It is hard to overestimate the damage the Aug. 5 flooding has done to New Orleans. Not just in terms of money and property damage, which is bad enough, but in the loss of trust and confidence that is essential for holding a community together.
The political science definition of trust is the “judgment of citizens that the system and the political incumbents are responsive, and will do what is right even in the absence of constant scrutiny.”
That is what C.S. Lewis described as “doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.”
That is the opposite of what officials with the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board did in the days before and after the storm. Instead of alerting residents and other agencies of the flaws that were obvious in the drainage system, they remained silent and hoped the storm would pass quietly.
And when 9 inches of rain fell in parts of Mid-City and other areas were swamped with 5 inches or more, they sought to put the blame on climate change and a 50- to 100-year storm while hiding or outright lying about out-of-service pumps, power disruptions, and clogged catch basins.
While the rainfall totals would have resulted in flooding in any circumstance, it was impossible to believe S&WB general superintendent Joseph Becker’s claim that the various failures had no impact on the level and duration of the flooding. It was even harder when his numbers seemed to change by the moment, always presenting a worse case than the one he had first tried to foist on the public.
Then we learned that those same problems had existed two weeks earlier when 4 inches of rain overwhelmed parts of Lakeview and Mid-City, leaving residents mystified as to why places that rarely flooded had standing water. A Sewerage & Water Board employee told the City Council it was hard to get anything fixed because managers and supervisors were unresponsive.
But even as Becker and the Sewerage & Water Board’s last shred of credibility was circling the drain, there was one last scandal as New Orleans residents were awakened at 3:30 a.m. Thursday with an emergency bulletin that a fire had shut down a turbine at the Carrollton power station leaving no back-up generator for drainage pumps.
The loss restricts the drainage capacity in the east bank neighborhoods west of the Industrial Canal — including Lakeview, Mid-City, Treme and the 7th Ward — that had already suffered for the S&WB’s incompetence.
The turbine turned out to be the fourth of five out of commission at the plant, including one that has been down since 2012, leaving the city with no margin for error.
“We are currently running on our last backup power source,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said during the press conference. “If all the power from Entergy continues — and we expect that it will — we will be able to handle any typical rainfall.”
New Orleanians face the prospect of catastrophic flooding from a summer storm like ones that had hit twice in the past two weeks. And all this at the peak of the hurricane season.
By Thursday, Becker and S&WB spokeswoman Lisa Martin had resigned to avoid being fired as had Public Works Director Mark Jernigan, who admitted his department had done nothing with $3 million the City Council had appropriated eight months ago for storm drain cleaning and maintenance. Sewerage & Water Board Executive Director Cedric Grant announced his plans to retire at the end of hurricane season.
But the damage is done and trust in city officials, starting with Landrieu, is all but gone. The mayor appointed Jernigan and backed Grant for their positions and sits on the S&WB’s board of directors. He was right to demand more accountability from those who have betrayed the public’s confidence. But he has much further to go.
With the recent spike in crime, failures in infrastructure and now a major breakdown in an emergency response to protect life and property, New Orleans feels broken. What in the city is working as it should?
People lose faith in government through corruption and incompetence. Landrieu has done a lot to correct the malfeasance of Ray Nagin’s two terms, but his veneer of competence is now slimed with the flood waters of the past two weeks.
The loss of trust is a political death spiral that leads to loss of civic engagement, lower voter turnout, lack of support for valid government actions, and the chaos that comes from not being able to believe what your elected officials and city employees are telling you.
The Sewerage & Water Board says it ascribes to a list of values that include:
- We will be truthful, trustworthy and transparent
- We will be knowledgeable and diligent in the performance of our duties
- We will use financial resources prudently
- We will be accountable for our performance
- We will continuously improve our performance
- We will ensure that the systems that provide our services remain viable for future generations
These past two weeks, and who knows how many years before that, this agency has violated every single one of those.