Mayor Nagin speaks out
By Gordon Russell
In a stark reminder of how drastically Hurricane Katrina has impacted the lives of New Orleanians, Mayor Ray Nagin has purchased a home for his family in Dallas and enrolled his young daughter in school there.
Nagin, who spoke with The Times-Picayune by telephone from Dallas, where he has been since Wednesday, said he planned to return to New Orleans on Saturday. He said he will remain in the Crescent City while his family lives for the next six months in Dallas, making occasional visits to his family when possible.
It’s not clear where Nagin will be living: His home along Bayou St. John suffered massive flooding, the mayor said, although he has not inspected it.
In a brief but wide-ranging interview, the mayor reflected on the tragedies of the past two weeks, acknowledging that he may have made some mistakes but said that he hopes others in positions of authority – including President George W. Bush and Gov. Kathleen Blanco -- are scrutinized as closely as he and his staff have been.
“I’m not pointing any fingers at anyone,” Nagin said. “But I was in the fire. I was down there. Where were they? I’m confident the truth is gonna come out. But I want everybody’s record analyzed just as hard as mine.
“Listen, this was unprecedented. Nothing has ever happened like this. For people to sit back and say, ‘You should have done this, you should have done that’ … it’s Monday morning quarterbacking. They can shoot if they want, but I was there, and I will have the facts.”
Nagin’s biggest frustration, and his biggest source of puzzlement, is the slow pace with which relief arrived. He said state and federal officials made repeated promises that weren’t kept.
“This is ridiculous,” he said. “I mean, this is America. How can we have a state with an $18 billion budget and a federal government with an I don’t know how many trillion dollar budget, and they can’t get a few thousand people onto buses? I don’t get that.
“All I saw was a huge two-step, if you will, between the federal government and the state as far as who had the final authority. Promises made that weren’t really kept. It was frustrating. We’d analyze things, double-check them, and then, later in the afternoon, we’d find out that someone was changing the plan, moving resources around.”
Some officials at the state and federal level have suggested that part of the reason for the slow response was a lack of awareness about the level of devastation the city had suffered. They have faulted city officials for not sending out a stronger SOS.
While Nagin has previously said he didn’t think the slow response was related to the demographic of the overwhelmingly poor, African-American crowd that needed rescuing, his thinking has evolved.
“Definitely class, and the more I think about it, definitely race played into this,” he said. “How do you treat people that just want to walk across the bridge and get out, and they’re turned away, because you can’t come to a certain parish? How do resources get stacked up outside the city of New Orleans and they don’t make their way in? How do you not bring one piece of ice?
“If it’s race, fine, let’s call a spade a spade, a diamond a diamond. We can never let this happen again. Even if you hate black people and you are in a leadership position, this did not help anybody.”
As hearings on the Katrina response start to crank up in Washington, Nagin said, those questions, among others, need to be asked.
“ I think the government ought to be asking itself, ‘What happened to the resources?
Why were people promised resources and they didn’t show up? Where were the military resources? Where was the National Guard? Why were we left with a city on the verge of collapse, fighting for the soul of the city, with 200 National Guardsmen and 1,200 police?
“It was a serious breakdown,” the mayor continued. “Make sure that whether it’s Ray Nagin or the governor or the president, we take a serious look at this and make the changes that need to be made. I’m afraid some of this was a tug-of-war about who gets to spend the money at the end of the day. And I don’t appreciate that.
“I saw too many people die, and a lot of people didn’t see any of that. They had a press conference and left. I’m looking up, fighting this incredible battle, and they’re doing press conferences and lying to the people. They’re telling them 40,000 troops are in New Orleans. It was all bull.”
“Analyze my ass, analyze everyone’s ass, man. Let’s put the facts on the table and talk turkey. Why was there a breakdown at the federal and state level only in Louisiana? This didn’t happen in Mississippi. That’s the question. That’s the question of the day.”
Nagin acknowledged that the city’s communications essentially shut down, but said that state and federal officials were likewise at a loss. Within a few days, city officials, including chief technology officer Greg Meffert, aided by outside volunteers, including a crew from Unisys, were able to patch together a rough network.
“All communications broke down,” Nagin said. “I got cell phones from as high up as the White House that didn’t work. My Blackberry pin-to-pin was the only thing that worked. I saw the military struggle with this, too. No one had communications worth a damn.”
Even if communications were challenging, Nagin noted that officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency were up in helicopters inspecting the damage from the storm within about 24 hours after it passed. So the message should have been clear, he said: Send in the cavalry.
