Streetcar: A Mayor, An Inauguration and Two Crises
Dutch Morial takes the reigns
May 1, 1978 was a fine day, especially for Dutch Morial who stood at the place of honor on the grandstand erected in front of City Hall. The crowd watched as Morial, dressed in the traditional white suit of mayors-elect on inauguration day, raised his right hand and took the oath. It would forever be noted that Morial was the city’s first black mayor, another notch in the record book for a city that had long ago elected first mayors who were not born in France; Italian, Irish, from upstate; French but born in America. For this day, it was the celebration that mattered.
May 2 was a day of getting down to business. The new administration began to pursue its plans, workers took down the viewing stands and, across from City Hall, some environmentalists were constructing various solar power devices which would be displayed the next day to promote the energy future. Though it would be on a Wednesday, it would be called SUN DAY.
On May 3 the sun would be challenged. It was blocked out by a ceiling of dark clouds. By early morning the rain began. It would not stop. Now in only his 48th hour of governing, Morial presided over a city that was under water. Streets were flooded; rowboats were the vehicle of choice. The airport was closed. People were trapped. Not since Hurricane Betsy in 1965 had the city seen so much water damage. This was not Katrina- type flooding where the water came in from levee breaks. This was water from above. Governing a city is always tough.
On May 3 the reality had gotten even tougher. There was too much concrete and not enough drainage. Even the city’s pride, the Superdome, covered land that had nowhere to drain. In a city below sea level the subsurface pipe system was inadequate. What became forever known as the “May Third Flood” sent a message: without a drainage overhaul urban flooding was going to be a frequent part of the future.
At a time when he could have been absorbing the glory of being a new mayor, Morial’s problems began from the start and there was more thunder in the distance. The New Orleans police were threatening to strike; what’s more, there was talk that, without a settlement, they were going to do so during the Carnival season. Without police for crowd control there could be no parade; without the parades the tourism-based economy would take a hit. Talks intensified as the season grew near, but there was no settlement. Then came the day when the police walked, but they had miscalculated the civic resolve of the krewes who they thought would do anything to parade. Instead, the Carnival captains stood firmly behind Morial. It was a fine moment of people doing the right thing; the mostly white krewes backed the first black mayor in his effort to break a strike, although early in his career he had been a labor lawyer. Morial knew the pain that the police were feeling, but he also knew that giving in to their demands would have been a financial disaster for the city and given the unions too much control. There were no parades in New Orleans during Carnival season that year, but there was still Mardi Gras, the celebration. On that day, the French Quarter was alive with maskers frolicking through the streets. National Guard troops called in to provide protection tried to stand firm as girls danced around them. The soldiers held back smiles as they glanced at the balconies and saw things for which basic training had never prepared them.
During the course of the strike, Edwin Edwards, serving one of his terms as governor, received a phone call from Morial. Edwards and Morial were both classic Democrat Moderate-Liberals. They got along well, though the governor had the upper hand with his wit.
Answering the phone, Edwards teased Morial with a mock complaint that since he became mayor it had been one problem after another; first the flood now the police strike.
By Ash Wednesday 1980, with Mardi Gras over, the police strike would have lost its leverage and the striking ended. It was a victory for the mayor.
Within 10 months Morial had faced two major crises beginning on his second full day in office. Inauguration day must have seemed so distant. Now he could use a month of Sun Days.