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.
Now his strong criticism of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies has earned him more than a few enemies, said Robert Hogan, an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. "In this crisis, some of his comments have done him a huge disservice," Hogan said. "Some of his comments come across as a crackpot. To me, he's just exasperated, but he may not be viewed that way in Washington."
Nagin's counterparts in neighboring parishes have said essentially the same thing he has. Aaron Broussard, the Jefferson Parish president, told CBS News that the federal government would have to be held accountable for what happened.
"Bureaucracy has murdered people in the greater New Orleans area, and bureaucracy needs to stand trial before Congress today," Broussard said. "Take whatever idiot they have at the top, give me a better idiot. Give me a caring idiot. Give me a sensitive idiot. Just don't give me the same idiot."
Officials in hard-hit St. Bernard Parish were just as derisive of federal efforts.
But Hogan said it would be unwise for any of them, especially Nagin, to keep the fight going.
"The Bush administration has the upper hand because they have the apparatus in place to come up with fingers to point," he said. "They have surrogates. They have a huge network that can help them through talk radio and national radio. They have talking points. State and local governments in Louisiana aren't in the propaganda mode. They don't have the ability to fight back. They are in the rescue and rebuilding mode."
Nagin has shown signs that he wants to reach out. Once the Superdome and the Convention Center -- from which horrible scenes were broadcast around the world -- were cleared, Nagin thanked everyone who provided resources and complimented the Army lieutenant general who helped get the ball moving. He also has attempted to show his human side.
"You know, my heart is broken," Nagin said. "And, you know, it's, it's a tough thing, when you see a city that you love so much, and you see it so devastated and so -- almost dead, and you wonder what the future looks like. I'm basically homeless now."
Even those who approve of the mayor said that the crisis is a reminder of how dependent local officials are on the state and federal government during a crisis. New Nagin supporter Brown, who lost his home and his wife's business in the storm, said the mayor's hands were tied. If he had ordered an earlier evacuation, and enforced it, Brown said, he would have encountered another problem.
"Where are we going to send them?" Brown asked. "If you say mandatory, you got to have somewhere for people to go. He don't control nothing but New Orleans."