Assessing Leadership

New Orleans Mayor Faces Tough Questions

Mayor C. Ray Nagin, left, with council member Oliver Thomas and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, asked of his critics:
Mayor C. Ray Nagin, left, with council member Oliver Thomas and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, asked of his critics: "Where the hell were you?" (By Cheryl Gerber -- Associated Press)
By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 10, 2005

NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 9 -- Mayor C. Ray Nagin created many new friends and probably as many enemies for his decision to pointedly chastise both Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) and the Bush administration for talking too much and working too little. Now, however, difficult questions are being directed at the mayor.

Until Nagin spoke out, Yancy Brown, a native of the Big Easy, had little respect for the mayor, whom he considered too corporate and too disconnected from the black community. "He wasn't acting like a brother," said Brown, 60, a former member of the Black Panther organization. But after Nagin defiantly told the feds -- and indirectly President Bush -- to get off their "asses" and do some work, Brown became a fan.

"That's what he's supposed to do," said Brown, who is still doing maintenance work at the Best Western at Poydras and St. Charles, where journalists covering the event have set up residence. "This place was in trouble, Lord have mercy."

Around the world, particularly in places where Bush is unpopular, Nagin is now recognized for refusing to back down against Bush. But with federal forces providing security in a largely vacant city and attention turning toward what it will take to rebuild, it is Nagin who is getting the tough questions.

Should there have been a better plan to evacuate those without cars? Was his police force up to the task? Why weren't there supplies for the legions of people directed to the Superdome? Why were all those city buses left in low-lying areas? Why did so many of his officers leave their posts as the city descended into a chaos that left many residents afraid that either thugs or the elements would kill them?

On conservative talk radio, especially, Nagin has been characterized as an irrational and incompetent local official who lost control of his city, his police force and, ultimately, his senses when he publicly dressed down the president. Even some of his underlings think the critics may be right.

"He should have evacuated the place earlier," said one city firefighter, echoing a mostly whispered sentiment here as the collection of dead bodies begins in earnest. The firefighter asked not to be identified for fear of retribution.

Determining what could have been done better, and what mistakes were made, will take months and perhaps years. Bush is among those vowing to do some accounting. In one recent interview, the mayor said that everyone, including him, shares the blame for the untold numbers of dead lying under the fetid waters that now cover 60 percent of the city. Pressed on the criticisms, Nagin shot back at a news conference this week: "To those who would criticize, where the hell were you?" he said. "Where the hell were you?"

His officials said they did everything they could. Joseph R. Matthews, the city's director of emergency operations, said the city went on alert the afternoon of Friday, Aug. 26, even though a full evacuation was not ordered until Sunday. It became clear then that New Orleans would not be spared at least some of Katrina's wrath when the storm came ashore on Monday. The Superdome was opened as a shelter of last resort, though it was quickly overwhelmed and those who sought refuge there did not have food and water.

"Nothing prepared us for this," he said. "It was just too much."

Nagin has praised his police and fire departments for working long hours under horrific conditions. Two officers have committed suicide since the hurricane hit, and at least a couple of hundred remain unaccounted for. Capt. Marlon Defillo of the New Orleans Police Department said some have had trouble getting through, and some -- like other residents -- were trapped in their homes. Others, he said, may have died.

Nagin, 49, is a 1978 graduate of Tuskegee University. He was a cable television executive at Cox Communications with no previous political experience when he was elected in 2002. He ran as a reformer, beating 14 other candidates.

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