WHITE BEAR LAKE – Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin wants everyone to know that the city he led through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath is back.
“I’m going to tell you about a city that did not give up,” he told an audience Thursday night in Century College’s West Campus Theater.
More than five years after Katrina battered and flooded New Orleans, Nagin said the city’s population is up to 75 percent of its pre-Katrina level, goods are flowing into its port and the tourism industry has rebounded.
“New Orleans is a tourist city. Now our tourism industry is enjoying its best years in some time,” he said.
But the good news, which Nagin calls “rainbows,” did not come without hard work to solve problems caused by one of the worst storms in U.S. history.
“There are certain catastrophes that happen that you aren’t prepared for,” he said. “This could happen anywhere.
One problem Nagin pointed out was that Katrina’s track proved difficult to predict. He said the hurricane passed over Florida at a Category 1 storm, then quickly strengthened in the Gulf of Mexico.
“It was probably the most deceptive storm we’ve ever seen,” he said. “It wasn’t until 24 hours before landfall that we got clarity that it was going to hit New Orleans.”
Another problem, according to Nagin, is that New Orleans geographically is a low-lying bowl surrounded by levees with its highest points along the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. Katrina’s storm surge overwhelmed the levees and inundated much of the city.
“We are surrounded by water. The bowls started to fill up. Eighty percent of New Orleans was underwater,” he said.
Although Nagin said 96 percent of New Orleans residents evacuated or were placed in shelters of last resort, conditions worsened days later when state and federal aid was slow in arriving to the stricken city.
“We had always done a plan and that plan was to evacuate, open shelters and hunker down and wait for the calvary to come – the state and federal governments,” he said. “After day two and three, conditions began to deteriorate. The new rhythm of my city was helicopters, Humvees and people groaning. We had dead bodies in the water and we were rescuing live people. We left the dead bodies floating in the water.
“Some people thought it was the end of the world,” he added about the storm aftermath.
Finally, political pressure built on President George W. Bush and then-Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco to act and get aid into New Orleans, Nagin said.
“It took seven days for the country to help us,” he said.
Nagin attributed the delay in aid to a political “tussle” between Bush and Blanco.
“The governor and president were tussling over control,” he said. “The president was Republican and the governor was a Democrat, so there was politics going on. She raised posse comitatus. That law said the president couldn’t send federal troops in without the governor’s invitation and she did not invite them.”
Nagin also said race and class had a role in the response to Katrina.
“Race and class plays heavily in disaster response,” he said. “The pictures of the people who were suffering were poor and black. I think race and class played heavily. And I’ll be honest with you. Things haven’t changed. I’m optimistic, but I’m also pessimistic.”
Once aid began arriving, Nagin said city officials faced having to rebuild most of the city.
“The core infrastructure was totally devastated,” he said. “The schools in devastated areas were destroyed. There was no economy. No Bourbon Street. No tourists.”
With many New Orleans residents dispersed to 44 states, Nagin said nothing was happening in the city post-Katrina.
“Where do you start? We had nothing,” he said. “There’s an African proverb that goes, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
Although it took more than two years for government aid money to show up in New Orleans, Nagin said city officials found $40 million in bond money, set up a revolving fund and targeted 17 zones for rebuilding.
“That’s where we focused our efforts,” he said. “That’s how we rebuilt New Orleans.
“There are rainbows all over New Orleans,” Nagin added. “We’re building green. Our schools have been totally reformed. We have more charter schools in New Orleans than anywhere in the country. Wages went up right after Katrina. There is an economic boom happening in the city. The good news, ladies and gentlemen, is that we did it.”
And Nagin admits that the storm “changed many people’s lives,” including his.
“It definitely changed my life. I made some controversial decisions. I’ll never run for politics again,” he said.