Cover Story

The Year in Review

by Leslie Turk

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita overshadowed all in 2005. But before and after the storms, there was also no shortage of political buffoonery, bogus business deals, inspiring triumphs, sad goodbyes and bizarre disputes. The Independent Weekly remembers a year we won't soon forget.

On Aug. 25, Hurricane Katrina barely registered on the minds of Louisiana residents as it made landfall near Miami as a Category 1 hurricane. But the following week it headed back into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and turned into a Category 5 hurricane headed straight for New Orleans. It ultimately hit Louisiana at Category 3 strength, but the storm's huge size ' and the failure of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' floodwalls at the London Avenue and 17th Street Canals ' unleashed horrors that will be seared into the psyche of Louisiana and the rest of the world forever.

The Crescent City was plunged into chaos and anarchy as communication systems failed, huge swaths of the city flooded, looters took to the streets and rescue units frantically tried to save residents trapped in attics and on rooftops. Substantial federal help took five days to arrive, and a nation watched in shock as images of stranded New Orleanians desperate for food and water were broadcast during nonstop coverage of the tragedy.

In the storm's aftermath, a newfound sense of citizen outrage emerged, as politicians at every level ' especially President Bush, Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ' faced scathing questions about the government's woefully inadequate response to the hurricane.The death toll ' which is still being counted ' topped 1,000.

Category 3-strength Hurricane Rita added to Louisiana's misery a month later, making landfall in western Louisiana and decimating coastal areas such as Cameron Parish. Louisiana now faces its greatest challenge yet, as the state's future depends on crucial decisions regarding the rebuilding process, the state budget, coastal erosion and our health care and education systems, for starters. The storms are over, but their legacy will be felt for years to come.

2005 didn't start off well for former Opelousas Police Chief Larry Caillier, and it didn't get any better. In January, the Louisiana Legislative Auditor's Office released its scathing audit of the Opelousas Police Department, contending that the department had set up bank accounts outside the control of the city and misappropriated more than $225,000 in federal grant money. The chief who had been widely praised by Opelousas citizens for reducing drugs and crime in the city was indicted by the state attorney general's office on charges of malfeasance in office, money laundering, public payroll fraud, forgery and obstruction of justice. He later resigned from office on Nov. 15, after serving 15 years in office. Caillier is also facing federal charges of making a false claim to a federal agency. He goes to trial on state charges in March.

Imagine buying a used computer from Goodwill for $9, replacing the power supply, firing up the machine and finding the records of a local mortgage company ' including the personal financial information of more than 700 of its customers. That's what 20-year-old Robert Zorn says happened to him, and when he tried to sell the computer back to Coast Capital Mortgage Co. for $3,500, the company cried extortion. Zorn was later ordered by Judge Thomas Duplantier to return a list of names he had retained to the court after voluntarily handing over the machine to the district attorney's office.

An Independent Weekly investigation revealed that the architect and engineers for the Hilton Garden Inn across from the Cajundome had no construction permit and no third-party inspections. Situated on state land, the hotel is owned by private interests, a matter that had the state thinking LCG was inspecting the job, and LCG thinking the state was on top of it. Enter the Louisiana State Plumbing Board, which found potentially "explosive" problems created by an unlicensed plumber and ordered all of the plumbing yanked. UL official Wayne Denton now says the hotel's inspections "far exceed all the standards." When evacuees came to town and filled every available room in town, the UL hotel was still under construction, where it has been for two years ' and where it remains today.

Shut in oil and natural gas production in the Gulf of Mexico from hurricane damage sent oil prices climbing to more than $65 a barrel; at one point a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline surged to $3, prompting a sell-off of gas-guzzling SUVs. Natural gas likewise topped off at more than $14.60 per thousand cubic feet, creating sticker shock as September and October electric bills arrived.

On June 19, Hamilton's Place held its last dance. For nearly half a century, the family-run business on Verot School Road had been the spot for locals and tourists in search of authentic zydeco music. After running the club for more than 40 years, 76-year-old William Hamilton closed the club after a double bill of Geno Delafose and Keith Frank, citing declining patrons and liquor sales, as well as rising band costs. "The bands charge so high," he said, "you don't know if you're going to make it or not. So I said, 'Look, it don't pay y'all, and it don't pay me.' I'll just as well close it."

