NEW ORLEANS – Mayor Ray Nagin was swept into office three years ago as a political outsider, a business executive who was going to save the city from corruption and modernize its baroque government.
Now he’s a mayor without a city.
Most of New Orleans is covered in dirty brown floodwaters. Its police are besieged by armed mobs and looters. Flames flare from broken gas lines. Stranded residents have been living in squalor, with no electricity or fresh water. Dead bodies float in the streets.
Some question whether the city can ever be rebuilt, but Nagin, 49, soldiers on from the darkened and shattered Hyatt hotel downtown, trying in his methodical way to impose order on an apocalypse. He uses runners to communicate with the remnants of his government, though most top officials have decamped to Baton Rouge, La.
On Thursday, three days after Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, Nagin had been pushed far enough, and he went on the radio and told the federal government to “get off your asses and let’s do something, and let’s fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country.”
He broke down in tears.
Those who know him say the outburst was uncharacteristic for a calm technocrat who likes to make lists of problems and solve them. They also said it was about time.
“It was possibly the highest moment of my life right now,” said Jackie Clarkson, a city councilwoman and political ally who represents the French Quarter. “I was listening and I was going, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ I loved it.”
Amid the sternest test of leadership imaginable, Nagin faces heavy criticism for failing to evacuate the poorest New Orleans residents swiftly. Supporters are sticking with him, however, saying he’s doing the best he can in an impossible situation.
Unlike former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani guiding his citizens through the darkness of Sept. 11, Nagin hasn’t had a commanding media presence. Those who remain in his city have no power and can’t see him on television anyway.
That may have hurt him in the first crucial hours of crisis, when the leader of a city can either be seen as rising to the challenge or not seen at all.
After nearly a week in subhuman conditions in the city’s shelters of last resort – the Superdome and the convention center – many were seething with resentment over the way they’d been treated, and some lashed out at Nagin.
U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, a Democrat from New Orleans, defended the mayor.
“His job was to sound the alarm down here and he has done that, from the violence to the rescues to stopping the levee breach,” said Jefferson, who supported one of Nagin’s opponents in 2002. “Nobody has done everything exactly right around here, but he has applied himself and shown great leadership.”
A more experienced politician might have avoided twisting the president’s tail. But Nagin’s frank talk appeared to get action. By Friday, President Bush was in New Orleans and, after meeting with the mayor, he pledged 7,000 more troops and better coordination of relief.
“In politics, I always feel like I’m bridled,” Nagin said Friday after the meeting. “I just took the bridle off. I’d had enough.”
Two things made him see red, he said. First was the condition of the Superdome. Then he heard stories about women who were trying to give away their babies to get them out of town.
Nagin, an African-American, had no political experience before he won office in 2002 by besting 14 other candidates. He’d been a cable TV executive at Cox Communications, making $400,000 a year, the darling of the city’s business elite, a fresh face with a shaved head (one local columnist called him a “hottie”) who promised change.
Nagin was born in 1956 in New Orleans’ Charity Hospital, a legacy of Depression-era populist Gov. Huey P. Long that provides free health care to the poor. Now the hospital is out of food and water, and thugs shot at rescuers who were trying to evacuate its remaining patients last week.
During his campaign, Nagin milked his humble origins for all they were worth. His mother managed a Kmart lunch counter. His father was a fabric cutter in a clothing factory on the day shift and worked as a City Hall custodian at night.
In high school, Nagin was a lanky baseball pitcher, a left-hander known for a big curveball and an ability to put the ball exactly where he wanted it. He won a scholarship to Tuskegee University, a historically black college in Alabama, graduating in 1978 with a degree in accounting.
At various times during his first three years in office, Nagin has vowed to sell off the city’s airport, take over the troubled school system and cut the city bureaucracy. None of that has happened, but New Orleans’ problems with poverty, unemployment and crime have continued.
Those failed promises pale in comparison with the challenges of Katrina.
Critics say Nagin has made some serious missteps. Concerned about the legal ramifications of ordering people to leave their homes without enough adequate shelters, Nagin didn’t issue a mandatory evacuation until Sunday morning, less than 24 hours before the storm hit, meaning that up to 100,000 people were stranded.
In the aftermath, it became apparent that the city hadn’t stockpiled enough fuel for rescue vehicles and boats.
Admirers see Nagin’s staying in the city as courageous, like a captain staying with his ship. Others say it’s pure stubbornness, and point out that he might have been in a better position to coordinate relief efforts with improved communications in Baton Rouge.
“He’s a hands-on person, so Nagin is probably going to get blamed no matter what,” said David Bositis, an expert in urban politics at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. “He’s not someone whose political support is so deep he’ll be able to rely on that.”
Nagin, who has a master’s degree in business administration from Tulane University, said he learned long ago to tackle a long list of problems three at a time. When you accomplish them, he said, you move problem number four to the top of the list.
For now, he’s focused on his list: transferring control to the military, completing the evacuation of the city, containing the floodwaters and then draining them. Federal officials say the last could take six months.
Nagin never thought he’d be called on to lead his city through its rebirth. With almost no tax revenue coming in, the government will be broke in two weeks. He’s concerned about mosquitoes, and that no one knows yet how many people have died. The list of problems is endless.
“I was living a pretty good life,” Nagin said of his pre-storm days. “I could not imagine this in my wildest dreams.”