Sunday, December 31, 2006

New Orleans wants you back ...

From Jessie Halladay and The Courier-Journal:

… a visit to the Big Easy is different now.

Crowds are smaller. Getting a table at Cafe Du Monde for a batch of melt-in-your-mouth beignets covered in powdered sugar isn't quite as tough, and you can make your way down Bourbon Street with much less jostling.

Convention business is only 40 percent of what it was before Katrina struck in August 2005. Rooms are often easier to book, and many hotels run specials, making staying in New Orleans a cheaper prospect than before. Louis Armstrong International Airport now offers 109 flights a day to 32 cities. That's 75 percent of pre-hurricane flights.

But despite the changes, much of what tourists loved about New Orleans still exists.

In the city's beloved French Quarter, few signs of destruction linger. Streets remain lined with shops waiting to cater to eager travelers. Tarot card readers promise a glimpse into the future. Artists aim to capture the image of your vacation in just moments of sketching. Circus-like entertainers still wow crowds with their acrobatics.

Along Bourbon Street, bars with flashing lights and blaring music offer a host of frozen concoctions, from the ever-popular (if ironic) Hurricane to pina coladas…

In 2004, a record 10.1 million people visited New Orleans, according to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. Before Katrina, the city was on pace for another record year. But in 2006, the bureau estimates, only about 40 percent of leisure travelers have returned to the city.

"Our biggest challenge is still perception of the city," said Kelly Schulz, who works with the visitors bureau. Some people are coming to the city to help, turning their trips into a working vacation that has become known as "voluntourism." Schulz said many conventions are building in a public service component to their visit.

Church groups and students on spring break, for instance, have come to do volunteer work and take in some of the attractions at the same time.

"If you want to help New Orleans, the best thing you can do is come here as a tourist," Schulz said.

For some visitors, the destruction itself has become part of the tour. Buses routinely drive through the ravaged 9th Ward, showing people where the levees broke. Schulz said while that practice has offended some residents, she encourages visitors to see the damage the hurricane left the city to contend with, because it will shape the future of the Crescent City.

A big part of the recovery will be thanks to tourist dollars. And because of that, visitors are often treated to an extra dose of friendliness from grateful New Orleanians.

"The New Orleans that people know and love… all that stuff is still here," Schulz said. "And in some cases, the experience will be even better."


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Sunday, December 24, 2006

New Orleans losing some of its brightest ...

From AP via

It wasn't the flooding that drove Dr. David Jones out of New Orleans for good. His house in the Lakeview neighborhood stayed dry. Instead, it was the way Hurricane Katrina eroded the orthopedic surgeon's practice.

With fewer patients to treat and no patience for the sluggish pace of the city's recovery, he moved his family and practice to Raleigh in July.

"I love New Orleans and always will," said Jones, 39, who now works at a hospital affiliated with Duke University. "I could have made a go of it there, but it would have been slow and arduous."

New Orleans is losing an alarming number of young professionals in Katrina's aftermath. Many doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers and other highly educated people are gone. Some left during the storm and never came back. Others came back, but soon gave up and moved out altogether.

Whether a full-blown brain drain is under way is unclear. But some suspect so, and fear the exodus will only get worse.

"They don't see the career opportunities here that they see elsewhere," said University of New Orleans political science professor Susan Howell.

For many professionals trying to make a living here, the number of patients and clients has dropped off drastically. Less than half of New Orleans' pre-Katrina population of 455,000 has returned.

A recent survey by the University of New Orleans suggests the loss of the region's best educated, most talented and highly trained workers could worsen. One-third of residents surveyed in October said they are likely to leave within two years, and those with postgraduate degrees were even more likely to consider leaving.

Health care has been especially hard-hit. Thousands of doctors, nurses and medical technicians were evacuated after Katrina in August 2005. Sixteen months later, only five of 11 hospitals are open, just one at full capacity.


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Sunday, December 17, 2006

FEMA at work ...

From an AP story carried by WTOL-TV, based on a Government Accountability Office report:

The government is squandering tens of millions of dollars in Hurricane Katrina disaster aid, in some cases doling out housing payments to people living rent-free, investigators said Wednesday. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has recouped less than 1 percent of the $1 billion that investigators contend it squandered on fraudulent assistance, according to the GAO.

Its report shows the disaster relief agency's struggles, one year after the deadly storm, to rush aid to those in need while also preventing abuse. Potential waste and fraud include the following:

• Nearly $17 million in rental assistance payments to individuals living in trailers also paid for with FEMA funds.

• Rental assistance payments to individuals living in apartments paid by city governments using FEMA funds.

• Nearly $20 million to about 7,600 individuals who registered for assistance for both Hurricanes Katrina and Rita using the same property.

• Millions of dollars of payments to nonqualified people, including at least $3 million to more than 500 foreign students from four universities in Louisiana and Texas. FEMA also made improper payments to workers in the United States on temporary visas, people who are barred by law from receiving financial disaster assistance.

• The loss of 85 laptop computers, printers, global positioning devices and two flat-bottom boats because of poor inventory controls.

FEMA spokesman Pat Philbin did not challenge the findings. He did say the agency has sought to upgrade the registration process and strengthen its procedures for verifying names and addresses. "FEMA continues to focus our rebuilding efforts to greatly improve our reliability, accuracy and response in providing aid to disaster victims," Philbin said. "The agency will consider and evaluate any new findings."