An Iranian immigrant caused quite the stir downtown by selling sausage dogs in the middle of the night on Jefferson Street. Some local businesses claimed that Faramarz "Frankie" Yaghobi's business, a mobile kitchen in an enclosed trailer parked in public parking spaces during the week, left fewer spaces for the daytime business crowd. Then a city-parish ordinance was amended to prevent any business from operating in a public parking space. Yaghobi dodged the revised ordinance by moving onto a private parking lot near the corners of Jefferson and Congress, where he continues to sling out the tastiest sausage po-boys you can find in town at 3 a.m.

Thirteen lawsuits, including five that allege excessive force, plagued the Lafayette Police Department and continue to threaten the financial security of a self-insured Lafayette Consolidated Government. State police also arrested Cpl. John Keith Richard, one of four Lafayette officers who had been placed on administrative leave in June as part of an internal affairs investigation reportedly linked to off-duty security at Club 410 and LCG's substance abuse policy. A 10-year veteran, Richard and two others on leave, Cpl. Trampus Gaspard and officer Jason Galatas, were fired, and the fourth returned to work.

After 15 years of serving some of the best downhome cooking in the south, Edie's shuttered its Pinhook Road location. A downtown institution for 23 years, Chris' Poboys soon followed. Before these indies closed their doors, chain restaurant Romano's Macaroni Grill said goodbye to Lafayette after about a year in the market. Notable restaurant openings in 2005 included seafood and steak restaurant Phares' in the old Baracca's location on Ambassador Caffery Parkway; The Lafayette Townhouse in the original Townhouse location off Girard Park Drive, with former Emeril's Delmonico Chef Al Massa in the kitchen; and Bonefish Grill in River Ranch. Carrabba's, a new Italian eatery that's part of the Outback chain of restaurants, is under construction in River Ranch. Meanwhile, venerable eatery Charley G's celebrated its 20th anniversary, and Lafayette's first full-scale farmer's market, City Garden Market, opened in June at River Ranch's Town Square.

For weeks, UL officials tried to keep the horse farm land-swap deal quiet ' initially implying the land would be sold to buy property closer to campus. When they realized the cat was out of the bag, officials quickly issued a press release that laid out particulars of the swap ' 36 acres of the horse farm for 4 acres of residential property on Girard Park, both supposedly valued at $3.25 million. Since that time, The Independent Weekly reported major problems with the structure ' and potential legal ramifications ' of the swap. A Dec. 7 Independent editorial called for UL President Ray Authement to back away from the proposal and entertain alternatives for acquiring land closer to campus. That prompted the Board of Supervisors for the UL System to get off its collective butt and ask for independent appraisals of both properties, among other demands. The editorial also noted City-Parish President Joey Durel's interest in converting the 100-acre horse farm into a community park. The Lafayette business community is rallying around the idea, offering to put together a master plan for the property and structure the financial transaction to acquire it ' all at no expense to taxpayers.

After 44 years behind bars, Wilbert Rideau was released from prison on Jan. 15. In three separate trials, Rideau was found guilty of murdering Julia Ferguson in 1961 during the course of a bank robbery in Lake Charles, but higher courts threw out each conviction. His last and fourth trial found him guilty of manslaughter, and he was sentenced to the maximum time allowed in 1961 ' 21 years in prison. He was immediately released on time served. While incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and after being released from death row, Rideau became an award-winning journalist as the editor of the prison's newsmagazine The Angolite, prompting Life magazine to deem him "the most rehabilitated prisoner in America" in 1993.

Like no one before her, KATC's General Manager Nannette Frye made the right moves and took the ABC affiliate to the top of the local Nielsen ratings in early 2005, prevailing for the first time over CBS affiliate/market leader KLFY. Like everyone before her, she then left the station ' after a little more than three years on the job.

Festival International de Louisiane representatives touched off a firestorm when they asked musical group The Mammals not to play an anti-George W. Bush song before the group's second performance at the festival. Noting that FIL receives taxpayer monies and is held on city property, free speech advocates decried the move as censorship and blasted FIL's decision. FIL executives then said a new performer's contract addressing the issue would be considered, but no new policy was implemented.

