Looking past gaffes in 'czar' Blakely's memoir of Katrina recovery

A crowd tags along on one of the bicycle tours of city neighborhoods that were a signature of Blakely's tenure as recovery czar. (photo: Karen Gadbois)

By Jed Horne, The Lens news editor |

It’s too bad that Ed Blakely’s book about his two years as New Orleans “recovery czar” is so full of sloppy mistakes. (“Blacks didn’t have permission to march in Mardi Gras blackface parades until the 1970s.”) Howlers like that undermine his credibility. Equally unfortunate: They have inspired the local commentariat to drop into our habitual crouch and gleefully open fire on the messenger. That exempts us from paying much attention to the message, which in this case includes some insights worth pondering.

First a disclosure: Like a lot of us who covered Katrina in any detail, I got friendly with this brainy but way-too-blunt man. Later on I was part of an unpaid group Blakely pulled together to create a disaster-recovery manual. (Blakely’s nothing if not a hustler; he landed foundation grants that got us to disaster sites in Japan and Australia as well as the United States. “Managing Urban Disaster Recovery” has just been published by Crisis Response Press, a British house, and is available on Amazon.)

Unfortunately, collaboration did not immunize me from indirect attack in Blakely’s book. During his time here, I was an editor of The Times-Picayune and responsible for coverage he excoriates in ways I have to take personally.

Two observations: (1) Yes, it’s true Blakely has an ego a little bigger than the lake that settled over New Orleans in 2005, an expanse six times the size of Manhattan, as “My Storm” reminds us. But as someone who had some contact with uber urban planner Robert Moses toward the end of his life, I can attest that colossal egos kind of come with the job.

That may explain, but doesn’t excuse observation No. 2: Blakely’s recklessness with fact. The charitable way to put it is that he’s just not detail-oriented; he’s a big-picture guy. And, as an even bigger-picture guy once put it, eggs – in this case, facts – get broken when you’re making an omelet.

But sift out the silly mistakes (No, Tina Turner is not a New Orleanian), the overstatement and score settling (hugs for Nagin; the finger for Donna Addkison) and you’re left with a not uninteresting dissection of municipal dysfunction. Since we’re talking New Orleans that means, of course, that we’re talking race. As a black man with considerable professional expertise and no particular allegiance to New Orleans, Blakely is good at parsing (also sometimes overstating) the racial and racist anxieties that confounded civic leadership.

Ever wonder why New Orleans has such a welter of boards, commissions and quasi-public agencies, each somehow adrift from the others? Here’s an apercu Blakely tosses off: “ … as New Orleans leadership changed from white to black, the need to isolate parts of the city from the central management became paramount for upper-class whites and some middle-class blacks. City entities important to white communities were insulated from black rule by separating them from city governance.”

It’s an observation less reliable as history – given that many boards and commissions preceded the advent of black political power by decades — than as an explanation of why they haven’t long since been folded into a more rational structure of command and control.

Here’s another aside that, incidentally, puts the lie to Nagin’s bellyaching about Katrina-imposed staff reductions:

“In January 2007, the city workforce was less than half its pre-Katrina size of over 5,000. Mayor Nagin had been forced to cut the city payroll to meet the budget. … This downsizing was a blessing, Nagin told me, because he felt that a smaller, more technically proficient staff was more efficient to manage.”

Alas, technical proficiency turned out to be in short supply:

“… Adding technology, (Nagin) found, didn’t generate the organizational efficiency he’d expected, because old staff traditions lingered.”

One of those traditions being, presumably, the habitual corruption – Greg Meffert, anyone? – that undermined the attempted technology upgrade.

But If you think Blakely’s the only one with a viperish tongue, well, he appeared to have met his match in some of the bailiwicks of New Orleans city government. Here’s an assessment of Nagin that he got in a get-together with the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority weeks before he signed on as recovery czar. Mind you, these are Nagin’s own appointees:

“An ex-city council member described the mayor as nice but incompetent, a crawfish that promised one thing and then backed away as soon as anyone else objected. Another NORA board member, a short black man with flaring nostrils, called him a liar because he didn’t provide NORA the money he promised. And a middle-aged white member declared that everybody knew ‘Ray’ was a poor manager who didn’t know how City Hall functioned – and even if he did know, he couldn’t extract any work out of civil service employees. Then the NORA crew turned on me. I wouldn’t get anything done, they said, because the mayor wouldn’t support me, and anyway, he wasn’t in charge. They added that I didn’t know anything about New Orleans.”

That last snipe may be an apt grading of Blakely’s knowledge of Mardi Gras, but the overall depiction of City Hall’s snake pit rings true.

Another stumbling block as Blakely perceived it: “The (Civil Service) commissioners wanted all the jobs to be paid at the salary of current city staff, even though those salaries were too low to attract competent staff. In fact, some positions, like architects, were vacant for years. Not only did they protect outdated salaries, they also had a bizarre practice of setting a single salary based on the last salary paid to the occupant of the post. So, if the last person’s salary was high when you took the job, you got a good start. But if you wanted to transfer from another job to a new office, you might be told that the salary for the job was lower than the salary you were leaving, and that it couldn’t be changed.”

Really? Or is this an instance masquerading as a universal truth? Here we’re getting into the bureaucratic weeds, and Blakely’s shaky grip on detail inevitably sows doubt that he’s got this exactly right.

Remember the endless and exhausting debate over “shrinking the city’s footprint”? The fervor with which advocates embraced it as our only hope? The even greater fervor with which it was condemned as a not-so-secret scheme to shrink the city’s black “underclass”? This was the minefield Blakely was hired to till. Abandon the Lower 9th Ward but fight to revive Methodist Hospital? Tear down the public housing projects? Cluster civic assets and a huge hospital downtown? His hindsight analysis of these questions is fascinating even when – perhaps especially when – it seethes with anger and self-congratulation.

Did Blakely make the right choices? Does he deserve credit for the recovery to date?

Surely less than he claims. On the other hand, recovery czars, like presidents and mayors, are generally credited – or blamed – for the whole enchilada: a national recession, a crime wave, whatever. And they have to be graded on options shunned as well as choices they embraced. As Blakely says in his more restrained moments, what he did was create a “template” for recovery involving 17 “target areas.”

Some of these target areas have come alive, some remain fallow. But the last time I looked at any numbers other than the homicide rate, we were doing quite a lot better than anyone (except Blakely) dared to predict in 2007 when he came aboard. Which is to say, we could be doing a lot worse.

Whether because of Blakely’s choices or despite them remains to be evaluated objectively. That will have to wait until the chortling dies down over his memoir’s careless mistakes.

Jed Horne is an editor of The Lens. His books include “Breach of Faith, Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City.”   

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  • Mr Horne, why do you feel the need to pander to the likes of Blakeley. I don’t get it.
    You could at least write well, with cogent points.

    I’m frankly stunned by your sophomoric take on this, as well as your book about the flood.

    Why say anything at all, if you’re not going to be saying anything at all?
    You’ve said NOTHING in this piece, nothing.

    Blakeley doesn’t need you to blow his, ahem… horn, so why do you try here?

  • Those of us who have taken our psych meds today think your piece is just fine, Jed.

  • christian champagne

    Mr Horne, as i am reading this in Aug.2012 for the first time. Your piece is NOT just fine. Astounding. And i do not take nor need any “meds” psych or otherwise.