ALLISON KEYES, host:
I'm Allison Keyes, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.
Five years ago today, New Orleans was bracing itself for what would become one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. Some were injured during the storm, but many more died in the hours and in the days afterward waiting for help to arrive. We'll talk with the much criticized and much praised former mayor of New Orleans in a minute. That, of course, is Ray Nagin.
We'll also hear from the mayor who opened his city to New Orleans refugees. That would be Houston's now former mayor Bill White. And, later, a New Orleans classic, and I mean classic. The bluesy trombonist and singer Glen David Andrews. You should see and hear him live.
But first, Ray Nagin. He was in charge in New Orleans when Katrina hit and when the levees gave way. Thanks, mayor, for coming on.
Mr. RAY NAGIN (Former Mayor, New Orleans): Allison, it's great to be with you today.
KEYES: The man who succeeded you, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, says it'll take at least five more years to put the city back together. Is he right?
Mr. NAGIN: Well, you know, we've always said that this was a 10 to 15-year rebuild. We did some research and studied disasters from around the world: Kobe, Japan, what happened in L.A., what's happening still in New York. And normally the cycle is about 10 to 15 years.
KEYES: There have been some reports that police in New Orleans were authorized to shoot looters in the chaotic days after the storm. And that would be a huge change to rules, which previously allowed police to fire only to protect themselves or others from an imminent threat. Was such an order given and where did it come from?
Mr. NAGIN: You know, I never heard an order, never gave an order like that. Never heard any of our police chief or deputy chiefs to say anything like that. The closest thing that I heard was something, I think came out of Baton Rouge where someone who's basically saying that, you know, National Guards were authorized to protect themselves.
KEYES: There is an alleged video that exists, though, of some of the higher ups in the police department confirming such an order. You don't know anything about such a thing?
Mr. NAGIN: No. I don't see that. That's probably to me that's just there's several federal cases that are going on and I think the defense lawyers are trying to deflect attention away from what really happened. We had some tragic incidents that happened.
KEYES: Did you yourself, mayor, give an order to impose martial law?
Mr. NAGIN: No. I mean martial law is something where the federal troops come in and basically take over law enforcement. That never happened in the city of New Orleans. The thing that I did was to make sure that we had all the emergency powers. So I issued an emergency declaration.
KEYES: Okay. What do you think about the way the reconstruction of the city is working? Some of the I was just there a couple of weeks ago and some of the residents, especially those in the Lower Ninth and parts of East New Orleans are kind of complaining that they've been slighted.
Mr. NAGIN: Well, you know, a city like New Orleans that went through an experience with Katrina, where 80 percent of it was devastated, the city was totally destroyed, it just takes time to rebuild some of the heavily devastated areas like the Lower Ninth Ward and like New Orleans East. But the city overall is recovering very well.
We've got over 80 percent of our citizens back. There's construction everywhere. Unemployment rate is really low. And there's good momentum on this recovery. So it's going to take a little while longer for New Orleans East, but more importantly, the Lower Ninth Ward, but they will recover.
KEYES: You yourself have said (unintelligible) transforms New Orleans, there's significant opportunities for urban Americans to participate in what you've been calling a boom. What do you mean exactly?
Mr. NAGIN: Well, the boom is here now and I've been talking about this for a couple of years. Right now, if you add everything up that's going on construction wise in the city and around the city, there's about over $20 billion worth of construction that is happening right now. We were able to get urban Americans involved in some of the design and engineering phases and the planning phases.
But the thing that I worried about most was the construction phase, which is what's happening right now to get more people from around the country to recognize that and participate in it.
KEYES: I know you've heard this before, but I want to take our listeners back to August 28th of 2005 when you were encouraging people to immediately evacuate the city.
(Soundbite of speech)
Mr. NAGIN: The storm surge most likely will topple our levee system. So we are preparing to deal with that also. So that's why we're ordering a mandatory evacuation.
KEYES: What was that day like for you as a city leader? I mean, worrying about so many people in the city getting ready to get hurt.
Mr. NAGIN: Well, you know, for us, hurricane season is always a very traumatic time for us. We deal with hurricane threats on a regular basis. But Hurricane Katrina was different. It was deceptive. She really did not reveal that she was headed to New Orleans until Saturday, late Saturday. As a matter of fact, I had a call from Max Mayfield Saturday night basically saying - confirming that it was headed directly for us. And in that time that's when we really started to think about issuing the first ever in the city's history of mandatory evacuation.
KEYES: Do you look back and wonder why you didn't order it earlier on that day?
Mr. NAGIN: Well, you know, I think about a short window, you know, because she was so deceptive and she didn't really I'm talking about Katrina exposed that she was really headed for New Orleans until Saturday. I only had a day at the max to do the mandatory. So it was late at night. I called my city attorney to have her draw up the papers. It took a little time for that.
But there was about an eight hour window overnight when we could've potentially ordered it earlier. Now, I don't know if that would've made a difference because most people were asleep and they normally leave in the mornings anyway.
