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Abortion battle delays flood aid for New Orleans amid hurricane fears

Floodwaters near the Superdome in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina at the end of August 2005. On Aug. 18, 2022, the state’s bond commission voted to temporarily block a $39 million line of credit to the city for a power station to combat flooding in an area ravaged by Hurricane Katrina until the Democratic mayor and council rescind vows to defy the state’s new abortion ban. (Eric Gay/AP)
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The abortion rights battle between conservative states and their liberal cities claimed another casualty on Thursday after Louisiana state officials delayed storm aid to New Orleans even as the city faced a flood advisory and predictions of an above-average hurricane season.

At the urging of Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry, the state’s bond commission voted 7 to 6 on Thursday to temporarily block a $39 million line of credit — which the city planned to use for a power station to combat flooding in an area ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — until the Democratic mayor and council rescind vows to defy the state’s new abortion ban. All who voted to delay funding were Republicans or their proxies, although some Republicans on the commission voted not to delay.

“The officials in New Orleans took an oath of office to support and enforce the laws of our State, yet they have decided that some laws are not worthy of enforcement,” Landry said in a statement posted on Facebook, condemning “the city’s open defiance of the will of the people of Louisiana” and calling the vote “another step toward ensuring the parishes and municipalities of our State comply with the laws of our State.” Landry’s office declined further comment Friday, instead highlighting his past comments.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell remained defiant.

“I am disappointed, but not surprised, by the manufactured crisis of the attorney general, who has once again delayed critical infrastructure funding in the middle of hurricane season,” Cantrell said in a statement. “I will continue to prioritize necessary improvements to our city’s aging infrastructure, while fighting for the reproductive rights of all women.”

After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Louisiana enacted one of the nation’s strictest abortion bans: outlawing abortion without exceptions for rape and incest, allowing the procedure only when a pregnant person’s life is in danger. Opponents legally challenged the measure, passed in 2006, in anticipation of the Supreme Court ruling. It was initially blocked in court, but ultimately was allowed to take effect last month.

As legal challenges failed, and the state’s three abortion clinics announced plans to close and relocate out of state, the New Orleans mayor, city council, sheriff and district attorney vowed to oppose the ban. The city council passed a resolution directing officials — including police and prosecutors — not to use city funds to enforce it. New Orleans police directed officers not to issue summonses or make arrests under the law. Similar actions have been taken by other Democratic cities in predominantly Republican states.

“Equal access to abortion care is essential for social and economic equality and reproductive autonomy,” the council’s resolution said, emphasizing its “commitment to protecting the rights of its residents to make reproductive health decisions, including abortion care.”

Landry — who is considered a likely candidate for governor next year — said he considered the council’s action a direct challenge to state authority. He serves on the commission, and when it first considered the city’s flood funding last month, his proxy opposed it, delaying a vote.

At Thursday’s meeting, Landry gave the New Orleans council an ultimatum: enforce the ban or lose the flood aid.

“If they want this project to move forward, rescind the resolution,” Landry said.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who opposes abortion, had supported the city’s flood funding, and his representatives on the board voted for it.

“The idea that you seek to punish all the people living in a certain area because you are at odds with some of their elected officials, that’s not a reasonable approach,” Edwards said when the vote was delayed last month.

On Thursday, Edwards’s executive counsel, Matthew Block, appeared on his behalf as a member of the commission and argued before the vote that the city’s position was moot since it does not have the power to prosecute those violating the ban and the state’s abortion clinics had closed.

“There are no abortions being performed in Louisiana, much less in Orleans Parish, right now,” Block said. “So this idea that because there were statements made and a resolution passed that, somehow in the future, there might not be enforcement of the law — that’s not happening right now.”

Block said the legislature should decide whether city projects receive state financing, as it had in approving New Orleans officials’ request for flood aid, not the bond commission.

State Sen. Bret Allain, a Republican who serves on the commission, told members it was “problematic” for the state board to target New Orleans over its abortion stance.

But Landry disagreed, saying: “We should not defer the ability to use the tools at our disposal to bring them to heel.”

