After the Deluge, New Orleans's Mayor Nagin Stands His Ground

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco are briefed about the rising floodwater.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco are briefed about the rising floodwater. (By Michael Ainsworth -- The Dallas Morning News Via Associated Press)
By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 2, 2005

His city is under water. There's no electricity, no water to drink. Broken gas lines cause flames to erupt from filthy floodwaters. Mobs loot stores and exchange shots with police. Hungry people fight over food. Dead bodies float through the streets while the living huddle on rooftops, awaiting rescue.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin stares at the apocalyptic wreckage of his city from a window in his makeshift command post in the Hyatt hotel, which sits across a flooded street from City Hall. His wife and three children have been evacuated. He has sent most of his staff to higher ground in Baton Rouge. But he remains behind, like a captain determined to stay with his sinking ship.

"He's gonna be there until this thing turns around," says Don Hutchinson, the mayor's director of economic development, speaking on a cell phone from Baton Rouge. "He's showing the leadership a mayor should show."

He's not a politician, not really. Nagin, 49, was a cable TV executive at Cox Communications, a man with no previous political experience, when he beat out 14 candidates to win election as mayor in 2002. Back then, he was a fresh face in New Orleans politics, a young guy with a shaved head who promised to clean up a corrupt city.

"Ninety-five percent of the time, it's the greatest job in the world," he told New Orleans magazine in 2004, "and 5 percent, it's the highest pain you could ever imagine."

Back then, he could not possibly have imagined the pain he is witnessing in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.

"My heart is heavy tonight," he said Monday, sitting in the studio of WWL-TV in New Orleans. Dressed in a white T-shirt topped with what looked like an unbuttoned police or firefighter's shirt, he ticked off a list of problems in his slow Nawlins drawl -- "80 percent of the city is under water . . . we have an oil tanker that has run aground that is leaking oil . . . you see flames sparking up from the water . . . we have buildings that look like a bazooka was shot through them."

With the TV lights gleaming off his head, he summed up the scene: "It's really kind of a surreal situation, like a nightmare that I hope we'll wake up from."

That was Monday night. Since then, things have only gotten worse. Yesterday at the New Orleans Convention Center, where more than 15,000 people have taken refuge, corpses lay out in the open and mobs angered by a lack of food and water battled with police.

"This is a desperate SOS," Nagin said in a statement released to the media. "Currently, the Convention Center is unsanitary and unsafe and we are running out of supplies for 15,000 or 20,000 people."

In the halls of the Hyatt yesterday morning, the mayor was mobbed by citizens demanding to know when they could go home, when normal life would resume.

"You need to listen very carefully," Nagin told them, according to the Associated Press. "For the next two or three months, in this area, there will not be any commerce, at all. No electricity, no restaurants. This is the real deal. It's not living conditions."

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