Watching Ray Nagin’s CNN interview during the 5th year Katrina anniversary hoopla, I realized how little I’ve seen of the former mayor since he left office. What’s he up to now, I wondered. Gathering investors to buy that newspaper he wanted? Speaker’s circuit? Surely if organizations will pay to hear former FEMA director Michael Brown’s insights on disaster management, then there must be a niche for C. Ray.
So while Nagin weighs his future opportunities, let’s reflect for a bit on his disastrous time in office.
The aftermath of Katrina and the Federal Flood exposed Mayor Ray Nagin. I remember seeing him lead a Town Hall meeting at the downtown Sheraton in November 2005. He wore a black Saints jersey. Among other recommendations to the weary citizens in attendance (“Buy some dirt”), Nagin advised us to “unify and make noise” so we could get the Category 5 flood protection we deserved.
Soon thereafter, Nagin opted not to crusade for Category 5 protection, even after seeing his city drown due to flawed levees and advising citizens to make noise. Instead, he focused on making the “tough decisions” to restore the city’s bond rating. Perhaps the powers-that-be had warned him that Category 5 improvements were a total lost cause, and he shouldn’t bother. Still, he should have fought that important fight to at least try and save New Orleans from future floods. Instead, on the first anniversary after Katrina, Nagin endorsed the Army Corps of Engineers' weak Category 3 floodwall repairs in an interview with 60 Minutes, literally knocking on the walls as if that demonstrated their integrity.
Nagin gets too much blame for the evacuation, which on the whole could have been much worse. Empty buses and trains aside, most New Orleanians with the means and desire to leave got out of town. Tens of thousands remained and endured the mother of all nightmares. Obviously, better planning and preparation would have saved lives. For example, if Nagin had declared a mandatory evacuation immediately after speaking with NOAA meteorologists on Saturday, rather sleeping on the decision and fretting over the legal implications, perhaps more would’ve decided to evacuate. But hindsight’s pretty easy..
Nagin's biggest failures came after the levees failed and all hell broke loose. During press conferences only hours after the storm passed Nagin knew of the levee breaches, but he didn’t emphasize the catastrophic implications of the breaches to the national press. Conversely, Nagin and his police chief Eddie Compass were very quick to spread false rumors to the national media about conditions in the Superdome and the Convention Center. They described child rapes, infanticide, corpses stacked in dark rooms “like cord wood”, battles with “thug armies” and other sensationalized tales. Due to Compass and Nagin's rumor-mongering at the expense of their own city, the National Guard delayed its arrival (further) because they were concerned about having to engage American citizens in armed combat. The mayor even said he imposed “Martial Law” to control the city, and recent reports suggest police were directed to shoot looters on sight. Nagin even allowed his police chief to confiscate legal firearms from lawful citizens after the flood.
Everyone remembers Nagin’s cathartic rant on WWL radio after the storm, which cheered displaced New Orleanians throughout the nation. He deserves credit for that. But, like his support for Cat 5 levees at the town hall meeting, it was just a momentary high point-- good words that eventuated into nothing. In other post-K interviews Nagin was much less inspiring, twice lapsing into paranoid fantasies about getting assassinated by the CIA. Appearances count. Nagin often appeared haggard and overwhelmed.
One of Nagin’s worst failures after the flood was his decision to divide a mostly united city for personal political gain. To get himself re-elected, Nagin engaged in a sophisticated, “fear-based” campaign. Whether subtly ("OUR Mayor") or explicitly ("God wants this to be a Chocolate City") Nagin used charged words to divide New Orleanians, just months after they were united by a common cataclysm. He showed uncharacteristic laser-like focus and discipline during his divisive yet brilliant re-election effort, and assembled a bizarre coalition of black voters who feared white takeover, along with conservative voters who feared Mitch Landrieu.
And it worked.
Almost immediately after re-election, violent crime spiraled out of control. Thousands protested in the streets, yet Nagin downplayed the problem and stood by his new police chief, Warren Riley.
At a another town hall in 2007, Nagin boasted about City Hall being scandal free and fiscally disciplined. This is funny in a dark way, because Nagin was indulging in the "politics of the past" which he had campaigned against the prior year. For the rest of his term, the Nagin administration became mired in scandal (Greg Meffert), his cronies went to jail (Benjamin Edwards), he endorsed crooked politicians (William Jefferson), and the city’s budgetary situation cratered.
Somehow-- it still baffles me-- Nagin subcontracted recovery duties to a buffoon named Ed Blakely, who-- inconceivably-- proved to be more ineffectual and loose-tongued than Nagin himself! Yet in spite of the local leadership vacuum, surprisingly large numbers of New Orleanians returned and rebuilt their homes. The Nagin administration should not have taken credit for this repopulation, but it did.
So, after squandering a historic chance to lead a united city into recovery, Nagin left office with nearly everyone united against him-- totally frustrated and disgusted with the crime rate, fiscal mismanagement and the slow pace of progress. The aftermath of 8/29/05 revealed Nagin as an enormously flawed officeholder, grossly unequipped to lead a stricken city during a fragile, perilous, and crucially important time. So cheerfully out of touch, Nagin had a Bush-like capacity to ignore his own failures. Instead of vision, he had fleeting, half-baked visions. Nagin’s “big ideas” were distractions par excellence-- an insult to pipes, much less dreams. Recovery was too big for him, so he hired Ed Blakely. Katrina was too chaotic, so he ignored the rule of law.
The most charitable interpretation is that Nagin was a horrible judge of skill and character, and competently managed one thing after Katrina: extending his time in office into eight long, long years. There are other interpretations of Nagin's time in office, though, which suggest self-serving criminality rather than mere incompetence. These interpretations have aged well since the Federal Flood, and I think they’ll continue to do so.