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A Conversation with Mayor Ray Nagin

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

One year ago today, winds from Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast, leaving more than 1,800 people dead in its wake. The storm, with winds reaching 175 miles per hour, caused billions of dollars in property damage across Louisiana and Mississippi. But many around the world were infuriated by what they saw in New Orleans, mostly poor black residents stranded for days with no help in sight. Criticism was widespread; from local and state governments to the White House, all were assessed blame.

Since then, the Bush administration says it has allocated $110 billion towards rebuilding and victim assistance. Forty-four billion has reportedly been spent. Yesterday, President Bush paid a visit to Biloxi, Mississippi to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the storm.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: No doubt in my mind Mississippi will have the renaissance that Governor Barbour talked about. You can't drive through this state without seeing signs of recovery and renewal. It's just impossible to miss the signs of hope. And you've done it the old-fashioned way, with vision and hard work and resolve.

GORDON: Today, President Bush visits with local leaders in New Orleans, including Mayor Ray Nagin, who joins us via phone now. Mr. Mayor, good to have you.

Mayor RAY NAGIN (Mayor, New Orleans): Good to talk to you. How are you, sir?

GORDON: Good, thank you. I suspect the president will have the same sounds in New Orleans today about the comeback. Talk to me, if you will, in terms of your satisfaction now, today, with the federal government and their response, help and money.

Mayor NAGIN: Well you know the money flow I've always challenged as being a little lethargic. They approved a certain amount of money back in December and a couple of months ago the balance of it. But my big complaint now is that we've gone from the federal bureaucracy down to the state's bureaucracy, and the money still has not hit local governments or people, which is where it really needs to go so we can really accelerate this rebuilding.

GORDON: Mr. Mayor, a lot of people complaining about finger-pointing. Some will say at the press conference we saw last week from the president his suggestion was that Louisiana had the money, wasn't moving fast enough. We hear from you and the state that the red tape is too deep to cut through. Where's the truth in all of that?

Mayor GORDON: I think it's probably somewhere, you know, in the middle. I can tell you my personal experiences are that we have operated over the past 12 months with about 25 percent of our pre-Katrina budget and just fixing things like our infrastructure, sewage and water. We have put in for $450 million worth of repairs and we've only received back about 9 to 10 percent of that request. So it just takes some time to get through these bureaucracies.

GORDON: Mr. Mayor, everyone has been watching you over the course of the last three days. I'm no exception. You've put the best face on a horrendous situation. You've vowed to rebuild this city. You've talked about being ready and prepared if another hurricane comes through. But it seems to me, even looking at it from its most optimistic point, it's hard to believe that you'd be ready for yet another hurricane with the devastation you've suffered. Would it not be, respectfully, better to say to people from a pessimistic side, we're going to do the best we can do but we're not ready yet?

Mayor NAGIN: Well, we're ready in some respects. And let me make sure I'm clear. The damaged levees are better built than anything we've ever had. Now that's not the entire levee protection system. But prior to Katrina, the highest point at the levees was 12 to 13 feet. They're now built to 20 feet with better technology and better skills, you know, based upon what we've seen in the past. But we still have a lot of work to do and it's going to be three years before the entire system is enclosed.

But what I'm trying to get people to understand is that if we have another Katrina, the same direction that it came in, because those levees have been fixed there won't be the catastrophic failure and there will only be overtopping with some flooding.

GORDON: Life of a politician, Mr. Mayor, depends on which side of the fence you sit. Some will applaud you for being forthright, for saying what's on your mind, for not giving political speak. Others suggest that you're being a bit naive and you'll need help and you should not say some of the things that you've already said, i.e. the hole in the ground with New York or talking, quite frankly, in the press truthfully about how many African-Americans feel when it comes to race in this country.

Looking back, do you buy that you've done the best thing?

Mayor NAGIN: Absolutely. You know, I don't think we're really going to deal with this type of tragedy unless we're honest and truthful. Now you may not like some of the words I use, but the context of what I'm positioning to people is relevant. For example, you know we've been criticized that it's a year and we haven't done enough. And, you know, this city was totally shut down and it's going to take us awhile. And the only relevant comparison I had was New York. They had a devastating event, and it's five years from now and they're still trying to figure out exactly what needs to be done.

And New Yorkers, we share pain. We've supported each other. As far as race and class, you know, I don't know how to say that any differently. If this would have happened in a very wealthy community - it's just my opinion - I doubt that the response would have been the same.

GORDON: And the opinion of many African-Americans, quite frankly, in this country. Let me ask you about how the press has treated you. After watching the 60 Minutes interview, a number of friends of mine, many of them African-American, called to say that they understood the context that you said the statement in terms of the hole in the ground. They didn't take offense to it. They didn't think that you were being insensitive. I'm curious whether or not you believe you've been treated and painted fairly over the course of the last few days by the national press?

