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Super Bowl blackout highlights failure of New Orleans infrastructure

Host Melissa Harris-Perry closed out Sunday's show with a reminder that even as we get caught up in the frenzy of the Super Bowl, we should remain

Host Melissa Harris-Perry closed out Sunday's show with a reminder that even as we get caught up in the frenzy of the Super Bowl, we should remain conscientious that the game is being played on sacred ground: the Louisiana (now Mercedes-Benz) Superdome. The structure is both a reminder of the city’s revival after Hurricane Katrina, and the suffering and loss that happened under its roof during and after the storm.

When the dome suddenly lost power during Sunday night's Super Bowl, people around the country began mentioning ghosts of Katrina and Superdome spirits.

The Superdome was partially built on top of the historic Girod Street Cemetery. What now constitutes part of the southeast corner of the Superdome parking lot was once a Protestant cemetery housing more than 22,000 bodies. Founded in 1822, the Girod Street Cemetery did not bar slaves from purchasing tombs. As a result, it housed a large number of society tombs, erected by and for enslaved New Orleanians. When the cemetery was demolished in 1957 due to neglect, the remains were moved to two separate locations: one for white bodies, and one for black bodies. Nine years later, the site was chosen over twenty other locations to build a domed stadium.

There is no memorial to the inhabitants of those gravesites, nor one to those who suffered inside the dome during Hurricane Katrina. Despite exaggerated accounts in the aftermath of the storm, estimated actual deaths in the Superdome were six to 10 people. The real tragedy comes not in the death count, but the 20,000 living, breathing bodies that sought refuge inside the building and went for days without food, water, sanitation, and decent medical care. Many hailed the 2009 Saints Super Bowl victory as emblematic of the resurgence of the city, but the Lombardi Trophy didn’t bring New Orleans residents a fix for the corruptly-managed Road Home program or counseling for those still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Associated Press reported that a power outage at the Superdome was a concern prior to the game. But for some locals, watching the power fail in the Superdome may have triggered painful memories, which were no doubt aggravated by former FEMA director Michael Brown’s offensive commentary. But few locals were shocked at the failure of New Orleans infrastructure. The rampant and enduring outages during Hurricane Issac only a few months prior, in August, left many residents griping about the antiquated power grid.

During that storm, 85% of the city lost power in the 90-degree August heat and high humidity. At least half of the 126,000 Entergy New Orleans customers waited more than four days for electricity, and it took longer than a week for 99% of power to be restored. Residents were relieved when the repaired levees held, but in the aftermath many (quite literally) heated discussions centered on whether the lengthy Entergy repairs were the fault of the city underinvesting in public infrastructure.

The New Orleans City Council adopted resolution R-12-426 in November requesting a formal investigation into Entergy’s “electrical transmission and distribution system infrastructure, investment, and planning.” The report is also tasked with explaining how Entergy spent federal grants given after Katrina for restoration and infrastructure strengthening. That report is due February 6th.

Regardless of what the report finds, updating the New Orleans grid will be expensive—Entergy reported that transitioning to buried power lines would cost close to $1.5 billion, and come at customer’s expense. Governor Bobby Jindal, champion of regressive state policy, is an unlikely candidate to propose an overwhelming new investment in infrastructure, particularly if it would carry any additional taxes. As Jindal continues to push the elimination of state income tax to attract outside business, the city made a show of its need for local infrastructure investment on television’s biggest stage.

Posturing to outsiders while undercutting the services and needs of locals is a familiar refrain for New Orleans. The city’s most recent infrastructure project was a $53 million new streetcar line stretching eight blocks from the city’s Amtrak station to the start of the French Quarter. Articles about the streetcar line touted the benefits for city visitors—one highlighted two Memphis tourists who came in on Amtrak and noted “a streetcar would have been nice on a hot June morning.”

The new 1.2-mile line, built just in time for the Super Bowl, caused anguish amongst residents in areas without adequate public transportation who could use a street car for their daily commute, on hot June mornings and every other day. Personally, I love the newly paved, pothole-free streets downtown we got in time for the Super Bowl, but know more than a fair share of other neighborhoods whose roads could use such doting attention.

For 34 minutes on Sunday night, nearly half of all U.S. households were forced to join New Orleans in asking, “What’s causing this problem and how long will it last?” On a national stage, the solution came quickly, and along with it, a host of explanations and apologies by government and city officials hoping for assurance the disruption wouldn't prevent future opportunities to host the big game. This level of accountability should not be limited to prime time. We need our government to invest that same level of urgency when a sinkhole displaces neighborhoods indefinitely, when the employees of our service economy ask for fair pay and when citizens campaign for smaller jails.

New Orleans is a fantastic Super Bowl host. However, we need our politicians to put our city first, ahead of personal, political, and economic aspirations.

Sara Kugler is the program coordinator at the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South at Tulane University, which is headed by host Melissa Harris-Perry. She resides in New Orleans, LA. Find the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Facebook, and on follow them on Twitter at @AJCProject.