KEYES: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes and we're speaking with former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.
Mayor, you have made more than a few statements, we should say, that have caused a little controversy. Let's listen to one that elicited some response, shall we say.
(Soundbite of laughter)
(Soundbite of speech)
Mr. NAGIN: We as black people, it's time. It's time for us to come together. It's time for us to rebuild a New Orleans, the one that should be a chocolate New Orleans.
KEYES: You know, by the population void that was left, though, after Katrina, a lot of Latinos, I mean thousands of them moved to the city. They drove from cities all over the places. They slept under bridges and they've been doing reconstruction jobs. I mean do you regret saying that at all?
Mr. NAGIN: No, I don't regret it at all. I mean everybody seems to focus I'm a P-Funk kind of guy. I grew up in that area, so that's what I know. And during that time...
KEYES: You know what? I've got to stop for a second because the people that don't know who P-Funk is, we're talking about George Clinton. It's a music (unintelligible).
Mr. NAGIN: Yeah. Parliament P-Funk, I grew up in college in the mid-'70s, so that was very popular at the time. So they did this song that was about (unintelligible) in inner cities. But the backdrop, Allison, is there were people out there, particularly some of our business community and our newspaper basically calling for a smaller footprint of the city and saying that, you know, in effect, African-Americans weren't really welcome back into the city.
So this is a Martin-Luther-King-day speech. And I wanted to kind of bust through the clutter and I did. African-Americans definitely understood and heard the message, but unfortunately it offended some other people.
KEYES: What do you think about the changing racial dynamic there? I mean there's been a little tension between blacks and Latinos there over jobs and housing and that kind of thing.
Mr. NAGIN: Yeah. Well, you know, I think the Latino community has been pretty invaluable in this recovery. I mean, if they wouldn't have came here and helped us to rebuild, we wouldn't be where we are. I don't think it's an issue of blacks and Latinos having as much tension as it is a black/white thing. And that deals with the overall control of the recovery dollars. But I think we're going to be okay.
KEYES: It's interesting that you say that because I wonder whether you agree with some of the African-Americans in the city that think they've been betrayed. I mean some of the housing projects have been torn down where the lower income blacks lived, that the housing costs are higher, rents are higher. And a lot of people have said, or a lot of black people have said that they can't afford to come back.
Mr. NAGIN: Yeah, I hear a lot of that also. But I think what people are missing is that this is the ultimate challenge. A city that was almost 300 years old totally devastated, and how do you rebuild it? How do you make it better? Public housing developments were dilapidated, under-maintained and needed to be changed. And that was very painful for us to go through that.
As far as the rental market is concerned, they're absolutely right. Rental rates have gone up substantially, but that's an issue of supply and demand.
KEYES: A lot of people from New Orleans settled in other cities like Jackson, Mississippi and Houston. Do you think they're going to come back?
Mr. NAGIN: Oh, I absolutely think they're going to come back. They're coming back. The Census Bureau in 2009 pegged New Orleans as the fastest growing city in America. And we continue to grow at 6 to 8 percent a year. That hadn't really slowed down. As more housing comes online, the people from New Orleans are coming back.
KEYES: How do you think Mayor Landrieu's doing? He was kind of critical of your administration and said that you had lots of plans, you failed to deliver, you left him with a budget deficit. How's he doing?
Mr. NAGIN: You know, there's a certain bravado with any new mayor that's coming in. I had it, he has it.
Mr. NAGIN: And, you know - yeah, he has positioned himself as being, you know, lifelong politician, I know what to do and I know how to do it. So, I mean, he's got a position that, you know, I'm fixing things. And, you know, that's pretty normal in the political process in New Orleans.
KEYES: If you were still mayor of that city, what would you be doing differently, if anything?
Mr. NAGIN: Well, if I were still mayor, I would be probably dealing with the same things that he's struggling with. The biggest struggle that Mayor Landrieu has is really understanding the depth and the breadth of this challenge in the post-Katrina environment. He's been jumping around on the budget. It's a challenge, it's tight, but it's tight like any other city in America.
This construction activity that's going on really needs to be nurtured and paid attention to very closely because you're dealing with federal dollars. And if something gets off track, the process of getting it back on track, it takes six months per project. So that could significantly delay and slow down the momentum.
KEYES: I got to ask you really, really briefly, are you done with politics?
Mr. NAGIN: You know what? If you asked me that today, I would say absolutely without a doubt. I am moving back into the private you know, politics was great, I'm glad I did it. But I'm extra happy to be out. It's something that, you know, everybody should do. But what I went through, I wouldn't wish that on anybody.
KEYES: Ray Nagin, the former mayor of New Orleans joined us from New Orleans. Thank you, mayor, for your insights.
Mr. NAGIN: It is good to talk to you and play a little P-Funk every now and then.
(Soundbite of laughter)
(Soundbite of music) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.