As Carnival season anesthetized south Louisiana last month, briefly numbing the pain of those fateful days last August and September with bags of throws and elaborate parties, a slew of special interest groups were conducting studies and polls that would bring reality ringing back in a most sobering way.
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina hit the six-month mark with the dawn of Ash Wednesday, and pollsters universally concluded that the party is, indeed, over. Simply put, voters are angry -- almost beyond words, but not beyond measure. In addition, studies by various groups slam the rebuilding process as stagnant and riddled with insider deals.
Meanwhile, Gov. Kathleen Blanco cheerily wrote in a column soon after Mardi Gras that "recovery and reform" are claiming victories in Louisiana. She points to a proposed $4.2 billion in Community Development Block Grant funding for housing as an indication of recent successes. Blanco also notes the Legislature's recent efforts to consolidate certain levee boards.
The entire process has been a "roller coaster of emotion," Blanco adds, marked by "dark days of frustration when it was hard to believe that our voices were being heard."
Based on various polls released in the last few weeks, most voters are still stuck in the "dark days."
For example, the most recent survey by Pensacola-based pollster Verne Kennedy reveals an outraged electorate. When respondents were asked if they were happy with their public officials' performances during and after the hurricanes, 41 percent reported they were "not happy," 29 percent chose "strongly displeased" and 24 percent opted for "angry as hell."
On the question of whether they would re-elect Blanco, 71 percent told Kennedy's interviewers that they want to "give someone else a chance." Of the 600 Louisiana voters polled (during the second week of February), 53 percent said the state was on the wrong track with regard to leadership and recovery.
A CBS News poll, in concert with an analysis released last week by the Internet arm of Black Entertainment Television, also concluded that African Americans in New Orleans are "overwhelmingly dissatisfied" with the efforts to rebuild. The CBS News Survey Unit conducted the poll of 1,018 adults, including 207 African Americans.
Among the more eye-opening findings by CBS News is the pessimistic outlook that African Americans have for New Orleans -- 38 percent believe the city will never be rebuilt and 33 percent believe white evacuees will be able to return before people of color.
While he questions exactly who was questioned by CBS pollsters and where the respondents are from, Congressman William Jefferson, a New Orleans Democrat, says government will have to offer people hope -- along with a solid plan -- to get more positive responses in the future.
"People want to come home," Jefferson says. "There is much greater interest from people who are from New Orleans to return. They want to have a better set of opportunities. They don't want to come home to just anything. We just have to set the path for them to come home."
Businesses that have returned to Orleans Parish, or are considering it, have a much more optimistic outlook, according to a survey conducted by the Public Policy Research Lab at Louisiana State University. Of the 937 local businesses interviewed for the telephone survey, 52 percent predicted they ultimately would be "as successful as or more successful than they were before" last year's two hurricanes.
"While returning business owners considered levee protection to be their chief concern, it is also interesting to note that close to half did not think so," says Nina Lam, LSU geography professor.
Even though levee consolidation has become a policy juggernaut on the state level, Lam says businesses continue to be more worried about customer base, employees, communication, insurance, governmental problems, damage to premises, utilities and financing.
Richard Campanella, a geographer at Tulane's Center for Bioenvironmental Research, is working in conjunction with the LSU study and has released a few of his own findings -- discovered while researching the three re-emerging arteries of St. Claude Avenue, Magazine Street and Carrollton Avenue on his bicycle.
Campanella says local businesses are coming back sooner and in greater numbers than national chains, and primary goods and services are not necessarily opening before stores that sell luxury items.
Other businesses, however, primarily those from outside the state -- but with political connections -- are raking in the cash, according to a report released late last month by the Gulf Coast Commission on Reconstruction Equity, a nonprofit consisting of labor and religious groups.
"Our research has found that the Gulf Coast has been besieged by large corporate profiteers, while many workers don't even receive their wages," says Rev. Nelson Johnson, president of the group. "We're calling on Congress to pass tough new criteria for anyone receiving federal dollars to rebuild the Gulf Coast."
The study sheds light on the "revolving door" between government regulators and the businesses they regulate, claiming that the association of former government officials with companies seeking federal contracts is commonplace -- and effective, for the regulated companies.
A few examples include the Fluor Corporation, which has donated more than $600,000 to political candidates since 2000, mainly Republicans; Shaw Group, which has hired Joseph Allbaugh, a former FEMA director, as a consultant; Halliburton, of which Vice President Dick Cheney was CEO until 2000; and Bechtel Group, whose executives and consultants once held top positions in the White House and CIA.
All of these factors combined -- voter fatigue, business challenges, the perception of cronyism and corruption -- are only adding to the "fundamental barriers" facing renewal, says Chris Kromm, director of the non-profit Institute for Southern Studies based in Durham, N.C.
"Despite promises from national leaders to 'do what it takes' to rebuild New Orleans, the devastated city has been mostly left to fend for itself -- with tragic results," he says.
Kromm recently released a 36-page report, dubbed "The Mardi Gras Index," that analyzes the city's post-hurricane status in 11 areas including housing, public health, the economy and disaster preparedness. The report also looks at more than 130 indicators and finds that, despite a few hopeful signs, progress has largely stalled on the key issues that will ultimately shape the new city.
Still, leaders like Blanco remain optimistic about the state's future. She says officials are going to move as quickly as possible to put federal funding to work, but only recently have there been signs of progress. The uphill battle rages on, the governor argues, and the movement must not be distracted by "dark days of frustration" or negative voices.
"We must tackle our rebuilding with the pace of a sprinter and the heart of a distance runner. ... But this process is an arduous one. It will require the endurance, patience and heart," Blanco says.
Indeed, those attributes are common in distance runners. But history tells us they are rarely found in voters. Especially angry voters. Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.