Mayor Mitch Landrieu's legacy was always destined to be a mixture of successes and failures. Such is the fate of all mayors, though history seemed likely to paint Landrieu in mostly positive hues — until recently. The Aug. 5 flood and revelations of systemic dysfunction at the Sewerage and Water Board (S&WB) now threaten to overshadow Landrieu's accomplishments as mayor.
Which is why he's working overtime to whip the S&WB (and his legacy) into shape before he leaves office May 7, 2018.
Given the almost daily dose of bad news about S&WB operations and infrastructure problems, Landrieu has a Sisyphean task. That we're now in the peak of hurricane season raises the stakes for everyone.
Right now, New Orleanians don't give a damn about Landrieu's legacy. They just want the pumps and generators fixed, the catch basins cleaned (that failure is squarely in Landrieu's lap, since the basins were supposed to be cleaned by the city's Department of Public Works) and the pumping stations manned. Sadly, none of those will happen quickly.
Truth is the S&WB has been dysfunctional for years. It will take years to fix all that's broken at the legislatively created agency. Politically and fiscally, the S&WB is an island nation unto itself. It has resisted reform efforts by several mayors, but now things may have reached the point where citizens and political leaders will find the will to put all of New Orleans' water, sewerage and drainage operations under City Hall's direct oversight.
Make no mistake: That will be a bloody political and fiscal fight. "Reformers" will say the S&WB needs to be independent of city politics, as if the agency somehow is immune from political influences now. (If that were the case, how did Landrieu engineer the appointment of Cedric Grant, who announced recently he will retire after hurricane season, as S&WB executive director?)
Even if Landrieu somehow succeeds in significantly improving things at the S&WB between now and next May — and the city miraculously dodges severe weather events — the next mayor and council will have to grapple with the issue of how to make the agency more efficient and more accountable.
Ironically, the Aug. 5 flood — as devastating as it was to those whose homes, vehicles and businesses took water that day — was a wake-up call. Had it not happened, and had leadership changes as well as emergency enhancements not ensued, imagine what might have happened if New Orleans had been hit by a slow-moving tropical storm — or Category 3 hurricane — capable of dumping 20 inches or more of rain over the entire city in less than 24 hours.
As bad as things were on Aug. 5, they would have been much worse in the face of a "wet" storm. They still could be, if we're unlucky.
Now, hopefully, the system will at least see some moderate upgrades. Even more hopefully, New Orleans will be spared major weather events until the S&WB sees significant, permanent improvements.
Otherwise, Mayor Sisyphus will wish the downsides of his legacy were "merely" a resurgent wave of gun violence, lingering economic disparity and too many potholed streets.