Nagin Holds Meeting for Displaced New Orleanians

Nov 8, 2005
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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, held a town meeting last night, although he had to go to another town to do it. Nagin traveled 80 miles to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where thousands of former New Orleans residents have been living since Hurricane Katrina. NPR's Adam Hochberg was at the meeting.

ADAM HOCHBERG reporting:

Last night's gathering, at a Baton Rouge Baptist church, was part town meeting, part reunion and partly just an opportunity for some frustrated people to vent. The 500 or so displaced New Orleans residents who showed up shared similar stories. They've lived in hotels or temporary apartments or stayed with friends in Baton Rouge for more than two months now, and most who spoke had the same request.

(Soundbite of town meeting)

Ms. TYRA ANDREWS MERCADEL(ph) (Social Worker): I would like to come back home. I would like to leave the one-bedroom apartment that I'm living in in Baton Rouge, and I would love to come back home.

HOCHBERG: Social worker Tyra Andrews Mercadel described herself as a proud New Orleans homeowner. But with her house unlivable because of water damage and many city neighborhoods still off-limits, Mercadel's pride is tempered with frustration.

(Soundbite of town meeting)

Ms. MERCADEL: I have children who want to go home. I have a senior who would like to go home.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. MERCADEL: We want to do what we need to do in order to go forward.

HOCHBERG: Mayor Ray Nagin spent two hours on the pulpit listening to comments like that, but while he was sympathetic he could offer little in terms of immediate satisfaction. Nagin said the east side of New Orleans, where most of these people live, might not be habitable until at last sometime next year.

(Soundbite of town meeting)

Mayor RAY NAGIN (Democrat, New Orleans): There has never been an event like this. There has never been a city totally devastated like our city, and we are on the road to a long recovery. There is no magic wand that we can wave and make this thing go away. It's going take us some time, y'all.

HOCHBERG: Nagin said the city's utilities were so badly damaged electricity won't be fully restored for another six months. There are still seven million cubic yards of debris to be cleared. The water and sewer system is barely functioning, and the levees are in such bad shape that Nagin said if another storm hits, his only advice would be to run. Still, the mayor said New Orleans is making progress. Some neighborhoods that escaped the flood have reopened, and Nagin promised the whole city eventually will get back on its feet.

(Soundbite of town meeting)

Mayor NAGIN: There's going to be the New Orleans that we knew before Katrina hit, and it's going to be better...

Unidentified Man: Better! Better!

Mayor NAGIN: ...with better schools...

Unidentified Man: Better!

Mayor NAGIN: ...better roads...

Unidentified Man: Better!

Mayor NAGIN: ...better houses...

Unidentified Man: Better!

Mayor NAGIN: ...better levee systems.

Unidentified Man: Better!

(Soundbite of applause)

HOCHBERG: Most of the speakers last night said they're eager to start rebuilding. But one after another, they complained about being blocked from doing that by insurance company delays or by government bureaucracy or by lack of infrastructure. Commercial fisherman Pete Garrica(ph) said he and his counterparts on Lake Ponchartrain are still out of business.

(Soundbite of town meeting)

Mr. PETE GARRICA (Commercial Fisherman): We need electricity to try get our one dock and one ice plant going. We need water for ice. We need to get started working. We feed the restaurants in New Orleans. We feed the restaurants in Baton Rouge. We need help.

HOCHBERG: Some speakers directed their anger at Mayor Nagin. Bernadette Washington(ph) hasn't gotten over the two days her family spent on their roof after the storm, waiting to get rescued, nor the nights after that when she and her children ended up sleeping on the street in a cardboard box.

(Soundbite of town meeting)

Mr. BERNADETTE WASHINGTON (New Orleans Resident): I feel like I was degraded as a citizen. You should have protected us. You left us out there on that roof while you were safe.

(Soundbite of loud voices)

Mayor NAGIN: You know, sister, I understand your frustration and your anger. But you know what? There's a lot of people out there that are hurting, and if we're going to get through this as a community, we need to figure out a way to come together.

HOCHBERG: Nagin said as mayor, he accepts blame for people's hardship after the hurricane, and last night it was clear some residents intend to hold him responsible. One speaker noted that a city election is scheduled less than three months from now, and said unless he can move back to New Orleans by then, he's not likely to vote for Nagin again.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Baton Rouge. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.