally, loss of economic prosperity (we ranked last in the most recent Brookings report), as well as loss of critical infrastructure, such as schools and medical centers (please see Ruth Fertel closure after last summer’s flooding), are surely some of the factors in the decline of place – one need not look further than 70 miles to our own coast for evidence of how that process takes hold.

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Speaking of our coast – geography. We’re coastal. We’re no longer the cute “bowl” surrounded by land. If you do not believe that statement, please take pause from reading and look at google maps. Back? Okay, good. We’re coastal. We’re also subsiding – our city is sinking. Meanwhile, our seas are rising. I think we all know this to be true. That is not a political statement nor issue. It’s something that’s been studied, proven – we’ve all read about it. But more so, we’ve felt it as a literal sinking in our guts with each heavy rain or approaching hurricane. We’re surrounded by water, we’re subsiding, and the seas are rising. Meanwhile, operations at our pumping facilities remain offline, months after the August floods and less than five months before hurricane season. Our neighbors to the west in Houston experienced over 50 inches of rain (60 in some areas of Texas) over a course of four days during Hurricane Harvey (which strengthened from a Category 1 to a Category 4 in eight hours overnight). That’s over half an inch of rain per hour – nonstop, for 96 hours. What do you think our odds of not losing everything during Harvey would have been had that storm veered slightly right? And further, what do you think the odds of a government that didn’t want us to rebuild after Katrina, will (now) help us rebuild after our own failures do us in? Here we are approaching the 13th anniversary of Katrina, and I fear we’re even less prepared.

Environment. One of the reasons that Harvey had so much rainfall was because of climate change. Don’t believe me? The rainfall was 38 percent more in some areas than it would have been in a non-warming environment. Still don’t believe me? Too bad. No one has time to hold your hand through this anymore – our climate is changing, and the clock is ticking. None of this is not political ploy, it’s facts. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way – Environment. A changing climate means stronger hurricanes. We know that. We know that storms have been more powerful. But! A changing climate also means things like – multiple freezes during winter, in places that are not equipped to handle winter. We’re experiencing that, right now. What does this mean for us, and our beloved S&WB? It means that a tired, broken, century-old system that couldn’t handle pumping water out of our city during a rainstorm that produced 40 inches less than Harvey is now being strained further during the winter months – and it’s failing (see: boil water advisory, water main breaks, lost water pressure, and closures across the city for several days). So, we now have a system that was unable to handle heavy rain in the summer being strained during freezes in the winter months, as well – and hurricane season is five months away. I don’t know about you, but I’m not confident that the S&WB is on top of that situation. How do you think that system is going to perform come June? Better? I think we’d better invest in some posh port-a-potties for the airport.

Providing a quality experience at our airport may not be of concern much longer, however, since air traffic will surely lessen if we continue down this course – As lovely as our culture is, there will come a point when tourists decide to hang up their Hawaiian shirts. That’s especially true if our culture is not allowed to thrive and live freely as it should. Just this month, city council almost voted (and that vote is still pending) on a surveillance ordinance that puts Big Brother in our bars and threatens to close down the neighborhood dives where we seek refuge from the Hawaiian shirts (ABO Surveillance Ordinance – read more, here). We also went to the ballot box this past November, and while the victors from that race may have been the lesser of the evils, there is a pro-Airbnb wave entering office with an Airbnb-favoring Rental Registry to boot. The threat of locals being priced out of the city will depend upon whether that wave subsides or proceeds to crash over us. Further, I have to imagine some folks will tire by the time their car floods a second time, and even if you’re lucky enough to be on high ground, your car insurance rates will surely rise along with the rainwater – meanwhile, your wages will lower along with business interruptions and closures. So, if our culture is still worth skipping a bath or two during a weekend romp for some out-of-town folks, because – oh, the culture! I doubt it will be when they leave the unheated airport and enter 1984, only to find the charming locals are gone. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen.

Which brings me to the next factor – Politics. I touched upon it briefly. I’m going to leave it open for the most part. I hope the current and future politicians reading this will take what you’ve read here to heart. What I’m talking about is preventable. It comes down to two things – 1.) Investing in needed infrastructure (before we have no infrastructure left for budget considerations, nor budget to spend) – quite specifically, I’m speaking about the S&WB, if that wasn’t clear … and 2.) Going further to protect your people by preserving culture and affordability. That’s not hard – if you invest yourself in those causes instead of investing in yourself – which is what you’re supposed to do as a civil servant. Remember? And, should you choose not to do that because you believe the horizon of dysfunction and decline is beyond your political years, I ask you to consider when you’ll be up for reelection, because we’re not having this anymore. Please believe me, if we are not able to drink from the taps either in our house or at our neighborhood watering hole, we’re not going to reelect you. We’ve put up with a lot – too much, for too long. Enough is enough.

Locals reading this – Did you say, “Hell, yeah! Enough is enough,” when you read that?

Good. (No? Read on, anyway, please)

Now, it’s your turn. To the citizens of this city – Be involved. This is YOUR city. This city does not belong to the Airbnbers, it does not belong to the business people who flew through our airport last week, it doesn’t belong to the city council or the mayor – it belongs to YOU. Act like it. Be responsible for the losses we’re facing, because it is us who’s gonna lose. If we keep allowing this city to flood and accept living without basic services, then – temporary closures will become permanent, our insurance rates will go up, our neighbors will move out, and the influx of tourists and industries we need to survive will cease. We’ve observed these phases take hold in other places – our coast, our “sister” cities, it is not unfathomable that given our continued lack of dedication toward these issues, we’re next. And, the people I spoke of a moment ago – the prospectors and the politicians, they won’t be here if/when things reach their worst – they’ll skip the port-a-potty and head straight for the plane. WE need to care about this place, and we need to do that by showing up. We need to inform ourselves and vote. We need to show up at City Hall when the council is pushing through measures that hurt us while doing very little to help us. We need to show up. I’ll try harder if you do, promise. I’ll even hold your place in line outside for the Port-O-Let if need be. I hope to see you there.