Gustav gives Nagin a second chance

August 31, 2008 5:22:20 PM PDT
Ray Nagin's rhetoric was tough -- calling Hurricane Gustav "the mother of all storms" -- but his demeanor was confident and cool as he ordered the second evacuation of his city in three years. TRACK IT: Location | Forecasted Track | Satellite | Hurricane wind probabilities | TS wind probabilities | Gulf tracking map | Gulf water temps | Hurricane Guide | Tim Heller's blog | Gustav text alerts | Before the storm | Photos

It was a stark contrast to the desperation in the mayor's voice as he begged state and federal officials for help while Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters overwhelmed New Orleans in 2005.

Criticized for what some saw as a reactive handling of Katrina three years ago, Nagin and other officials are changing tactics and responding more quickly in hopes of capitalizing on the rarest of political commodities -- a second chance.

"I don't think I can do another Katrina, but I can definitely do what we're doing today because it's smooth, it's effective, and it's getting the job done," Nagin said Sunday from the train station where residents were boarding evacuation buses in a scene that was far less chaotic than during Katrina. "And we'll be able to get our people back with little hassle."

Officials at all levels of government were using words like unprecedented to describe the cooperation and planning ahead of Gustav, particularly in trying to get residents out of harm's way.

As the storm gained strength from warm Gulf of Mexico waters and headed toward the Louisiana coast, Nagin's tone wasn't the only thing different from three years ago.

The White House is "showering us with resources," Nagin told a local TV station, and President Bush called him Sunday "to check in."

Bush bore even more criticism than Nagin for the federal government's slow and inadequate response to Katrina. This time, the president canceled his planned Monday appearance at the Republican National Convention and instead will travel to Texas, where emergency personnel were staging ahead of the storm.

He opted to stay away from Louisiana "because I do not want my visit to impede in any way the response of emergency personnel."

A third public official who was stained by Katrina, former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, is long gone. Her replacement, rising GOP star Bobby Jindal, has been as visible as Nagin as the storm approaches.

For public officials, Gustav offers another chance to get it right, said political analyst Elliott Stonecipher.

"We sent a message out to the country three years ago that was absolutely horrendous, and we know that," he said. "Everybody wants to see this one done right."

None moreso than Nagin, 52, a former cable TV executive who never held public office before being elected mayor.

"I feel like Job today," he told reporters.

Business owner Chad Harris sees a safer city this time.

"I'm impressed," said Harris, who stayed for Katrina and armed his employees to chase away looters who'd broken into his boat and marine equipment business. "They took all the criticism, all that happened, and applied some processes that are working."

Nagin's struggles didn't end when Katrina's waters receded.

Over the next three years, he was beset by bureaucratic battles, finger-pointing and a loss of confidence by residents. They questioned whether their mayor had the mettle to not only rebuild, but improve what was in many respects a broken city even before Katrina.

Yet Nagin was re-elected in 2006, despite having nearly two-dozen challengers, including the sitting lieutenant governor.

He maintains he's done the best he could with the resources he had. Only in the last nine months, when rebuilding money began to flow more freely, did he begin sounding more upbeat, speaking of 2008 as a "tipping point" for the city's still-fragile recovery.

And there has been progress: Before Gustav, the state planned to phase out the more than 300 National Guard troops who had continued to patrol less-populated areas of the city to let the depleted ranks of the New Orleans Police Department focus on curbing violent crime.

The city's long-troubled public school system was being overhauled, and hundreds of city rebuilding projects are under way or planned. At least two-thirds of the population was back -- somewhere between 310,000 and 34,000 -- and tourists were returning in force.

But quality of life remains a big issue, with limited affordable housing and health care and vast swaths still in ruins.

"In Nagin's case, what he has to do is be a leader of all people in New Orleans and quietly, solidly execute," Stonecipher said. "No flamboyance, no loudness, no treatment of the media one way or the other. Just keep your head down and do this well."

No one expects a repeat of Katrina. Officials say they've learned from the storm and are better prepared.

"So far," Nagin said, "I'd give everybody an A."

But a powerful hurricane could deal a blow to the billions of dollars in rebuilding done since Katrina and the psyche of residents not yet sure if they want to continue living here.

"We were on our own last time," said Charlie Hackett, 63, who stayed in his home for Katrina but was leaving ahead of Gustav. "I don't think so this time."

The Army Corps of Engineers insists the city is safer than before Katrina, but there remain shortcomings; on the West Bank, for example, levees, floodwalls and floodgates are in varying states of completion.

Nagin thinks the rebuilt system will pass the test.

"It's going to test the levee system," Nagin said, "and it's going to show that, I'm thinking, most of it's going to work. It's going to show some weaknesses on the West Bank, which we expect. So it's going to give people more confidence to come back and rebuild after this storm is over."

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