By Bill Minor
JACKSON – New Orleanians have always believed in fantasy land. How else could a fictional king named Rex with a mystical kingdom, rule over them as his minions frolic in the city’s streets one day each year?
Then sometimes, but rarely, miracles Orleanians have only dreamed about come true. And as happened last weekend, the miracles came true in twos, back-to-back.
First, the black-majority city on Saturday, Feb. 6, overwhelmingly elected its first white mayor in 32 years to succeed the hopelessly inept Ray Nagin. Then, next day, the city’s beloved Saints, for four decades the laughing-stock of the National Football League – and a decided underdog after surprisingly landing in the NFL’s blue-ribbon title event – miraculously emerged as Super Bowl champs.
It was a true rags to riches story for the grand old river city that was brought to its knees in 2005 when some 80 percent of its neighborhoods were covered for weeks by as much as 10 feet of water driven over presumably-safe lakeside levees by Hurricane Katrina, taking the lives of many. Four and a half years later, the terrible scars left by Katrina are still evident and thousands of New Orleanians driven from the city by Katrina were still scattered around the nation.
Despite all of its calamities, the spirit of the city – a city lying in a saucer below sea-level, surrounded by water on two sides where some say only fools would live – had never been doused. However, it sorely needed a dose of adrenaline, and their erstwhile “Aint’s” heroically provided it in no uncertain terms.
What’s more, their Saints proved they were not just a bunch of overpaid hunks of beef who cared little for the old town. Never in the history of professional football had a newly-crowned Most Valuable player in his post-game remarks exhibited such an abiding bond with the city he represented as did Saints quarterback Drew Brees. All the while as confetti rained down, Brees cradled his one-year-old son in his arms, the child shielded from the loud crowd noise by padded ear protectors. In that moment, the New Orleans Saints became America’s team.
While New Orleanians on Feb. 6 prayed for their football gladiators, they trooped to the polls to emphatically replace their goofy mayor with Mitch Landrieu, an experienced public servant whose father, the revered Moon Landrieu, had been the city’s last white mayor. He had breached the town’s racial divide and for the first time brought blacks into policy making city posts.
Four years ago, Mitch Landrieu (now in his second term as Louisiana’s lieutenant-governor) lost a close runoff with Nagin for the city’s mayoral job, in an election skewed by Republicans backing Nagin out of fear Landrieu would team with his sister, Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, to rebuild a strong Democratic machine. This time Landrieu got 70 percent of the white vote.
Nagin, a millionaire TV cable executive, who had never held public office, surprisingly won the mayor’s office in 2002 with the backing of the city’s white businessmen who felt he was one black they could feel comfortable with in City Hall. His incompetence and isolation from the public was evident even before Katrina devastated the city on Aug. 29- 30, 2005. But Nagin’s disappearance from public view as thousands of his fellow citizens struggled to stay alive after hurricane-driven flood torrents from Lake Pontchartrain submerged a half-million homes, became a human tragedy in governmental failure.
In his gripping book, “The Great Deluge,” noted historian Douglas Brinkley, a New Orleans resident who weathered the storm and helped survivors, relates that Nagin remained holed up on the 24th floor of the Hyatt Regency, his stricken city far below him. Several times, writes Brinkley, Nagin became terrified that an angry posse was coming for him from the incredible scene at the nearby Superdome where some 25,000 including many elders in wheelchairs had taken refuge. Left in stifling heat when electricity failed, the refugees were without water and food.
According to Brinkley, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco undeservedly bore the brunt of criticism for the chaotic storm aftermath, getting little help from President Bush. Brinkley relates it was her 24/7 efforts that finally brought in buses to evacuate thousands of refugees. The historian praised Blanco for standing up to Bush over federalizing the state National Guard – its ranks and equipment depleted by Iraq deployment – and holding out for Bush to dispatch U.S. Army troops to restore law and order in the panic-stricken city.
Of note, Brinkley relates that Lt. Gov. Landrieu came from the state capitol in Baton Rouge to see first-hand the devastation in his hometown, and, unlike the city’s own mayor, commandeered a state wildlife and fisheries boat to pluck dozens of Orleanians from their rooftops.
Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him at P.O. Box 1243, Jackson, MS 39215-1243, or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.