Jimmy Harris, a Democratic state senator from New Orleans serving as a proxy on the commission, told its members the funding would help protect about 384,000 people. Harris said he had just received a text about a storm underway that had prompted a flood advisory for the city.

“That’s what we’re dealing with. That’s what this particular project is attempting to help us, to where we don’t have to drown,” Harris said.

The historical peak of hurricane season is mid-September, with the busiest stretch from late August to mid-October. A given season averages 14 named storms, half potential hurricanes, but this year forecasters have predicted 14 to 20 named storms, including six to ten hurricanes.

Paul Rainwater, a lobbyist for the city of New Orleans who is a Republican, advised Landry and other members of his party at Thursday’s meeting not to link the abortion fight to flooding in New Orleans. Rainwater was part of Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal’s response and recovery after Hurricane Katrina, which led to the deaths of nearly 2,000 people. He reminded the commission that New Orleans represents 25 percent of the state’s economy, home to iconic sites like the Superdome, the National World War II Museum and Audubon Park.

Rainwater said the city’s latest flood response project would update power for pumps that ensure drinking water and sewer drainage amid storms. If funded, the project was on track to be completed by 2024.

“The situation the city has been through every hurricane season is a little bit stressful in that you’re constantly testing the turbines,” of the power system, Rainwater said after the vote. “These aren’t things that are nonessential.”

Rainwater said he plans to bring the issue back before the commission when they next meet on Sept. 15.

“It’s not like they ignored the law — there’s no law that’s been broken. The city council expressed an opinion,” he said. “The city has a very strong view on this.”

It was not immediately clear whether New Orleans officials would be invited to appear at next month’s commission meeting.

City Council President Helena Moreno condemned the commission’s vote and asked commission members to meet with her. She referred to reports of a Baton Rouge woman denied an abortion last month after doctors found her fetus was missing part of its skull and unlikely to survive.

“It is disappointing to see the lack of compassion for women facing these horrific and painful circumstances,” Moreno said in a statement. “The fact that the city of New Orleans is being punished for its careful consideration of new state laws is troubling and inappropriate. The project delayed is a vital flood protection initiative to save lives, property, and businesses in our city.”

Cantrell, the city’s first female mayor, gained a political following helping her hard-hit neighborhood recover from Hurricane Katrina. She said she and other city officials plan to continue pressuring the commission to approve the project’s state funding. But she said rescinding her stance against the abortion ban was not an option.

“I am hopeful that they will do the right thing,” she said Friday. “Our utility is in desperate need of an upgrade. It is over a hundred years old. It has not been able to keep up with the changing climate.”

Similar clashes may be brewing in other states where Democrat city leaders have mounted resistance to new abortion bans that Republican state leaders championed. In neighboring Texas, Attorney General Ken Paxton last month sued to block the Biden administration from forcing doctors and hospitals to perform abortions or lose federal funding, but he has yet to challenge cities that have passed measures opposing the state ban.

Additionally, Austin city officials voted last month to “decriminalize” abortion, redirecting the city’s budget to prosecute other crimes. San Antonio’s city council passed a similar resolution this month.

Dozens of prosecutors nationwide — including at least five in Texas representing some of the state’s most populous counties — have promised not to pursue charges against those seeking or providing abortions.

In response, Texas lawmakers are crafting a new law they plan to propose when the legislature convenes in January that would “empower district attorneys from throughout the state to prosecute abortion-related crimes … when the local district attorney fails or refuses to do so,” wrote Rep. Mayes Middleton, chairman of the conservative Texas Freedom Caucus.

In Missouri, St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones signed a bill to direct $1 million in federal relief funds to support access to abortions after Roe was overturned. Hours later, the state’s Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed suit to block the new law, issuing a statement calling it “blatantly illegal.”


A previous version of this article incorrectly said the abortion ban recently enacted in Louisiana outlawed abortion after 15 weeks except when a pregnant person's life is in danger. It banned all abortions except when a pregnant person’s life is in danger. The article has been corrected.