New Orleans City Councilwoman Helena Moreno announced on Thursday that the council will hold a hearing on the October 2019 collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel. Four other council members also told The Lens on Thursday that they are in favor of a public hearing on the collapse, as well as the ongoing efforts to mitigate safety risks at the unstable building, end the disruptions to daily life and retrieve the bodies of two workers still trapped in the building.
Residents have been calling for council hearing since December. But according to council members, the hearing won’t just be for the sake of the public.
“Yesterday, January 22, I received a brief email update from the Mayor’s Office,” said an emailed statement from Councilman Jared Brossett. “It was the first update I received on the collapse since fall of last year. The building collapse presents serious public safety concerns. I support a public hearing on the Hard Rock collapse so that the public and the Council can receive a comprehensive update.”
The timing for the hearing is still unclear. While Brossett’s statement suggested a more immediate date, a statement from Councilwoman Kristin Palmer indicated it may not come until April.
“Our primary concern must first be ensuring the safe demolition the structure and retrieval of the remains of the workers still trapped inside,” Palmer said in an emailed statement. “Once that has occurred and the relevant investigations are complete, as the Councilmember of the district where this disaster occurred, I believe it is my responsibility to hold public hearing.
Palmer’s Chief of Staff Andrew Sullivan told The Lens that Palmer wanted to wait until the culmination of an investigation by the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration, or OSHA. He said that was supposed to take six months from the October collapse.
Council members Joe Giarrusso and Jason Williams also sent statements to The Lens in support of a hearing. Williams, like Brossett, called for a shorter timeline. And he said that on top of a hearing, he wants to create a special council committee to investigate.
“I truly hoped that the early initial investigations into the circumstances surrounding the Hard Rock collapse, such as the OSHA inquiry, would have produced desperately needed answers by now,” Williams’ statement said. “It is now abundantly clear that we as a city can no longer delay action on this matter. I am proposing the creation of a temporary special committee of the Council’s Criminal Justice Committee to thoroughly investigate & to begin gathering important information as we await submission of OSHA’s findings.”
The Hard Rock disaster gained renewed public attention and emotion this week. The city had previously placed a tarp on the crumbling building to cover one of the two remaining bodies still trapped in the debris. The tarp fell down this week, exposing the corpse to public view.
Although the city replaced the tarp on Wednesday, local writer Jules Bentley posted photos on Twitter of the dead worker’s legs emerging from the twisted metal of the failed building, prompting renewed outrage from residents over the collapse and the building’s continued presence in the city.
It also caused a very different kind of outrage from the Cantrell administration.
Cantrell spokesperson LaTonya Norton told news outlets that sharing photos of the body “is irresponsible, it is indefensible, and it is not who we are as New Orleanians.” That response angered some, who argued that Cantrell has reserved her strongest condemnation for residents, rather than the owners and developers of the Hard Rock who put the workers in an unsafe position to begin with.
In October, Cantrell said that affected business owners in the area around the Hard Rock site had been “downright disrespectful” and impatient about the street closures and evacuations. Some of those street closures are still in effect.
“How much more of an insult can you get?” asked Mike Howells at a Wednesday meeting about the situation at CCs Coffee on Esplanade Avenue. “We’re supposed to pretend that there isn’t this huge devastated building, worse yet with two bodies inside? We’re not supposed to be affected by that?”
Howells, a longtime resident who works in the French Quarter, was presiding over a meeting of the Committee for a Public Hearing on the Hard Rock Disaster, a small group of residents whose mission is described in their name.
“It will help people overcome a feeling of powerlessness,” Howells said. “Because right now they go, ‘Where do we start?’ By having a public hearing, this would give people a focal point for speaking truth to power. We don’t know all the issues that [the city] has, but we’re not going to learn them until we have a hearing.”
Trey Monaghan, a resident of the French Quarter, is organizing a march from the Hard Rock site to City Hall on Friday. One of his demands was that the council hold a public hearing.
“I am incredibly excited to see movement towards a public hearing,” he said. “I hope that the victims see this as another step closer towards the justice they are owed by all of us in the city.”
It’s still unclear what the format of the council hearing will be, but Howells and the committee have some questions in mind that they want answered, such as who will be held accountable for the disaster. Moreno’s Thursday press release said that “those responsible must be held to account.”
The consortium of developers of the Hard Rock Hotel is called 1031 Canal Street Development and is led by Mohan Kailas. Kailas did not respond to a request for comment.
So far, there is no sign that the city is pursuing consequences for Kailas and the other developers. No criminal investigations have been announced, and it’s unclear whether the city is pursuing fines for the myriad of municipal laws the property is potentially violating.
The Lens sent the Cantrell administration many of the questions brought up at the meeting. Officals only answered one of them, about who is in charge of the Hard Rock site and demolition.
“The City’s public safety leadership retains control of the scene as a disaster site,” said an emailed statement from communications director Beau Tidwell. “The owners of the site are wholly responsible for the demolition process. They bring their proposals before the City, and our public safety leadership approves or disapproves them based on potential public safety impact.”
Howells also wants to know whether some of the blame for the initial collapse lies with the city itself. A month before the collapse, The Times-Picayune/Advocate reported that there was a years-long federal investigation into corruption and bribery in the city’s Department of Safety and Permits. So far, one employee has been indicted by U.S. Attorney Peter Strasser. He pleaded guilty in October. Two others were suspended* from the department in connection with the investigation.
The Cantrell administration didn’t immediately answer questions about whether the alleged bribery scheme played a role in the construction failures at the Hard Rock Hotel. And it’s unclear what the Cantrell administration has done since the investigation was announced to right the ship, or whether the city is taking extra precautions on the several high-rise buildings being built in downtown New Orleans.
Ultimately, Howells sees the hearing as a chance to not only reflect on the Hard Rock disaster, but to take a comprehensive look at how the city pursues development and construction projects.
“We view what has happened as an assault on everyone of this city,” he said. “Of course we support the affected families and their request for justice. But we also see this as an opportunity to challenge business as usual politically in New Orleans. It explains, in the most graphic way possible, the consequences of how this city normally does business, and the price that people pay. So it goes way beyond this event.”
Moreno indicated she has a similar goal.
“I also believe we must work to craft proper laws, guidelines and oversight measures to prevent future harm to our people and this city,” her announcement said. “That work is underway now and meetings continue with stakeholders and union members to develop safeguards.”
This story was updated after publication to include additional comments from City Council members.
*Correction: As originally written, this story reported that two city employees were fired. In fact, they were placed on emergency suspension.