Carnival Kicks Off in New Orleans

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There are fewer parades and far fewer spectators — but party planners say Mardi Gras must go on. Tony Cox discusses how the city is faring with Rep. William Jefferson, from the 2nd district in New Orleans.

TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

There are fewer parades and far fewer spectators but party planners say Mardi Gras must go on and it is. Festivities are in full swing this weekend and will culminate on Fat Tuesday next week. That's the day before the Christian period of fasting called Lent. It's reported that less than half of the pre-Katrina's population has been able to return, but many residents say the 150th Mardi Gras celebration is giving the city a much needed morale boost. Others have criticized plans to forge ahead with the event just five months after a storm that claimed 1,300 lives.

Democratic Congressman William Jefferson, who represents the second district in New Orleans, joins us now by phone from the Crescent City. Congressman, nice to have you with us.

Representative WILLIAM JEFFERSON (Democrat, New Orleans): Thank you very much.

COX: Let's talk about Mardi Gras first. There are several things on the agenda I want to go through with you, but the first is the Mardi Gras festivities. I guess you were in a position of damned if you do and damned if you don't, weren't you?

Representative JEFFERSON: Absolutely. I can understand the need, the reason for the ambivalence over this whole question. There are so many families out of town who can't participate in the Mardi Gras festivities. After all, it is a family kind of an outing, at least for the parades as far as it is, and such tragedy has marked our state until there are many who feel that it's not a time to celebrate. Others feel that it's a welcome break from just focusing on the tragedy.

And the families that can come out are out, and I saw a lot of that this past Saturday. And, of course, the city is hoping to have a refocus in the economy and a little bit there for some merchants, and bring in some much needed revenue into the city in the form of sales taxes.

COX: Let's talk for a moment, if we can, about your recently announced plans that House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi will be joining you and others in a Congressional delegation that will be coming to New Orleans next week and going through the Gulf Coast region. Tell us a little bit more about that and what we can expect from it.

Representative JEFFERSON: We have had a few committees come down and maybe 30 or 40 members over the life of this experience we're having down here now, and every time everyone comes, he or she is moved by what they see and leave with a new commitment to work on the issues with us back in Washington. I think the more members who see what is happening actually with their own eyes and they can walk the levee breaches and who can walk the neighborhood, the more informed they will be and the better off we will be in getting us to join us in the reality that this is a long term recovery process.

It's not a quick fix; it's not anything that's going to make an appropriation that's done. They're going to have to stay with us for a long time because this is a huge tragedy. We want to make the point to them too that it wasn't just the storm; it was a man-made disaster of the Corp of Engineers not doing these levees properly that really drowned our city. So there's culpability on the part of the federal government. We want them to understand that it needs to be therefore addressed with that in mind.

COX: The White House has issued its report of 125 recommendations for how the government should have reacted better to Hurricane Katrina, and how the government should be prepared as hurricane season approaches again for the year 2006. What's your reaction to the White House report?

Representative JEFFERSON: I think that until we have a focus on natural disasters, apart from the overall issue of terrorism, when we have that as an isolated focus in the White House, with the level of officers who have the kind of clout that often needs to coordinate the various resources of the federal government, we will not have an answer to meeting our needs down here. We don't have that from the White House report. You can't prevent the natural disasters from occurring. So there we're talking about the recovery, preparedness, planning, that sort of thing.

Mr. Chertoff is probably very good at terror planning and prevention, and that sort of thing. But we have not yet seen him perform well on the natural disaster side of it. And I am concerned that unless we separate these functions out, we really won't have an answer to our problems.

COX: Dollars are certainly an issue with regard to the rebuilding of the city of New Orleans, and your office has issued a statement from you in which you've expressed some concern about the proposed language for the forth Hurricane Relief Supplemental Proposal that has been submitted by the White House that calls for $4.2 billion; but your office says that you don't like the way that money is to be limited.

Representative JEFFERSON: Exactly. It sounds like we're talking about an emphasis on buying people out. That is a recipe for depopulating New Orleans, as opposed to repopulating it. And for many of us who are committed to the idea of bringing back the city and making sure that everyone who left has a chance to return, and neighborhoods have a chance to be reestablished, this is a matter of great concern for us. We want to make sure that we aren't passing something in Washington whose major purpose is to turn places that used be neighborhoods into greenlands and unoccupied areas where neighborhoods disappear and never come back.

COX: Who do you think should be in charge of deciding how these monies should be spent on the ground in New Orleans?

Representative JEFFERSON: I think as close to home as possible. The local government people are already making decisions about this, as much as possible, with, of course, some coordination support from our state government. I believe that we have found in our trip the Netherlands and other places that the technology is perfectly addressing our flooding needs.

In the Netherlands we saw places 20 feet below sea level protected by a system of levees and barriers and canals and pumping stations and all the rest. And we are only four and a half feet below sea level at the lowest point in our city, and in most places, much higher than that. So we know that it's technically possible to protect our city to make our area survivable.

And I think the question we ought to confront is not where we rebuild, but when and how can we rebuild. And if we do it that way, we will build back our city. And I think the local people have to have say in this, and not just local government, but local people.

COX: Democratic Congressman William Jefferson in New Orleans. Sir, thank you for your time. And although it's not the same as it was, enjoy Mardi Gras as much as you can.

Representative JEFFERSON: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

COX: And an audience note now. Our very own Farai Chiydea and Christopher Johnson are in New Orleans. They will be filing reports next week.

(Soundbite of music)

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