37-year-old Lafayette native Anne Rolfes spearheads environmental watchdog organization The Bucket Brigade, and the group's work was never more important than it was post-Katrina. Rolfes and Bucket Brigade volunteers worked tirelessly in the especially hard-hit area of St. Bernard Parish, where a 1 million-gallon Murphy Oil spill sent waves of petroleum into residents' homes. Two weeks after Rolfes told The Independent that she doubted Murphy Oil's truthfulness and legal tactics after Katrina, a federal judge ordered the company to tell residents that they should talk to an attorney before accepting any settlement from Murphy Oil. The judge also told the company it must disclose its payments to The Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health, the firm it hired to conduct environmental tests.

The Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum was on a roll early this year, particularly with its exhibition of the works of American master Robert Rauschenberg. But longtime behind-the-scenes disagreements between Director Herman Mhire and UL President Ray Authement came to a head over another exhibition. When Robert and Jolie Shelton, the collectors of the current silver exhibit, disagreed with Mhire's proposed presentation of the pieces, Authement placed Mhire on administrative leave. Mhire in turn announced his retirement, ending his 17-year tenure as the museum's director. His position hasn't been filled.

George Rodrigue opened his first Lafayette gallery (at 2021 Pinhook Road) after his New Orleans gallery was damaged in Hurricane Katrina. Retired UL Lafayette fine arts and Louisiana architecture instructor Fred Daspit emerged onto the art scene at the age of 74; Daspit exhibited his exquisite paintings and reliquary sculptures for the first time at the UL Art Museum and at Gallery 549. IN MEMORIAM
Lafayette lost a number of community leaders and cultural icons in 2005. Gone but not forgotten: oilman and philanthropist Alfred Lamson; former Police Chief John Hyde; former Lafayette Mayor Ray Bertrand; art lover and philanthropist Lulu Hilliard; broadcasting pioneer Thomas G. Pears Jr.; bluesman Harry Hypolite; fiddler Rufus Thibodeaux and Goldband Records founder Eddie Shuler.

Retail icon and Lafayette institution Abdalla's closed its doors at the end of the year, citing declining profits in the face of increased competition from chain stores. The Abdalla family opened its first store in Opelousas in the 1890s and expanded to 11 locations throughout the state, before steady downsizing left its trademark store on St. Mary Boulevard ' opened in 1967 ' as the last Abdalla's location standing. It was an unprecedented run; the Abdallas outlasted other Louisiana family-owned retail giants such as Maison Blanche, D.H. Holmes and Wormser's. Co-owner Barbara Abdalla Black wistfully noted, "Everything has its time, and I guess it is time."

It was a tough year for Louisiana's venerable sugar cane industry. Two of the state's oldest sugar mills, the Jeanerette Sugar Co. and the Iberia Sugar Co-op, shut down operations due to lagging production. Then came the Central American Free Trade Agreement, followed by Katrina and Rita. CAFTA, which loosened trade tariffs between the United States and five Central American countries and the Dominican Republic, was a divisive issue and almost evenly split lawmakers on Capitol Hill. (It passed the U.S. House of Representatives by two votes.) In Louisiana, CAFTA created strange bedfellows and rifts that defied normal political boundaries. Shreveport Republican Jim McCrery and New Orleans Democrat William Jefferson were the only two members of Louisiana's Congressional delegation to support the agreement. The American Farm Bureau and the Port of New Orleans were heavily in favor of CAFTA, and it was also backed by local rice, cotton and soy farmers who saw CAFTA as an opportunity to export their crops. Sugar farmers and shrimpers, on the other hand, vehemently opposed the agreement because of the flood of cheap imports that threaten their livelihood. With CAFTA's passage on July 28, the Louisiana sugar industry fears increased sugar imports could be its demise.

