Ray Nagin on Katrina Response, Mayoral Runoff
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, in a tight runoff race with the state's current lieutenant governor to keep his post, vowed the city will be ready for the coming hurricane season and rebuffed claims in a recently published book that he was an ineffective leader as the storm ravaged the city last August.
"It's all bogus, a political hit, not worth the paper it's printed on," Nagin said about allegations by historian Douglas Brinkley in his book The Great Deluge that portrays the mayor as unable to lead as his city flooded, and of implementing an evacuation plan that favored the rich and healthy.
"We had a good evacuation plan, and we evacuated over 90 percent of city," he told News & Notes host Ed Gordon. "The decisions I made saved lives." But he added he did take responsibility for not calling for a mandatory evacuation earlier, and said he was overly dependent on the state and federal government to help.
On Saturday, Nagin faces off with Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, the son of the city's last white mayor, Maurice Edwin "Moon" Landrieu, who served from 1970 to 1978. Mitch Landrieu is a narrow favorite in the most recent poll, but up to 17 percent of eligible voters say they are still undecided.
ED GORDON, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.
On Saturday, New Orleans voters will elect the man they hope will rebuild their devastated city. Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu is hoping to unseed incumbent mayor Ray Nagin. Current polls show the two men are neck-and-neck. Nagin, a former cable executive, moved in City Hall in 2002 with little political experience. But he won as a reformer as a pro-business Democrat. His reelection seemed certain until last August.
Hurricane Katrina wrecked the Big Easy and revealed stark political failures on all levels, federal, state, and local. Recently, we spoke with Lieutenant Governor Landrieu about his bid to become New Orleans' first white mayor since his father left office 28 years ago.
Now his opponent joins us. Mayor Ray Nagin is with us, and we thank you, Mr. Mayor.
Mayor RAY NAGIN (Mayor, City of New Orleans): Thank you, Ed. It's great to be on the program.
GORDON: As I suggested, the polls show that you're neck and neck. Why do you think you'll win?
Mayor NAGIN: Well, you know it's hard to poll this race. You know, in the primary, they were polling and some people were predicting we wouldn't even make the runoffs. And we ran a very strong first--finished nine points ahead. I'm getting the same feel and reaction from the public. As a matter of fact, it's even better. So I'm feeling pretty good about where we are.
GORDON: It seems that the African-Americans who remain and were able to vote this go-round voted for you overwhelmingly. That was not necessarily the case on your first run. So whites, to a great degree in this runoff, hold your fate, frankly, in their hands. How much do you believe the remarks that you made--Chocolate City, etc.--those quote, "infamous" remarks will hurt you?
Mayor NAGIN: I don't think they're going to hurt this time around. Everyone's settled down emotionally, and they're looking at who has the best ability to get things done and to move and create the right environment for growth.
I've worked the past eight months putting together a plan, It's ready to be implemented, it's being implemented. And my opponent really has not had a job outside of government. So he's going to have a difficult time moving this city forward.
GORDON: Mr. Mayor, I'm going to get to that plan in just a moment. But as you say, emotions are down somewhat and certainly obviously down from the days immediately following the disaster. Now that you've had time to reflect and look back, how much blame are you willing to accept for this, for what happened?
Mayor NAGIN: Well, you know, this is a different type of event. In 9/11, everyone had Osama bin Laden to place their blame on. And now it seems as though the key leaders in this event have been, you know, kind of tarnished and second guessed from the President to the Governor to myself.
I'm the mayor, and I take responsibility for some things we could've done better, like calling for a mandatory evacuation a little earlier. I had a 10-hour window. Making sure that we had multiple evacuation routes and vehicles. And in addition to that, overly dependent upon the federal government and the state. I take full responsibility for that.
GORDON: Mr. Mayor, you put forth a plan. One would believe you had to do that, but you're in a very precarious position, quite frankly, a catch-22--a damned if you do, damned if you don't. Some suggest that this plan is not necessarily workable if you were to be hit immediately, because all of the entities you have to play with, if you will, have not discussed everything with you. How much of that is real?
Mayor NAGIN: Well, I'm not sure what you're referring to, but the plan basically deals with just about...
GORDON: Well, let me tell you what I'm referring to. I'm referring to Amtrak. I'm referring to whether or not you have enough buses. I'm referring to whether or not you, in fact, can hold planes to evacuate people--those kinds of things.
Mayor NAGIN: You're talking about the new evacuation plan.
Mayor NAGIN: Well, you know, Ed, we're like 15 days out before the hurricane season starts. We still have a couple of cooperative endeavor agreements to finalize. But we had to put this plan out to the public with the best information that we had at the time.
We still have an Amtrak agreement to work out, but Secretary Chertoff is working with us on that. He's also helping us with the airlines to finalize that aspect of the plan. But the big issue right now is the state has not released the shelters that people from this region would go to. Once that's put in place, I think you're going to see everything accelerate.
GORDON: How much are you satisfied with what you have received since the catastrophe and certainly to today from the federal government? We saw a lot of help after 9/11, particularly in New York City and Washington, D.C. as well. But how much federal help are you able to say you're happy with?
Mayor NAGIN: Well, you know, the federal government responded pretty late--in my opinion--to this catastrophe. And they're still somewhat late. They like to tout the fact that $100 billion have been spent. But most of that was contractors that were under the Corps of Engineers of FEMA's control. And when we got a local contractor involved, it was at the bottom end of the totem pole and the profit margins were squeezed above.
