Standing in a borrowed auditorium 425 miles from home, the mayor of New Orleans implored displaced constituents Saturday to keep faith, put pressure on Washington policymakers and come home soon.
"I miss y'all," Mayor C. Ray Nagin told more than 2,200 people temporarily living in the Atlanta area. "I want y'all back in the city of New Orleans. Red beans and rice just ain't the same without you. I want you back."
But in a three-hour session marked by tears and outbursts, the response was not encouraging. "Come home?" many yelled back. "To what?"
With New Orleans's 500,000 residents scattered across 44 states, Nagin has embarked on an unprecedented multi-state campaign to find -- and bring home -- the people who cleaned the hotels, sang in the clubs, prayed in the churches and attended the schools decimated three months ago by Hurricane Katrina. Today's session at Morehouse College followed similar town hall-style meetings in Memphis and Houston.
Katrina and its floodwaters not only destroyed large swaths of the Gulf Coast but also uprooted a record number of people, many more than the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s or the Great Depression. Georgia officials estimate between 60,000 and 80,000 New Orleans families have moved to this state. As Nagin struggles to repair streets, restore power and revive industry, the mayor must also confront the harsh reality that many people -- even those who desperately want to return -- say they are not convinced it makes sense now.
"We want to come home, but how do we get there?" James Anthony asked. "I lost three cars. I'm a photographer. Who am I going to photograph?"
One after another, the displaced New Orleanians described in detail the toll the disaster has taken and the difficulty in trying to decide where to go next. Unemployed teachers said they do not have certificates to get jobs in Georgia. Mothers fretted about uprooting their children and elderly parents yet again. A woman with respiratory trouble is afraid of the mold now infiltrating New Orleans. And virtually everyone pointed to the lack of housing as the biggest hurdle to resuming their previous lives.
"My job called me back, but I didn't have anywhere to live," said Robert Miller, 39. After working 19 years at the Luzianne Coffee Co. plant, Miller is out of work. "I'm thinking about staying here and finding me a job."
Miller, like many others interviewed here, said the Atlanta area is enticing. His children are enrolled in a good school, and Atlanta doesn't seem to have the sky-high murder rate of his native city. "It's tough raising teenagers in inner-city New Orleans," he said.
Nagin himself uttered conflicting views. On the one hand, he warned, "The Big Easy is not very easy right now." But with fewer than 75,000 people living in New Orleans, there aren't many criminals around, he added. Despite his predictions of a boom in the coming years, Nagin conceded: "The city is broke. We don't have any money. We're begging and borrowing from anybody who will listen."
Some stood and applauded Nagin, a former cable television executive who won election three years ago by dominating the predominantly white, middle-class sections of New Orleans. Many more in the overwhelmingly black crowd, however, grumbled epithets or hooted out their disapproval.
"Tell the truth," they chastised Nagin. "Answer the question." They scoffed at the mayor's assertions that the drinking water is safe, that 70 percent of the city has electricity and that Tulane Hospital is open. Tulane, in fact, has not reopened, and some environmental experts say arsenic and mold in New Orleans far exceed safety levels.
"He's a loser," said Joan Coleman, 40, as she left in disgust. "He's just joking around up there, and people want to know what's going on with the city."
Nagin acknowledged making mistakes in the buildup and aftermath of Katrina, most notably that he should not have waited for the "cavalry" to come to the rescue. But he did not hesitate to criticize federal, state and even fellow city officials.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on "that small section of New York," Washington responded with "grants and this and that," he said. "Now they offer us loans."
The city council, he complained, has halted his plan to put temporary trailers in a city park, and Louisiana State University has not decided what to do with its pair of severely damaged public hospitals in downtown New Orleans.
Betty Gaynor, reminding Nagin he had grown up just around the corner from her place in the Lafitte housing project, told the mayor he had forgotten his roots. She eviscerated the decision to host a Mardi Gras celebration in February when some residents are still waiting to bury loved ones.
"I'm with you," Nagin replied, placing the blame on Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu (D) and tourism officials.
But Gaynor was neither convinced nor appeased. "The city is not up," she said. "It is only up where the white folks are."
Many evacuees came toting long lists of gripes and questions, some directed at Nagin, others at representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"I really want to hear from him myself so I can figure out what's true and what's false and what I'm going to do," Rhonda Mathieu said. With tears welling in her eyes, the former New Orleans East resident said that after moving eight times, she had reconciled herself to giving up her job as a respiratory therapist at the Ochsner Clinic and taking a position at an Atlanta hospital.
"I love my city," she said, referring to New Orleans. "But the reality is there is no way it will be repaired in one or two years. It will probably take five years."
For his part, Nagin predicted a great New Orleans boom by then. But acknowledging the enormous challenges ahead and the sense that national leaders have moved beyond Katrina, he urged the crowd to lobby Washington.
"If we don't start to make some noise, then we're gonna get lost," he said. "At the end of the day, we are Americans. We have paid our taxes. It's time for them to pay back."