Sen. Susan Collins, who heads the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, lamented the waste. "Just think of the additional relief and rebuilding that could be accomplished with the money lost to fraud, mismanagement and poor decision-making," said Collins, R-Maine. "We can't wait for yet another disaster to hit and yet another round of investigations and hearings to spotlight once again the lack of safeguards and internal controls," she said.

Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who will become committee chairman when Democrats take control of the Senate in January, said FEMA will be watched closely for signs of improvement. "The record is clear that, going forward, FEMA has much work to do before we can be confident that it is providing assistance to those who are eligible and who need it, while denying it to those who do not," he said.


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Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Scandal-plagued Jefferson kept off Ways and Means ...

EXTRA - From AP via CNN:

House Democrats, insistent that they will hold lawmakers to higher standards, decided Tuesday that Rep. William Jefferson will not return to an influential committee until a federal corruption investigation involving him is completed.

Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi said the Democratic Steering Committee had resolved that Jefferson, who last Saturday won a runoff election in his New Orleans district, will not be given back his spot on the Ways and Means Committee, the panel that determines tax and trade policies.

At Pelosi's urging, the House last June stripped Jefferson of his committee assignment because of the corruption investigation that included an FBI document asserting that agents had found $90,000 in bribe money in the Louisiana Democrat's freezer.

Pelosi has promised to make lobbying and ethics reform a top priority when she becomes speaker next month, and the Jefferson case has been cited as an early challenge.

While depriving Jefferson of his committee assignment, the Democrats have been mum about another member of the Ways and Means Committee, Rep. James McDermott, who on Monday was admonished by the House ethics committee for violating ethics standards by giving reporters access to an illegally taped telephone call involving Republican leaders a decade ago.

Pelosi must also make a decision about Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia, who is in line to become chairman of an Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the FBI. Mollohan faces questions about personal business deals.

Jefferson also holds a seat on the House Budget Committee. It was unclear if he would retain that seat in the next Congress.

Jefferson, an eight-term incumbent, handily defeated his Democratic opponent in a runoff election despite the controversy over the federal investigation. He was accused of taking bribes from a company seeking contracts in the Nigerian telecommunications market.

After his victory speech Saturday night, Jefferson said: "I don't try to second-guess Ms. Pelosi. I don't go there to work for anyone, I go there to work with the people down here."


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Sunday, December 10, 2006

A new low for area voters …

Pardon me, but last night's election returns have me a bit wobbly. Yesterday I cast what could well be my last vote in District 2. I joined the 15% or so of the electorate who thought this election "deserved" their vote.

I was one of the 43% who felt that we should "Vote against the crook. It's important." Jefferson concedes that he will be indicted. As some pundit says "An indictment is not a conviction, but then it is no great honor."

Sure there is that pesky rule about presumed innocence, but based on developments in the case so far most observers see little chance of acquittal. The term "caught red-handed" comes to mind.

Here's how Reuters reported "Dollar Bill" Jefferson's re-election:

New Orleans area U.S. Rep. William Jefferson won a ninth term to Congress in a surprising landslide on Saturday as loyal black voters shrugged off a federal bribery investigation into $90,000 found in his freezer.

Voter turnout was believed to be very low at under 20 percent, a testament to New Orleans' shifting demographics after flooding displaced half of the residents and slow rebuilding thwarted their return.

Jefferson's victory may bode poorly for the area's ability to win recovery money in Washington since Democrats led by California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who will become House speaker next month, ousted him from the powerful Ways and Means Committee following the bribery accusations.

Jefferson has said repeatedly he has not accepted bribes. But he could face indictment during his new two-year term.

From UPI, via

Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., who gained notoriety after the FBI found $90,000 in his freezer, was elected Saturday to a ninth term in Congress.

Jefferson defeated Democratic state Rep. Karen Carter in a runoff -- even though Carter had secured all the major endorsements and had a better funded campaign, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported.

The congressman remains the target of a federal investigation for allegedly taking payoffs. Alleged co-conspirators have pleaded guilty, and Jefferson has said he expects to be indicted.


jbv's Competitive Edge 

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Wild about Harry ...

From "All Things Considered:"

There's nobody quite like Harry Lee.

The Chinese-American lawman, now in his seventh term in office, has a penchant for putting his foot in his mouth, but it only seems to increase his popularity.

The 74-year-old, 300-pound sheriff -- down from 400 pounds, he proudly points out -- sits at his desk surrounded by his large gun collection.

"I'm still as full of piss and vinegar as I was 20 years ago," he says.

For 26 years, Lee has been the top cop and chief taxing authority of the booming jurisdiction of nearly half a million people, and because of peculiar state law, there's little oversight.

"The sheriff of [Jefferson Parish] is the closest thing there is to being a king in the U.S. I have no unions, I don't have civil service, I hire and fire at will. I don't have to go to council and propose a budget. I approve the budget. I'm the head of the law-enforcement district, and the law-enforcement district only has one vote, which is me," he says.

Since Hurricane Katrina, murders in Jefferson Parish have doubled, the majority of them black-on-black killings. The sheriff tried, in vain, to explain his intended get-tough tactics at a press conference inside his gray, fortress-like headquarters.

"We know where the problem areas are. If we see some black guys on the corner milling around, we would confront them," he said.

The president of the regional NAACP, Donatus King, wasn't buying it.

"Confronting a group of black people on the street corner merely because they're black and milling around is a form of racial profiling. The NAACP opposes that tactic," King said.

Under pressure, the sheriff said his deputies would not be indiscriminately frisking African-American males.

A few days later, the Times-Picayune ran an unscientific poll. The phone calls ran 22 for the NAACP, 789 for Harry Lee.


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