When I saw the news headline in my email feed on late Friday afternoon that former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin had been indicted, I have to confess my first reaction was, “What took them so long?” That’s the same reaction many of my friends and former homeland security colleagues had when we started to email the story to one another.
Nagin, as most everyone knows, was the Mayor of New Orleans in perhaps its darkest hours. During Hurricane Katrina in late August 2005, Nagin presided over what can easily be recalled as the then-new national capital of dysfunction, chaos, and cringe-worthy moments – labels usually reserved solely for Washington, D.C.
As the record-breaking storm was headed toward the Crescent City, New Orleans found itself woefully unprepared in terms of citizen evacuation and emergency services, shelter readiness, public safety resilience, interoperable communications, and so much more. A city that had been spared significant damage from countless other hurricanes that had roared through the U.S. Gulf Coast would experience furies never imagined by an American city since the Civil War. New Orleans descended into utter chaos, with emergency shelters unprepared and overwhelmed; riots and fires unleashed because there were no police and fire services to prevent them; levees ruptured because of age and ill-repair; and City Hall leadership that was not around to do anything.
As easy as it would be to pin all of these problems on Nagin, that would be unfair. The dysfunctionality of the city in many of these core areas had been something that had developed over years of neglect, inattention, and lack of investment. In taking over City Hall in 2002 as an admitted outsider to much of the city’s political establishment, Nagin just kept the status quo in these core areas in place – because it had been there before, so why mess with it?
Despite shirking those responsibilities, what Nagin was ultimately responsible for was leadership of New Orleans in the days prior to, during, and after the storm, and history is finally beginning to reflect how lacking he was in leading the Crescent City. While most of the nation and world will forever think that New Orleans was the ground zero of Hurricane Katrina, the truth is, it wasn’t. That distinction was reserved for Bay St. Louis/Pass Christian, Miss., that endured more death and wide-scale, catastrophic destruction than its Louisiana neighbors to the immediate west.
What New Orleans had that Bay St. Louis/Pass Christian didn’t was a swelling of television cameras and microphones that recorded the mayor ripping into state and federal authorities for their failed responses to the storm, while at the same time weeping and roaring into cameras, painting himself as a victim of circumstance. The truth is, Nagin played to the cameras and microphones, and when you have a compelling story, made-for-TV characters, and a perpetual soap opera of intrigue and chaos as New Orleans did, there is no reason for the cameras and microphones to move beyond their initial aperture. In having those cameras and microphones pointed in his direction, Nagin also did everything he could to make the failures of Katrina about someone other than himself and his role in them. Ask FEMA’s Mike Brown about that. …
Nagin also played the race card, especially after the storm, when Hispanic and Latino workers moved into the city to begin working cleanup, recovery, and rebuilding efforts. At a town hall meeting I had organized about a month or so after the storm had struck the then-mayor openly asked the already antagonized crowd, “How do I make sure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?” At the time, I was working in the Private Sector Office at the Department of Homeland Security, where, in cooperation with federal, state and local government and NGO and private sector partners we were working to bring the whole of the community back together, and not just part of it.
There were a number of things that I saw during my months-long deployment in Louisiana that make my feelings about Nagin admittedly raw and unsympathetic. A city and people that desperately needed good leadership in the most difficult days imaginable had the worst of it, and the 21-count federal indictment details the character at the center of many of those preparation and recovery failures.
Nagin’s indictment, though, brings to light how far out of the shadows the City of New Orleans and emergency management leadership have come since Katrina. The city that he once led is now truly a very different place. Today it is much more ethnically diverse because of many of the people he once derided. Furthermore, it is growing economically and is one of the hottest places for new entrepreneurs to set up shop and be “open for business.” New Orleans is also much more stable and competent in City Hall under Mayor Mitch Landrieu than it was under Nagin.
While the city still has some of the same challenges with its police department as well as crime, it is a city where blatant antagonism and pointing the finger at someone else for their shortcomings and failures are no longer firmly rooted at the mayor’s desk in City Hall. Nagin’s legacy also serves as a powerful reminder of the critical and pertinent role elected leaders play in emergency situations. He and former Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco will forever be leading chapters in a book called, “What Not to Do/How Not to Conduct Yourself When Your Citizens Need You Most.” The antagonism, mistrust and uncooperative relationship between the two of them as well as with other regional leaders only exacerbated already difficult conditions in the state after the storm.
Those are lessons that then Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour and Mississippi coast leaders never applied as they had to deal with similar, if not worse conditions in their communities following Katrina. All you have to do is look at how current Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have conducted themselves prior, during and after the various storms and disasters that have struck their respective constituencies.
My hope for Nagin’s upcoming trial is that it is fair and over with quickly for his sake, his family’s and for the people of New Orleans. So much good is happening on the Gulf Coast today where misery once seemed to be taking perpetual residence. Sadly Nagin’s trial will be cause to reopen old wounds, given the actions chronicled in the indictment, but the truth is Nagin’s place in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast’s history is far better being anchored in its troubled past. Today its future is so much brighter because he’s not part of it.