Correction to This Article
An Oct. 26 article that featured an interview with New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin incorrectly stated that he had switched his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat. He has never been a Republican.

A Shrinking New Orleans

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin expects the city budget to fall from $600 million to $230 million because of the evacuation of residents and the widespread damage from Hurricane Katrina in late August.
New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin expects the city budget to fall from $600 million to $230 million because of the evacuation of residents and the widespread damage from Hurricane Katrina in late August. (By Chris Graythen -- Getty Images)
By Ceci Connolly and Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 26, 2005

NEW ORLEANS, Oct. 25 -- Mayor C. Ray Nagin, who has vowed to resurrect his crippled city, conceded Tuesday that New Orleans will shrink to nearly half its pre-hurricane population and will have to make do with one-third of its previous budget.

With as many as 250,000 homes uninhabitable and some neighborhoods still lacking basic services, Nagin estimated the city's shattered infrastructure could support 250,000 to 300,000 residents over the next year, compared with the half a million people who lived here before Hurricane Katrina struck Aug. 29.

"That's every available space," he said in an interview in New Orleans City Hall, where signs warn visitors to avoid contaminated basements and workers are replacing blown out windows. Nagin said his staff is scouring lists of blighted properties that could be renovated for temporary housing, as well as scouting for vacant lots, parks and supermarket parking lots to place thousands of trailers.

On Thursday, Nagin, who once oversaw a $600 million annual budget, intends to unveil a $230 million spending plan, boosted -- "if we're lucky" -- by tax revenue from businesses reopening in the city's least damaged sectors, he said. That projection, he said, relies heavily on loans and has a $70 million to $80 million shortfall that he has yet to figure out how to fill.

Two months after the worst natural disaster in modern U.S. history here, Nagin spoke from his second-floor office, where a copy of Rudolph W. Giuliani's book "Leadership" is displayed next to the conference table. Nagin acknowledged much of the city's future -- and his own -- is out of his hands.

He expressed continued frustration with a federal bureaucracy that has given him "very little" control over the hundreds of millions of dollars appropriated for Katrina relief. So many businesses have fled that Nagin has been forced to travel outside the state to try to woo them back. And, he said, it will be up to Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) to decide whether the city's February primary elections will be held as scheduled.

"I think it would be great if it could go forward," he said.

Nagin, a Republican who switched to the Democratic Party to run for mayor, was elected handily in March 2002, defeating Richard J. Pennington, a former assistant chief of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington who became New Orleans police chief.

In a city that was 67 percent African American, Nagin won by dominating the vote in majority white districts. Many of those make up the "geographic footprint" he has identified for repopulating after the hurricane, including the Garden District, the French Quarter and Uptown.

Even the election has become entangled in disaster recovery. Federal authorities have denied requests for the addresses of Katrina evacuees. City and state officials are battling with federal authorities over the release of addresses of evacuees that could be used in absentee balloting.

Nagin, who was a cable television executive, has floated the idea of letting New Orleanians use electronic voting kiosks similar to automatic teller machines in cities across the United States. "Whether we can pull that off, I'm not sure," he said. "The hour is getting late."

But it is housing that has been the most nettlesome problem facing Nagin, as well as federal officials and private employers working to put this wrecked city back on its feet. In his meetings with business executives, Nagin is told repeatedly that "the big thing they're doing is trying to deal with the temporary housing challenge."

The mayor's staff has identified more than a half-dozen locations that he said could support 4,000 trailers. FEMA housing expert James McIntyre said the agency has approved construction of sites to handle more than 1,700 trailers. Trailers will be placed in the parking lot of Touro hospital, three city parks, public school property and a former Winn-Dixie parking lot. The first few thousand units will be set aside for people involved in the reconstruction, Nagin said.

"You jump to the front of the line if you come as a worker," he said.

But Adm. Thad W. Allen, who is overseeing the recovery effort, said federal officials may have to nudge some reluctant residents out of hotels in other states and into FEMA trailers.

"It's going to be like siege warfare going from hotel to hotel," Allen said Monday during an interview at FEMA headquarters in the New Orleans convention center. "My top three priorities are housing, housing and housing," he said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company