Mayor NAGIN: Well, you know, here I am again. I'm going to be very honest with you. I think prior to Katrina I was the media darling. During Katrina, I had some struggles. And then when I went on that little tirade on the radio that was played all over the world, I was perceived again. But then, as time moved on, it was almost like there was a lying in wait for me to say something or to make a mistake. And since that time, the media has used me as the poster child for everything that went wrong with Katrina. Is it fair? No. But it's the realities of being a leader in this type of situation. And, you know, it's too early to write the total story on the history of what's happened and I'm just going to keep working, and at some point in time folk will wake up.

GORDON: How upset are you with the idea that you really sit in a tenuous position, a no-win situation where there are a group of blacks who believe you're speaking up and telling the truth as African-Americans see it, there's another group of blacks who feel like you're selling out. You're very familiar with the book coming out, An Oreo in Chocolate City, written by an African-American history professor in LSU. How do you resolve - how does the personal Ray Nagin, not the mayor but the personal Ray Nagin, resolve that?

Mayor NAGIN: I don't know if it can be resolved. You know, this is America. People have freedom of speech and ideas, so people tend to write and talk about things from their own perspective. You know, I can't deal with a professor who nobody knows about that wants to write a tabloidish-like book about me and make money off of this tragedy. That's his call. That's what he wants to do. It's the second so-called college professor that's writing a book tabloidish like that. That's just America. You can do that.

At some point in time, I will have the opportunity to tell my story and get the facts out, and then I'll benefit from this American way that we all...

GORDON: Mr. Mayor, is it hurtful at times, though? As African-Americans we know one of the things you don't want to be called in our community is an Oreo, whether it's by an unknown professor or anyone. Is it hurtful at times?

Mayor NAGIN: Yeah, it is hurtful. And, you know, what I - what really makes me made is when black folk tear up black folk like that. You know, it's just, you know, you would think that understanding and seeing all the images and understanding the challenge of dealing with something that no one else has had to do before, that we would come together and kind of recognize if this can happen in New Orleans, it can happen in Cleveland, it can happen in Detroit. It can happen in any other city where there's a concentration of poor people and particularly black people. But, you know, hey, it's America and some people are going to try and take advantage of a negative situation.

GORDON: Mr. Mayor, you have been very upfront about wanting to keep the culture in New Orleans, wanting to keep the color in New Orleans, keeping the tone and tenor of what we knew as a great city. Yet there are those who are concerned that this is going to become - you've heard it all weekend long - the playground for the rich.

How do you find a way to get the money in needed, whether it be a Donald Trump or some of the elite financial wizards of New Orleans old, and also attain not the old New Orleans for much of black New Orleanians but a new New Orleans that gives them the opportunity to garner in the dollars that will roll through?

Mayor NAGIN: It's a very, very difficult challenge, and I'm walking a fine line. There's more developers that want to come into New Orleans to do major projects because the cost of real estate is very cheap comparatively. And this GO Zone legislation basically allows you to recapture almost 50 percent of your investment up front.

So from a pure economic and capitalistic standpoint, it's very attractive. On the other side of the fence, there's lots of African-Americans and black folks in the city that are worried about gentrification. They see it happening in other cities, and they want to make sure that that does not happen in our city.

So here I am playing this chess board and looking at the biggest economic boom that this city and this country has ever had and trying to make sure that everyone has - gets a piece of the pie as this pie is expanding. It's a difficult task, but it's one that we're going to continue to work on.

GORDON: Any want or need, Mr. Mayor, to reach out to some African-American leaders who have seen, perhaps in their opinion, slow movement from your administration, i.e. someone like who still has ties to New Orleans like a Marc Morial or others? Any want for you to go behind closed doors, find that common ground and say, let's go out together in unison and works this thing through?

Mayor NAGIN: Absolutely. You know, Marc was in town this past weekend and we were at an event together. We shook hands and vowed to work together, because I think we both realize this is much bigger than any one of us. And we need to come together to save our city, so we're going to do that.

And anybody else that has had any concerns about me and what I intend to do. I'm a change artist. And when I came into city government, the federal government was all over the place (unintelligible). Some folks took that that I was trying to take shots are people, and that was just not the case. So now that we have this tragedy, I think everyone's starting to look at this thing differently and saying, let's come together for New Orleans because this is bigger than any one of us.

GORDON: All right, Mr. Mayor, good luck to you. A long, hard task in front of you. But as you've told the nation, you say you're ready. We'll be watching.

Mayor NAGIN: Thank you, sir.

GORDON: Coming up, a look back one year later, and male athletes test the limits of Title IX legislation meant to help female college athletes. We'll discuss these and other topics on our Roundtable. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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