Ex-New Orleans Mayor Reflects on the City He Called “Chocolate” Six Years After the Storm

In a conversation with BET.com, Ray Nagin discusses his hardships and regrets as a Black mayor in pre- and post-Katrina.

Posted: 08/29/2011 08:45 AM EDT
Filed Under Hurricane Katrina

Ray Nagin

Six years ago today, one of the deadliest hurricanes in the United States, Hurricane Katrina, took the lives of over eighteen hundred people and cost affected communities around $75 million in damages.

 

To many, the hurricane and its resultant destruction, found to primarily be the result of New Orleans’ levee system design flaws, seems as if it happened yesterday. Unlike many disasters in the United States, however, help did not come immediately. In fact, federal assistance did not arrive until seven days after the storm, not the expected two to three days. And when it did arrive, to their surprise, some residents were treated like criminals in their own backyards.

 

“People tried to march out of the convention center to find water, food and better shelter and they were turned around with attack dogs and machine guns,” says Ray Nagin, New Orleans’ ex-mayor of eight years and leader before, during and after the storm, to BET.com.

 

Nagin’s recently released tell-all book, Katrina’s Secrets: Storms After the Storm, gives readers what he calls a fresh perspective of what “really” took place after Katrina. Calling the events surrounding the storm six years ago "an incredible story of devastation, perseverance and inspiration," the ex-mayor feels that he and his efforts were improperly portrayed and he wants to set the record straight that he was used as a scapegoat in many situations.

 

“I think that, for a disaster like this, that was so high profile that it damaged [the reputations] of a Republican president and a Democratic governor who decided not to run for re-election because she was taking so much heat, I was basically the last person standing that was one of the key leaders,“ he says.

 

He blames his outspokenness as one of the reasons he was put on the firing line. Many, however, would not deny that. In an interview with a local radio station four days after the storm, in reference to Bush promising to send federal help, Nagin told the station, “Don't tell me 40,000 people are coming here. They're not here. It's too doggone late. Now get off you’re a***s and do something, and let's fix the biggest g*dd**n crisis in the history of this country.”

 

Not surprisingly, that was not the end of Nagin’s rants. In a town hall meeting that October, the then-mayor said, "We as Black people, it's time, it's time for us to come together. It's time for us to rebuild a New Orleans, the one that should be a chocolate New Orleans … I don't care what people are saying Uptown or wherever they are. This city will be chocolate at the end of the day."

 

Though he faced much criticism and later apologized for the speech, later nicknamed “The Chocolate City Speech,” Nagin expresses that his most difficult decisions as a Black mayor in post-Katrina was to go against the power structure in the city.

 

“There were open discussions about changing the social fabric of the city and very bold discussions about gentrification. I had to make a very tough decision to say that everybody had a right to return to the city of New Orleans and there was a heavy price I paid for that,” he says. I made the 'chocolate city' speech in response to messages out there that African-Americans weren’t welcome back to the city. I wanted to bust through the clutter and not be anti-anyone, but make sure that the [working and middle class] segment of the population knew that they were indeed welcome because we needed them to rebuild the city.”

 

Since his exit in office last May, Nagin has been focusing on promoting his new book, which is one of a two-part series. He has secured speaking engagements across the world in countries including the Czech Republic and Costa Rica, but despite all the attention, he says that not a day goes by when he does not think about Hurricane Katrina and the regrets he has as the leader during the city’s most devastating moment.  

 

His biggest regret? Not calling for a mandatory evacuation sooner. In the almost 300–year history of New Orleans a mandatory evacuation, which would have forced everyone to leave the city, had never been called before. Normally, it would have taken about 72 hours for the region to clear out, but Nagin called for the exit only about 24 hours before the storm hit. He blames the delay on his desire to have the legal department finish their work when, instead, he says that he should have made them “catch up later.”

 

“When I called the mandatory [evacuation], we got about 95 to 96 percent of the people out of harm's way, but it still wasn’t good enough,” he says, reflecting back with disapproval.

 

He also wishes that he would have appointed a general honorary, or "point person," to take charge of state affairs, and he wishes that he would have pushed harder to get more resources to deal with the alarming amount of people who suffered from post-traumatic stress after the storm.

 

Now that it is all said and done, however, Nagin says that he simply wants people to understand the complexities of how massive the work was that he and his team in New Orleans worked on and completed after the disaster. Calling the future of the city nicknamed “NOLA” a bright one, he highlights the record low unemployment and ever–increasing tourist industry that the city now has.

 

Though he is no longer in office, in the end, the outspoken leader still has a message for anyone willing to learn from the mistakes of Katrina.

 

 “I want them to understand a lot better about how politics, race and class played a negative role in this disaster and, hopefully, we can learn from it and it won’t ever happen again in American cities and in any other city around the world.”

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