Flooded Cars Are Election Hot Button in New Orleans

May 12, 2006
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In the slow-moving recovery underway in the city of New Orleans, post-Katrina, flooded cars have become an unexpected hot button in the coming mayoral runoff election that pits Ray Nagin, who steered the city through the Category Three storm, against Lieut. Gov. Mitch Landrieu.

The vehicles in question are an estimated 50,000 cars and trucks ruined by the floods that killed more than 1200 city residents and forced more than half of the city’s population to flee to Houston, Atlanta and other points beyond. Even now, eight months after the storm, the cars can be found everywhere in the Crescent City: in median strips (called neutral grounds here), on the shoulders of Interstate 10, but mostly tucked under highway overpasses, where they were dragged off main thoroughfares and left for later removal.

The removal process hasn’t just lagged — it’s bogged. Nagin’s administration negotiated for months on a deal that would have allowed privateers to remove the cars and pay the city a flat $100 per vehicle. The vehicles would then be stripped and crushed. But the Mayor’s office says that it lacked the authority to declare the vehicles abandoned. Now, the city is looking at a deal that would be potentially far more costly to do the same thing.

The problem is typical of the obstacles to the city’s recovery. New Orleans doesn’t have the estimated $23 million to pay for the removal project, which the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has said it will reimburse — but only in full if the project is complete by June 30. After that, FEMA reduces the percentage it will reimburse the fractured city to 90 percent.

In the meantime, Nagin must face Landrieu in a runoff election that will shape the future of the city. And Landrieu is using the cars as a potent political football prior to the runoff. “New Orleans shouldn’t be the graveyard for abandoned cars,” says mayoral hopeful Landrieu (pronounced “lan-droo”) in a TV ad in which he stands amid a sea of flood-damaged vehicles.

Estimates from the local paper say it could take six months to remove all the vehicles from town. By that time, Nagin may not have a role at all in their removal. Though he snared 38 percent of the votes in the city’s mayoral election on April 22, he didn’t win a majority. Landrieu, who grabbed 29 percent in the first vote and has since lined up scores of endorsements, is heavily favored in the runoff, which is set for May 20.

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