Stephanie Grace: Mood is different for start of Landrieu’s new term

Revisiting Mitch Landrieu’s first inaugural address is a little like traveling back to another era. Written only four years ago, the New Orleans mayor’s first official speech reads like a message in a bottle from a far more precarious time.

Katrina was already five years in the past, but Landrieu’s tone made it perfectly clear that, the storm was still a tangible presence. So, it felt perfectly appropriate that he opened by thanking the first responders, volunteers and taxpayers who had “helped us survive, recover and rebuild.”

The event also marked the long-awaited end of what many residents had come to see as a second, lesser disaster: Ray Nagin’s second term. Landrieu, overwhelmingly elected in a wave of buyer’s remorse after his failed 2006 bid, graciously thanked the outgoing mayor and his wife “for your service to our city during a most difficult time.” Had he known then what would come to light during Nagin’s recent corruption trial, he might have chosen his words differently.

And hanging over it all was a fresh calamity. Even as Landrieu spoke, oil was gushing menacingly from BP’s Macondo Well into the Gulf of Mexico 50 miles offshore and would continue to flow freely for two more months. The spill was a particularly cruel blow to a region that, after the Saints’ euphoric Super Bowl win, finally seemed to be turning the corner from the last environmental catastrophe.

As he spoke outside Gallier Hall that May 2010 morning, Landrieu acknowledged all that but sought to focus on a future that, frankly, still felt pretty uncertain.

“Let’s stop thinking about rebuilding the city we were and start dreaming about the city we want to become,” Landrieu said. “Come hell and high water, and we’ve had plenty of both, New Orleans will survive.”

Now, four years later, that doesn’t sound nearly as audacious as it did back then.

When Landrieu takes the stage at the sparklingly restored Saenger Theater on Monday to kick off his second term, the mayor — like any good politician, a master of symbolism — will surely talk about the renewal the project represents.

You can bet he’ll touch on all sorts of big projects that are coming to fruition, from new community centers to hospitals to plans for a new airport, as well as strong tourism numbers, demonstrable progress righting the city’s finances and reducing blight, and many more indicators of recovery and success.

Just as surely, some listeners will roll their eyes and, instead, zero in on all the challenges the still city faces: a murder rate that hasn’t dropped nearly enough, persistent barriers keeping some New Orleanians from benefiting from the city’s boom, and daunting bills that all seem to be coming due at once. Then, there are the stalled initiatives, such as the long-awaited redevelopment of the World Trade Center, which collapsed when the city rejected the contractor’s “best and final” offer.

They, like the mayor, will have a point.

The city’s financial obligations are mounting. Landrieu talks a lot about court-ordered firefighter pensions and the mandate to fulfill federal police and jail consent decrees, but he also has to find a way to keep the city’s libraries and much-lauded health clinics afloat. While testifying in Baton Rouge this week for higher city taxes on hotel stays and cigarettes, the mayor said that “the model that we have right now for financing the city is unsustainable and cannot continue.” The hotel tax bill eked out of committee by just one vote, and the cigarette tax died.

Despite all that, it’s hard to look back to where the city was when Landrieu took office and not feel optimistic.

All those problems? They’re not so different from the ones other cities face. In fact, they’re pretty much the same difficulties that New Orleans confronted before Katrina and would probably be facing had the storm never made that fateful westward turn. Things have actually returned to normal, or at least what passes for normal around here.

Huge challenges remain, but the overarching question is more whether the city can thrive, not if it will survive in the first place. As Landrieu asserted that morning four years ago — and as even the most pessimistic observers would surely acknowledge by now — it has, and it will.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com. Read her blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/gracenotes. Follow her on Twitter @stephgracenola.