Katrina's Secrets: One-on-one with former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin

(In August 2005, then New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin had the daunting task of steering the city during and after Hurricane Katrina devastated the area. After serving two consecutive terms, he stepped down in 2010 due to term limits. He has self-published “Katrina’s Secrets”, the first part in a series of forthcoming books. I recently went one-on-one with him as the country marked the 6th anniversary of Katrina.) 

Brother Jesse Muhammad (BJ) At what point in time did you even start thinking about producing this book?

Ray Nagin (RN): I got out of office in May of 2010 and I really was not interested in doing a book. I was primarily putting together what I call my personal library of my eight years of service. Then when I got to the Katrina episode, it kind of struck me that this was an amazing story, amazing tragedy, amazing story of resilience and inspiration. Also I was looking at what had been written. If you Googled Katrina and New Orleans at one point, there were 15 million hits that would show up. A lot of it didn’t accurately reflect what actually happened. I met with a couple of agents to go through the regular publishing route but never got comfortable because they wanted to change this and embellish this and play this down. So I decided to self publish the book to ensure that I wouldn’t lose my voice in the process.

BJ: Why the title, Katrina’s Secrets? 

RN: I was doing my research for it and it struck me, there were a lot of things that were going on during and after Katrina that are fairly hidden and we really don’t understand exactly what happened, how it happened, why we made the decisions that we made and how they are paying off. I hope people will read it. I was in the front line throughout. I never left my post. I interacted with just about every level of government, law enforcement and military.

FC: What are some of those secrets you share in the book? 

RN: Most people don’t know that Minister Farrakhan and I met about a week or two after the storm. I was in Dallas checking on my family and we met at the airport as I was coming back. We talked about New Orleans and he gave me some advice on how to maneuver through all the media bashing that was coming. He pretty much predicted it. He wanted to know specifically were the levees bombed and I told him I didn’t see any evidence that happened. There were some barges that had burst through some of the levees and one of them infamously landed on top of houses in the lower Ninth Ward. He gave me some pretty good advice and later on that same day I had a meeting with President Bush on the U.S. ship that was parked on the Mississippi River. So I had Minister Farrakhan earlier that day and President Bush later on that night. It was quite an interesting time of mental gymnastics for me. Second thing is I believe in divine intervention; God really had his hand on seeing us through this. There was one particular episode where there was a riot getting ready to happen at the Superdome because people were so frustrated that the buses weren’t there, they didn’t have enough food and water. It was about 300 of us and it was about 30,000 people and they were pushing us against the barricades and getting ready to overrun us. Then right in the midst of that a little rain cloud came over the Superdome. Rain came down, the people started to relax a little bit and went into the Superdome and lived to fight another day. I thought that was the time we were going to lose it all. I also talk about a lot of heroes and sheroes that people don’t even focus on; coast guard, military, first responders, people who helped make sure that some our ladies were safe in the most difficult environments. The recovery plan I implemented, most people don’t know the depths of the plan we went through and how we implemented it to get the city in full recovery. Then the final thing I point out is I don’t think the U.S. is better prepared for another disaster like Katrina. You can see the climate change that is happening. Now natural disasters are also being linked with man-made disasters since. Japan had a tsunami. Something like that could happen in the United States and we really haven’t changed any of the fundamentals.

BJ: In the past several months you have been seeing the NOPD come under investigation by Department of Justice. So much is coming out in regards to Katrina related shootings. What is your response to critics who say that you didn’t really put enough heat on that department or exposed possibly any of the corruption that you may have been aware of? Are those some of the things you address in the book at all? 

RN: I talk about that a little bit. The police department had a long history of problems that predate my administration. Anytime we had any instances of any wrong doings or potential wrong doings, my push to the commanders of the police department were always, “Let’s make sure we get somebody independent in here to look at it. “ We did that in every instance, in the Garber case, now the Danzinger case. Whether it was the DA or state charges, or the FBI to come in and take a look, we always had them to come in and take an independent look. The FBI came in on the Danziger case and looked at it and initially didn’t find anything but the family pushed it and now we’re starting to see some things happen. My attitude is anybody who has done anything wrong during Katrina, before Katrina or after Katrina, should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

BJ: What are a few things that you may have said to yourself that you wish you had done differently during Katrina? 

RN: You know every time you go through something like this, that is catastrophic, you’re inventing solutions as you go on because there’s really no guide, no model to follow. Surely there are always things you could have done differently. I think back to the time I was calling for a mandatory evacuation. There was about a ten hour window overnight when I could have called it a little bit earlier but since we had never done it in over our 300 year history, I relied upon my legal team to make sure we were doing everything properly. Maybe I should have pulled the trigger and let the legal team catch up later. That’s always something that can be thought about. Like the push to get the federal and state government to have one person in charge of the recovery. The federal government and the state government had the resources and we had exhausted all of ours. Maybe I should have pushed harder because if that would have happened a little quicker, we would not have had as many suffering that we saw. Third, as I think back and look at the results of Katrina, Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, I wish I had pushed harder to make sure our citizens had more access to those types of services to help them to deal with the stress that we went through. Those are some of the things that I think about that we could have done a lot differently.

BJ: How would you personally assess your tenure as mayor of New Orleans? 

RN: It had a catastrophic and historic event in the middle of it. We came in and did a lot of clean up, got the city on a good footing, and reduced poverty. We took 37,000 people off the poverty book. We were moving people up the economic scale then Katrina hit. Katrina was like nothing that had ever happened before like that. We evacuated a tremendous amount of people. Unfortunately there were still some who were in the city and that was the images that the world saw as we struggled for seven days but we really got some help. Then after the storm I got into a huge battle on how to rebuild the city. Some wanted to gentrify it; some wanted to keep people out. And we in America have a fast food mentality; everyone wanted to see New Orleans restored immediately. If you study research and research history, it takes ten to fifteen years to recover from a disaster like this. So there is a lot of frustration in this city. If you look at the facts, New Orleans is well on its way to being fully recovered. We’re only approaching year six right now. There are some residuals from a storm like this, especially from the media. They have positioned me as kind of a scapegoat of Katrina but the fact is something different. I think my legacy is going to be a mixed bag. I think people will praise me for what I have done as well as say I didn’t do enough. There’s no comparison, it’s up to the Eye of the Beholder.

(For more information on Ray Nagin visit his website @ http://www.craynagin.com)

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