Until Katrina struck, my job was to read and respond to New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin's correspondence, both online and in print. For 16 months I wrote letters to government and business leaders, welcome letters, for conventions and family reunions, and addressed the public's concerns. The mayor actually read most citizens' letters and he took the time to sketch an outline of what he wanted to say or I'd do the research. He would then read and sign what I wrote.
Nagin inherited systemic failures stemming from years of corruption and racism, first started by white politicians and then copied by black leaders, which had bankrupted the city and the school system and perpetuated deep cycles of poverty. Nagin's pragmatic business sense had improved New Orleans' course, and it's unfortunate to see his hard work ruined by decades of inept, myopic leadership on the local, state and federal level.
He isn't your typical politician; in 2003 he defied political wisdom by crossing party lines in the governor's race to endorse Republican candidate Bobby Jindal, who lost to Gov. Kathleen Blanco. But I'm concerned that his concern for the impending disaster was hindered by his narrow focus on improving business through conventional thinking, and that he was no more farsighted than President George W. Bush. Furthermore, the combination of a brain-drain and a cabinet of yes-men has and will preclude any forward-thinking ideas from challenging his ego.
Nagin petitioned Congress to keep the money allocated in the federal budget for upgrading the levees and pumping system in New Orleans, but for the past three years the White House has influenced Congress to cut it. I doubt the money would have helped, as it was too little too late. Besides, the real kicker was that the coast was eroding at a rate of 25 square miles a year due to oil exploration, dredged shipping canals, the logging industry, and the control of the Mississippi River. Wetlands are a buffer against storm surge and would've mollified Katrina's winds. According to National Geographic, "research after Hurricane Andrew showed that every linear mile of wetland cut the height of the surge by three inches."
There are ways to restore the wetlands, but Nagin has laid off his director of environmental affairs, Yarrow Etheredge, who, along with countless scientists and journalists, predicted the devastation a major hurricane would cause. Rebuilding the city with environmental concerns and energy efficiency in mind will ease environmental degradation, improve the city's defenses from disaster, and lower energy costs and insurance premiums for the city's residents. Currently, Nagin isn't taking any steps toward restoring the wetlands or encouraging sustainable development, and there isn't one environmental engineer or scientist on his advisory committee--only developers and businessmen.
The Nagin administration's indifference to environmental concerns isn't shocking. This summer the Jim Lehrer News Hour wanted to do a story on environmental degradation around New Orleans, and Tamie Frazier, the mayor's press secretary, brushed them off because she was unaware of who Jim Lehrer was and didn't think New Orleans had any environmental risks. Attaining information from the Nagin administration, whether as a citizen, an employee or a member of the press, was always difficult. The communications department was oddly secretive and seemed more concerned about the color of the mayor's chair than damage control or encouraging the mayor to edit his message. (Remember his grimly predicted death toll? Fortunately off by nearly 9,000.)
The Saturday before the hurricane hit, I remember watching a press conference on TV and seeing Nagin standing behind Blanco. He was eyeing the crowd behind his confident, almost-smug smile, suggesting that he wasn't worried. Nagin was always cool, calm and collected, which gave people confidence in him. However, last year during Hurricane Ivan, we received letters from citizens who perceived his demeanor as flippant. Of course, others criticized him for calling an evacuation. I've wondered whether he delayed calling an evacuation this year because he didn't want to upset voters in an approaching election, or because of political quarrels with Blanco.
The city didn't take responsibility for poorer citizens during Ivan; nothing was said about using buses, trains or planes to transport poor citizens. New Orleans has always maintained a philosophy of individual responsibility, and the laissez-faire attitude was as charming as it proved destructive. The Red Cross wouldn't operate a shelter in New Orleans because none of the sites--schools, gyms, etc. --were above sea level, and the school board squandered the money to bring schools up to code. The mayor's office told citizens to either evacuate or go upstairs and take an ax in case the waters rose to the attic--that way they could chop their way out.
The New York Times reported that most major cities don't have disaster plans despite the billions of dollars Homeland Security has doled out for this cause. It seemed like emergency preparedness wasn't Nagin's top priority because the probability a hurricane would hit New Orleans was historically low, even though the possibility would be catastrophic.
Nagin's top priority was "to build one New Orleans through social and economic revitalization." A former general manager of Cox Communications, Nagin ran for mayor with a pro-business, anti-corruption platform. During his first 78 days in office he issued seven dozen warrants to corrupt officials in the Taxicab Bureau. Within four years the Nagin administration fixed 260,000 potholes and balanced the budget; passed the largest bond initiative in the city's history ($260 million) dedicated to street repairs and the enhancement of parks and libraries; started a job program, Job 1, that provided adult literacy programs and job training in various fields with openings (close to 7,000 jobs in shipbuilding and 9,000 jobs in the medical corridor); and installed motion sensitive crime cameras in neighborhoods with high crime. Though the number of murders remained high at nearly five a week, nonviolent crime declined. Poverty declined and job growth finally perked.
Over $3.3 billion in development projects were under way in New Orleans before Katrina hit. In 2003, Magazine Street had blocks of blighted properties; just before Katrina it was lined with new restaurants and boutique shops owned by locals. This summer, Donald Trump publicized that he would build a 70-story, $200-million-plus condo/hotel in the Central Business District. Judah Hertz, the developer who made the East Village trendy, bought 15 percent of the class A office space in New Orleans.
This summer the Louisiana Legislature enacted pro-business bills Nagin either proposed or endorsed. They included a 15-20 percent tax incentive for brownfield remediation, incentives for rubber production, and incentives for biomedical businesses. He pushed for the continuation of tax credits for movies shot in the city (over $420 million in productions were made in New Orleans in less than two years) with a stipulation that movies had to be completed in Louisiana, prompting Sony/Colombia to start constructing a sound studio on the West Bank. There were incentives for video game companies, which the mayor referred to as his "sleeping giant."
Given Nagin's business acumen, his appreciation for technology and the nation's need for new forms of energy, he should consider establishing tax incentives and subsidies for environmental technologies. According to a Stanford study, Louisiana's offshore wind capacity could supply 80 percent of the state's electricity needs, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory stated that Louisiana could harness 70 percent of its energy from renewable resources: 45 percent from solar, 24 percent from biomass and 1 percent from landfill gas. Through technological advances, Louisiana could run entirely on renewable energy with enough to add to the national grid. Environmental jobs are permanent and attract young professionals, improving Louisiana's environment and economy--which sounds way more appealing than Nagin's idea of building land-based casinos.
It's hard to tell if the mayor is being realistic when discussing reconstruction because he has to put a good image on a bad situation so people have confidence that things are returning to normal. He has said he ran for mayor because he wanted to keep his family in New Orleans; he was scared that the lack of opportunity would force his sons to leave to find work. My generation (25-35) was declining before Katrina hit, and most people I know aren't returning to New Orleans; they're settling in nicer, more progressive cities. Nagin should take cues from cities like Austin, Portland and Chicago, where "smart growth" and environmental development are encouraged. After all, that's where his young population is, and has been, heading.
Reuben Brody attended the University of Colorado where he majored in fly fishing. He lived on fried food and Miller High Life for the past two or so years in New Orleans until evacuating to the Triangle.