It could have been a lot worse than a Mazda

By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary

When I wrote a whimsical New Year’s Eve sports prediction column last December in homage to my late father – who penned his for more than a half-century as a columnist for The States-Item and The Times-Picayune – the common thread was my grave doubt that the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board could dogpaddle fast enough to rise above its well-earned public reputation as the aquatic version of the 1980 Saints.

You may remember the 1980 Saints, whose sole purpose of existence seems to have been to teach those born in 1978 or 1979 to count to 15 – as in, 1-15 – and to use safety scissors to clip out three small holes in a Schwegmann’s, brown-paper grocery bag – as in, “two for the eyes and one for the mouth.”

The ’Aints created a “Baghead” cottage industry, losing their first 14 games in 1980, and then, in mid-December, they were inside Shea Stadium in New York taking on the Jets, a team almost equally as inept, whose contrails were last seen spiraling into the East River near LaGuardia Airport.

I was in the 5-degree press box that afternoon, and, as the sunlight faded over Shea, it started to snow. Somehow, playing in 46-mph winds, the ’Aints won, 21-20, avoiding the ignominy of becoming the first NFL team in history to go 0-16.

Thus, here were a few throwaway lines about the S&WB from my Dec. 22, 2018, prediction column for 2019:

FEBRUARY: In a nod to going green, the Sewerage & Water Board of New Orleans announces it is changing to steam-generated power for its 1895-era turbines. “We still have four months to work out the kinks before June 1,” a S&WB press release assures.

MARCH: The S&WB touts its progress: Crews have sucked four pounds of Mardi Gras beads from 17 of the city’s 68,000 catch basins, leaving only 67,983 to get to before June 1.

JUNE: S&WB’s steam-power initiative is ditched after a Lee Zurik investigation blows the lid on the scheme: It would have required 2,000 employees in white shrimp boots to operate pumps inside of “safe houses” that won’t be “safe” until 2035, when the new airport in Kenner is ready.

AUGUST: With steam power rejected as a way to fuel its turbines, S&WB issues an RFP on the prospect of using flint and steel.

OCTOBER: “Seafood City” king Al Scramuzza, 92, finally patents his groundbreaking crawfish stethoscope, which he made famous in the 1960s for its ability to discern small blockages of the heart. S&WB expresses interest.

NOVEMBER: S&WB responds to billing complaints – $135 in October, $975 in November – by attributing the fluctuating totals to a rounding problem. “It all evens out in the end,” press release says.

My dad used to remark how many people would return his prediction column to him in the mail with Xs for the misses and checkmarks for the hits. “I never knew so many grown people had crayons,” he told me.

When news broke last week that an entire Mazda 626 – all 3,000 pounds of it – was found wedged deep inside the belly of the vital Lafitte drainage canal in Mid-City, I pulled out my red crayon. I wasn’t happy about it, but next to the checkmark, I added a red asterisk because red Mardi Gras beads were even seen stringing out of the trunk.

Now, whether the beads were inside the trunk of the Mazda that mysteriously floated into the artery through which New Orleanians hope their surging stormwater will flow unabated into Lake Pontchartrain – or whether the beads were snagged by the Mazda’s rear-view mirror as they swam upstream like spawning salmon – remains to be seen.

In a moment of brutal candor, new S&WB chief Ghassan Korban – and I am not blaming him in the least for a century of problems that preceded him – remarked that it was likely that the path of least resistance had not been checked for blockages in, oh, 10 to 15 years.

Living in a subtropical climate, anything can happen in 15 years.

Forests can happen.

“We’re not surprised we found some impediments, but we’re a little surprised by the magnitude of the debris, including the car,” Korban said after a crane had lifted out the Mazda 626 like a tarpon 30 miles off the coast of Grand Isle. “We think there may be parts of other cars down there.”

And, God knows, parts of a few other things.

Let’s be thankful for two, unassailable facts:

Dr. Al Scramuzza’s crawfish stethoscope is still available to check for any blockages.

The last time I checked, even in primordial south Louisiana, a Mazda is not a Winnebago.

Check. Check.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at

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