Ray Nagin on Rebuilding New Orleans

On the eve of the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin talked to NEWSWEEK about federal aid, the Lower Ninth Ward and his own political future. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: If I had asked you the day after Katrina to imagine New Orleans a year from now, would you have imagined something that looked better or worse than the city today?

Ray Nagin: The day after Katrina? Man, I'm not sure what I would have told you. At that point, the city was almost totally devastated with 80 percent under water and the economy was going to be totally shut down. But just like when Katrina hit you would have thought we would have had all sorts of state and federal resources after Katrina hit us and it was slow in coming so I probably would have been fairly pessimistic based on Katrina.

What's been most surprising for you in the past year?

The most surprising thing? How much money gets made in disasters.

But most people in this country think New Orleanians have gotten a lot of money in the past year.

You know when we talk about there's $100 billion that's been spent-I think around the nation, people think 'Okay, all that money's going to really make things happen in the city of New Orleans.’ Very little of it has gotten down to the people or to the local government that really needs it.

Say I'm the CEO of a large company and I come to you and say, 'I want to open major operations in New Orleans but I'm not going to do it until you can assure me that I'm not putting my employees in danger by asking them to live there.' What do you say to that?

I would tell them that the city of New Orleans is safer today than it's ever been its history. I would also be honest with them and tell them that it's not totally complete... The more time goes on, the better it's going to get.

But how is it the safest it's ever been if you have to have guard troops on the streets because crime is so bad?

Even though we saw a spike in the summer months, we're starting to see a downward trend in terms of violent crime. And for the most part, most of the murders that have happened are happening in a very small, contained section of the city where their employees probably wouldn't be impacted.

Do people raise those concerns with you when you're trying to convince them to open up shop in New Orleans?

All the time, all the time. The business community is fairly engaged and they're constantly paying attention. But they're like most people, they want to see things fixed over night. And I keep reminding them that the devastation was seven or eight times the size of the island of Manhattan. And they still have a big whole in the ground after five years.

A lot of people here still really don't like you that. And a lot of them tell that to your face. What's that like?

It's tough, but one of the things I understand is that there's no Osama bin Laden for them to vent their anger at. The only thing they can do is vent their anger at the person who' s most visible. I'm the mayor, I have to take those hits.

There are people in the black community here who say they got you reelected but now you've forgotten about them.

I hadn't heard that... The only place where I hear a little noise is in the Lower Ninth Ward or in those areas where we haven't been able to get utilities to. They're the ones that are really screaming right now. They'd like to see things move quicker and it's just not possible. Not because of anything I want to do or don't want to do.

Did you know from the start that the question of what to do with the Lower Ninth was going to be the most sensitive?

You know, I knew from right after the event. And the talk about potentially gentrifying the city and certain people weren't welcome back, I knew that that was going to start to affect people deeply and that those wounds weren't going to go away. They're not. It's just going to take some time until we demonstrate to people that there's a fair process. They just don't want to hear it. They want to see it. Right now we haven't been able to fully demonstrate that it's fair.

But if it is fair why can't you just show people exactly what the plan is?

The big inhibitor is the lack of flow of resources. If you were to ask me what I'm most disappointed in, that's the biggest disappointment I have. Here we are, the economy's totally shut down and for twelve months now, I have been forced to operate this city on a $120 million community disaster loan and $1.3 million in state emergency disaster funds. Everything else has been a reimbursement of cost... I thought I would have overwhelming resources to repair the infrastructure off the bat. But there's this whole national debate and politicians talking about the footprint of New Orleans. 'It should be smaller' or 'You shouldn't rebuild in New Orleans East or the Lower Ninth Ward.' And frankly I just reject that notion.

When people say to you, 'Why won't you let me rebuild in the Lower Ninth Ward?' do you sort of freeze up?

I'm honest with them. I say, 'Look, it's the most devastated area, it will be rebuilt but it's probably going to take some time. This is not a quick fix.' Right now I can only provide utilities, water and utility sewer services to half of the Lower Ninth Ward. The other half, every time I open it up, it leaks so badly that it threatens the rest of the city's delivery systems and it's going to take some time. And you can't go rebuild until you have utilities. Right now, we're trying to tell people in the Lower Nine, 'You can't go back,' and they'll say, 'What do you mean I can't go back?' What are my options and we're not clear about their options. And they say, ‘Well, you're just trying to take my land.’ That's the problem.

You'll admit that there are wealthy white people here who just don't want poor black people to be here.

I think there are some people who made those statements. Unfortunately, they were public and they got in the national domain and it didn't help. It didn't help trust. But I think for the most part most people in the city are okay with everyone coming back with the exception of the criminals. I think black, white, Hispanic, Asian, do not want the criminals back.

Do people recognize you when you walk down the street in other cities?

Oh my God, it's incredible. You know for me, I'm not accustomed to that.

Can you think of the moment when you first realized that you'd gotten to that level?

The first inkling of that was after the disaster and I went to check on my family in Dallas and I released my security force. I said, 'Look, I'm just going to go in the mall, I don't have any clothes.' And thank God, the Dallas PD picked me up and said, 'Man, you can't go around by yourself.' Since that time every city I've gone to whether it be New York, Chicago, Detroit, California, don't matter, people walk up to me and talk to me and they recognize me. And it's just so foreign to me.

Do you have days where you wish someone else was mayor?

Oh yeah, absolutely, I do. For me, the biggest frustration I have is the political environment and the counter forces that are always forcing you to push a rock up the hill. And then, I have my struggles with the media just like everybody else. And then the impact on my family, I worry about that a lot.

You're term limited. What do you want to do when you're done being mayor?

I don't know, man. That's a great question. The Times Picayune's woken up to the fact that I'm going all around the country. And every time I go somewhere somebody wants to throw a fundraiser for me. So I don't know, man. I'm raising money the easiest I've ever done in my life. I'm serious. I mean big money. And I'm like, what's going on here? I'm starting to watch this thing politically and wondering, what's going on? So I don't know. I have so many options. I could stay in politics in another role. I could go back into business.

Would you be interested in being a national African-American leader?

It depends, man. Then I have to do the party thing. I don't like any of these parties. I'd rather throw my own party. I don't know. Knowing me I'll probably be attracted to some huge challenge, something that nobody else has done.

Do you hope people someday call you the Man who Rebuilt New Orleans?

I think they're going to call me whatever they want to call me, based on everything I've seen thus far. But once the dust settles, I think they're going to probably say he was a guy was in the middle of an incredible disaster, he kept his cool for the most part—except for a couple of high-profile tirades—and guided the city to where it was rebuilt to one of the best, creative, culturally unique cities in the world. I think that does it.