“I think they realized the magnitude of what was happening,” he said.
Federal officials have also faulted Nagin’s administration for not marshaling its own buses and those of the School Board to start ferrying the tens of thousands of evacuees stranded at the Superdome and the Convention Center out of town.
Nagin said perhaps some of the criticism is fair. But he said there were various logistical hurdles that made it hard to use that equipment, and the buses would have hardly created a dent in the size of the crowds anyway.
“It’s up for analysis,” he said. “But we didn’t have enough buses. I don’t control the school buses, and the RTA (Regional Transit Authority) buses as far as I know were positioned high and dry. But 80 percent of the city was not high and dry. Where would we have staged them? And who was going to drive them even if we commandeered them? If I’d have marshaled 50 RTA buses, and a few school buses, it still wouldn’t have been nearly enough. We didn’t get food, water and ice in this place, and that’s way above the local level.
“Our plan was always to use the buses to evacuate to the Dome as a shelter of last resort, and from there, rely on state and federal resources.”
Those resources took way too long to arrive, Nagin said – in fact, much of the help didn’t arrive until after the mass evacuations from the Dome and the Convention Center had occurred. As a result, people suffered and died needlessly, a truth that has been weighing heavily on his mind.
“I saw stuff that I never thought I would see in my lifetime,” he said. “People wanting to die. People trying to give me babies and things. It was a helpless, helpless feeling.
“There was a lady waiting in line for bus who had a miscarriage. She was cleaning herself off so she wouldn’t lose her place in line. There were old people saying, ‘Just let me lay down and die.’ It’s bull...., absolutely bull..... It’s unbelievable that this would happen in America.”
While a number of people in the sea of refugees that packed the Dome and Convention Center complained that Nagin had not come to address them, Nagin said he did visit both facilities and speak with people.
“I went there,” he said. “I went through the crowds and talked to people and they were not happy. They were panicked. After the shootings and the looting got out of control, I did not go back in there. My security people advised me not to go back” after Wednesday, he said.
By Thursday, crowds had gotten increasingly restless. At one point, a crowd surged dangerously around Police Superintendent Eddie Compass, and a knot of police officers had to help him to safety.
Part of the discomfort in the Dome and Convention Center owed to the lack of toilet facilities after the city’s water system went down late Wednesday. The city’s hurricane plan calls for portable toilets at shelters, but none ever arrived. Nagin said his understanding was that the National Guard was in charge of providing them.
Also, he added, “Our plan never assumed people being in the Dome more than two or three days.”
Nagin saw a few bright spots amid the rubble of the city. He said the New Orleans Police Department – at least, the majority of it, given that there were a number of desertions – should be hailed for fighting an almost impossible fight, handling search-and-rescue missions while trying to keep an increasingly lawless city in check.
“They were absolutely heroic,” he said. “The stuff they were dealing with, man … they spent the first two or three days pulling people out of the water. When the looting started to get to the point that it was a real concern, they had to get involved in serious firefights. I mean, we had radio chatter where police were pinned down in firefights and ran out of ammunition. That’s never happened.”
Nagin also expressed cautious optimism about the city’s future.
“I think we’ll be a better city,” he said. “I think we’re going to see an unprecedented construction boom, and some better-paying jobs. Small businesses will start thriving, and I think the tourist industry will bounce back stronger than ever.”
Many people who were stranded for days at the Dome and Convention Center told reporters they were never coming back to their devastated city. The mayor acknowledged that some of them probably meant it, including some of the displaced New Orleanians he’s met since arriving in Dallas.
“I think some people will probably not come back,” he said. “You know, Texas is treating people very well, probably much better than we treated people.’’
“But I think once people start to see the rebuilding, and that the culture of the city will not be materially affected, they’ll be back.”
How things progress will depend largely on the level of federal aid, the mayor acknowledged. And it’s still unclear whether entire neighborhoods will have to be razed – and whether some areas should be abandoned because of their propensity to flood.
“The longer those neighborhoods stay underwater, the harder it’s going to be to rebuild
them,” he said.
Meanwhile, there are going to have to be serious conversations about changes to the housing codes and improvements to the levee system, whose inadequacies were laid bare by Katrina.
“I’ve been been talking to some people in Texas, and I think may be some better designs for housing that can handle some of this,” Nagin said. “And the levee system is designed only to withstand a Category 3 storm. Obviously, we have to do better than that.”