By Nedra Rhone
C. Ray Nagin, former mayor of New Orleans, left office in May 2010 several years after rising to international notoriety for what is now known only as “Katrina.” Last month, Nagin released a self-published memoir of the days before and 30 days after the historic event.
“I really couldn’t do anything before I got out of office,” said Nagin, who was re-elected in 2006. His focus after leaving office had been to put together a personal library. “When I got to the Katrina section, the story jumped out at me,” he said. With assistance from a few writer friends, “Katrina’s Secrets: Storms After the Storm” (CreateSpace, $17.99), became his first effort to share his personal insights into the complexities of managing a disaster.
On Thursday, Nagin will be in town sharing his insider knowledge with young leaders as part of the 2011 World Leadership Conference and Awards sponsored by Usher’s New Look Foundation. It is part of his desire to help younger generations understand the inner workings of politics and volunteerism, he said.
The book has had its share of critics with some accusing Nagin of being dishonest or portraying himself as a hero. Nagin said he was prepared for the maelstrom.
“There is a certain story line and narrative out there about who is to blame. I knew me coming out with a different perspective…would be controversial,” he said.
If helming a city beset with a natural disaster was tough, not even that could prepare Nagin for the challenge of writing a book.
“Writing a book is a lot more intense than I ever imagined,” he said. “First [it] was very therapeutic, I had to get a lot of things off my chest. But it was way too long. I had to do four or five different re-writes.”
Nagin took some time to chat about everything from his decision to self-publish to the HBO series “Treme” based on the neighborhood where he grew up.
Q: Your book is titled “Katrina’s Secrets,” which implies more than one, but what would you say was the most widespread or most misleading “secret” surrounding Katrina?
A: At Katrina’s peak, Google had 50 million search results. There were a lot of things that were accurate and some things that were not. The whole notion that the city was not ready and didn’t evacuate properly…we got over 80 percent of people out. When I made it mandatory for the first time in our history, we got 96 percent of people out of harm’s way. Most people don’t realize that.
I go behind the scenes with the President [George W. Bush] and the Governor [Kathleen Blanco]. I share some things people don’t know about those interactions. The Governor and I had our differences, of course, but there was huge struggle going on between the President and the Governor over who would control the resources after the disaster.
Q: Katrina has become one of the major events in American history. What sort of impact has the event had on the American psyche?
A: I think Americans really were shocked at what they saw after the storm – shocked from the standpoint of a little secret about the inner city having intense pockets of poverty. Americans were shocked that all levels of government were so overwhelmed that we couldn’t be effective to rescue people in a timely manner.
Q: Major publishers must have been interested in your memoirs. Why did you decide to self-publish your book?
A: I spoke with several agents and big houses and had some good conversations, but the thing about this particular story is I wanted to make sure I could tell it and maintain my voice. I was concerned that if I turned the manuscript over, they would have lots of leeway to change it.
Q: In the book, you talk about growing up in Treme. What do you think of the HBO series set in the neighborhood?
A: I think the HBO series is pretty good. Treme helped ingrain in me a deep love of the city and its uniqueness. It also helped me understand that New Orleans is a city of extremes. Extreme elegance and extreme wildness.
Q: Where do you see New Orleans in the future and what kind of role would you like to play?
A: I think New Orleans still has a long way to go, but we are moving to recovery a lot quicker than some people portray. We are only in year six [post disaster] and 80 percent of the population is back. We are one of the fastest growing cities in America. We have over $20 billion in construction going on [levee construction is about $14 billion, according to Nagin].
I plan to be behind the scenes. I don’t see myself getting into politics again unless God shines down on me from heaven saying thou shalt go back into politics. I am setting up a foundation with proceeds from the book going to senior citizens and children still recovering from Katrina.