Longtime residents of Cypremort Point filed suit against landowner Cypremort Point Inc. in June, claiming that CPI was unjustly profiting through exorbitant rent increases. Tenants were notified in November 2004 that leases would rise in cost from 240-1,200 percent, and claimed they were unable to pay the new prices or sell their camps because prospective buyers were scared off by the escalating costs. CPI then offered to sell land to camp owners, and Hurricane Rita threw an unexpected twist into the situation, as Cypremort Point property sustained significant damage. "The pressure to buy the property has been greatly reduced," said Tenants at Cypremort Point President Weldon Taquino. "It seems like Rita called [CPI's] bluff."

After years of languishing in the shadow of south side expansion, the north side saw a flurry of new development to the tune of $300 million. Traditional neighborhood development Couret Place, gated community La Bon Vie and subdivision Coteau Acadian are bringing up to 1,000 new homes and family residences to the north side. "As the south side has grown more and more congested ' and property values continue to go higher ' investors are looking for land that is currently less expensive," said Lafayette City Parish-President Joey Durel.

Grant Street Dancehall manager Don Kight announced he would close Lafayette's oldest downtown live music venue at year's end, citing dwindling crowds, parking issues and legal disputes with his landlord. But while Kight may be on his way out, recent developments suggest the venerable venue will keep rockin'. Garden Properties, which owns the Grant Street building, recently signed an agreement with a new tenant expected to purchase the building within the next three months. Garden Properties rep Tim Mahoney says the undisclosed tenant plans to keep Grant Street open as a live music venue and is negotiating with Kight over rights to the club's name and equipment.

After announcing its intentions to offer low-cost phone, cable and high-speed Internet service over a citywide fiber optic network in April 2004, Lafayette Utilities System hoped to spend 2005 hooking up customers. Instead, they spent most of the year in court. After winning at the polls in a July referendum and defending itself successfully against three lawsuits, LUS expects an appeals court ruling on the latest challenge (courtesy of erstwhile phone company BellSouth) to its bond ordinance in the coming weeks. LUS Director Terry Huval says if the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals rules in LUS' favor, they could sell bonds by March 2006 and begin serving customers sometime in late 2007. Unless, of course, BellSouth appeals to the state Supreme Court.

After a poor showing in the 2004 elections, the Louisiana Democratic Party was ripe for new party leadership. Almost a year later, the party is back at square one ' for the second time in two years, the party's executive committee will be voting on a new chairman to take the helm in January. Shaw Group CEO Jim Bernhard stepped down as party chair last month due to potential conflicts of interest from his business contracts with the state. The turnover comes in the midst of a critical rebuilding time for the state and the party. The new chairman (either Baton Rouge attorney Chris Whittington or Shreveport party vice chairman Larry Ferdinand) faces an uphill battle. "His most critical role is going to be raising money to mount an offensive and a defense to maintain some seats in the legislature," says central committee member and Opelousas State Rep. Don Cravins Jr. Cravins says Democratic legislators are bracing for a big push by the Republican Party to take control of the Legislature in 2007. Three Democratic legislators switched to the Republican Party in 2005, and Cravins says more could follow suit in 2006.WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE, WHO NEEDS ENEMIES?
In autumn 2004, when hundreds of school children were left standing on streetcorners on the first day of school, school system Transportation Director Daniel Michel's days looked numbered. But Superintendent Dr. James Easton defended Michel. The tide turned this year when Easton recommended the school board not renew Michel's contract. Then Michel refused to attend a meeting with the superintendent without his attorney, and Michel's job hung in limbo for more than two months while Easton, Michel and their lawyers feuded over the legality of publicly discussing Michel's job performance. The school board finally terminated Michel at a public hearing earlier this month. Michel could still file suit over his termination

Cajundome Director Greg Davis' biggest problem in early 2005 was a continued deficit in the arena and the Convention Center's operating budget. The IceGators folded, and the Cajundome was struggling to attract big name concerts and events that are its biggest moneymakers. By Sept. 1 none of that mattered, as the dome became a home for approximately 17,000 evacuees in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Davis and his staff pulled 24-hour days, often sleeping in their offices. In addition to providing refuge for storm-struck neighbors, the dome also became the primary outlet for locals to volunteer or donate supplies. Two months after their last evacuees left, Davis faced an estimated $2.5 million loss in gross revenue. But if FEMA comes through with the $2.8 million in recovery program funds that the dome is counting on, Davis says the Cajundome just might survive the year in the black.