As it relates to people being able to rebuild their lives, I think they're still slow.
GORDON: Mr. Mayor, there are a lot of people who are concerned about whether or not--not only during hurricane season, but certainly for the immediate future--whether or not the healthcare system in New Orleans is going to be enough to service the city. Whether or not you're going to have, as the city gets up and moving, enough buses--many of them were flooded and destroyed through Katrina--to really start to move the city. Many people rely, as you know better than others, on public transportation. How much of these ills can you really service immediately?
Mayor NAGIN: Well it's not as dire or not as challenging as pre-Katrina. You know, we still have a significant amount of our residents dispersed across the country, particular people who are dependant upon public education. This is a much--public transportation. This is a much more mobile residential group than we had prior to Katrina.
So they're able to leave, they're able to get to healthcare facilities in the parish and in the surrounding parishes. We have enough hospital beds, but it is tight, and everyday we open up more to accommodate the residents and the visitors who come.
GORDON: What about doctors? There are questions as to whether or not you have enough doctors.
Mayor NAGIN: Well, it seems as though we have the doctors. We struggle just like everyone else around the country with nurses. And if there's anything that's slowing down or is somewhat of a bottleneck to opening more hospital beds, it's attracting more nurses.
GORDON: Mr. Mayor, I want to give you an opportunity to respond to a new book. I know you know about it. Historian Douglas Brinkley has written a book that paints, quite frankly, a less than flattering picture of you during Katrina. The book suggests that you were a political novice, that you were premature in releasing the--or, I'm sorry, you worried about, prematurely, releasing an evacuation plan thinking that it could hurt local businesses. There's a question as to whether or not you were holed up in the Hyatt Regency Hotel, not so much as a command center but a safe haven for yourself. What do you say to these charges?
Mayor NAGIN: I think it's all bogus. I think it's a political hit. I think it's not worth the paper it's printed on. Here's a guy who claims to be a historian and writes a book in the middle of the event--the event is still unfolding--and didn't even use the Senate testimony, sworn testimony, to document what really happened.
He took a lot of my political enemies and spun what they said. Didn't talk to General Honore or the Entergy executives. You know, no one who really was there and understood the challenges on the day-to-day, hour, minute-by-minute basis. It's just totally bogus.
GORDON: Let me ask you this: even before the book--and I think you would admit having been a businessman for so many years--that you were learning politics on the job. Do you believe--prior to Katrina--you were a bit naïve in terms of all that a mayor would have to do, particularly when a catastrophe like this hits?
Mayor NAGIN: No. You know, we had a good evacuation plan. We evacuated over 90 percent of the public. We had--most of the individuals got to safety. The PAM exercises before this predicted there would be 10,000 people that perished. And in the Orleans parish, there may have been 600. It's still too many. But the decisions I made definitely saved lives.
GORDON: What about in the long run, Mr. Mayor? The levee system is still not what many people say it should be, particularly if you have another Katrina or above.
Mayor NAGIN: Well, the levee system is being built better, bigger, and stronger as we speak. And by June 1st, we should have our levees repaired much higher--20 feet versus 13 feet when Katrina hit. Better materials--they had a little setback the other day with some storm gates, but we're going to have better protection than we've ever had before.
GORDON: What about pre-Katrina? There was still a question as to whether or not the African-American community had been being serviced in the best way, whether it's educationally, job-wise, crime was high. What can you do to assure African-Americans in particular that post-Katrina, they're going to have a better time?
Mayor NAGIN: Well, pre-Katrina, we struggled with most things that urban environments struggle with. Our school system, however, was abysmal. It really wasn't performing, so it was feeding the crime element. Post-Katrina, it's a different environment. We're getting ready to hit probably the biggest construction boom that's ever happened in this country. There will be jobs and opportunities, and it's my focus that we create an environment where everyone has an opportunity to take a big bite of this economic pie as it expands.
GORDON: Mr. Mayor, let me ask you. Some have criticized you with your relationship with the media. I will tell you that we've been trying to get you on this program, quite frankly, since day one after Katrina. Certainly those immediate days we knew that you were busy. But how much do you concede that maybe you can build a better relationship with the press?
Mayor NAGIN: Well, you know, my relationship with the press has, you know, done what most high profile figures--it's a roller coaster ride, if you will. There's no way I could accommodate every press request that came my way from Katrina up to today. We had international press. This became a global issue.
So we'll try and do a better job of prioritizing. But even with that, we still can't get to all the press that's requesting time with us.
GORDON: What happens, Mr. Mayor, if you're turned away? What's the future hold for Ray Nagin at that point?
Mayor NAGIN: Well, you know, if that happens, you know, I'm going to Disney World first. And I'm going to kind of clear my head and take it easy and try and figure out what the next chapter in my life is. I've had lots of business opportunities come my way, whether they are books or movies or, you know, consulting or what have you. So I'm really not worried about the next phase.
But I really don't think that's going to happen, Ed. I think we're going to be victorious on the 20th, and we'll continue to finish the great work of rebuilding one of the greatest cities in the world.
GORDON: Well, Mr. Mayor, I'll invite you back. We'll see what happens after next Saturday, and we'd love to have you back.
Mayor NAGIN: Sounds good, Ed. Thank you so much.
GORDON: All right. Mayor Ray Nagin of the city of New Orleans. Thank you.
Mayor NAGIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.