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Mayor Nagin tells of Hurricane Katrina ‘hell’

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was thrust into the national spotlight as he struggled to handle Hurricane Katrina. Nagin, who left office last year, describes the aftermath of the storm in his new book, "Katrina's Secrets: Storms After the Storm." Read an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

When Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans on August 29, 2005, the city changed forever. Mayor Ray Nagin was thrust into the national spotlight as he struggled to handle the unfolding disaster. Nagin, who left office last year, describes the aftermath of the storm in his new book, “Katrina’s Secrets: Storms After the Storm.” Read an excerpt.

The next day the White House officials advised us that President Bush’s speech would take place at nine pm in front of St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square in the French Quarter. It seemed odd to us that they proposed this speech at night, in complete darkness. Power was not yet restored in this part of the city. There were certain buildings that were back on the grid but for the most part the French Quarter was still in a blackout. However, as we soon came to learn, when the U.S. Government puts its collective mind to something, magic happened, darkness or no darkness.

First thing that morning the military and other technicians arrived and were everywhere in preparations for the televised speech. By nightfall, St. Louis Cathedral looked better than Cinderella’s Castle at Disney World. All we needed was a spectacular fireworks display and Mickey Mouse would have been all smiles. When I tell you that the place was well lit; moths and other flying bugs burst into flames whenever they got within a few feet of the huge lights that were rigged up. The light and dark contrast was stunning.

… The feds brought all kinds of fancy, expensive equipment as if they were lighting up New York’s Times Square. It was clear the intent was to portray to the world that the city was already back on its feet. The dark side, the mass deception part of this recovery was now taking things to a new level. It was now fully illustrated that the feds could do anything, including making a dead city look magically alive.

I just happened to see the President several minutes before show time and he was extremely confident. He proudly proclaimed, “Mr. Mayor, you’re going to like my speech. This is going to be good.” I just nodded and said, “Sounds good Mr. President, I can’t wait to hear it.” I then moved to a reserved seating section that was just off to the side from the Presidential podium. Some of my staff sat with me along with the Governor, her husband and key advisors. We took our seats and soon it was announced over a loud speaker, “Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States”. Amazingly, he sounded like the same voice who announces professional boxing matches by shouting in rhythm, “Let’s get ready to rumble!”

Cover@Clayton CubittSubmitted by Gabrielle Torello / UGC

… Once the President’s speech was over, within minutes it was semi-dark again as though someone flicked a switch that turned off the sun. The President immediately exited and the military technicians packed up their stuff. Within a few hours the place was in total darkness again. They even took the temporary lights and generators that were used to light up Jackson Square. We were not offered these valuable pieces of equipment so we could better see key areas of the city at night. The show was over and it was now time to get back to reality. The Disney-like magic left almost as quickly as it arrived. Once all of this became clear, we headed back to the command center to further discuss what we had just heard and seen. The general consensus was the speech sounded too good to be true. We would just have to wait and see what would really happen.

... Regrettably, Hurricane Katrina left us on a quarantined island of sorts where we were surrounded by evil and ill intentions. First our neighbors in Jefferson Parish secretly pumped their floodwaters into a breached levee further flooding Lakeview and the city’s core, at least twice. Next Gretna officials armed with machine guns and attack dogs stopped suffering people in the Convention Center from marching on a federal interstate. All the marchers wanted to do was walk peacefully on an elevated expressway in desperate search for much needed food, water and adequate shelter. And then we had St. Bernard officials block a critical road by the lower ninth ward right before Katrina hit that created a barrier for escape and impeded floodwater drainage. They would subsequently pass an ordinance that prohibited people of color from renting in St. Bernard. Then they repeatedly violated the federal fair housing act by cancelling all post-storm low income housing developments in their area.

This clearly demonstrates that our neighbors were not very neighborly when it really counted. They along with others helped make an intolerable Katrina experience akin to being in hell without ice water. The level of selfishness and insensitivity shown was unbelievable, insulting, and horrifying. I doubt anyone of us could have ever prepared ourselves psychologically for some of the man-made impediments we experienced after the storms. Regardless of the heartlessness, hatred and coldness faced from within and without we still had very important work to do and that was to rebuild one of the greatest cities in the world, New Orleans. We were determined to press on, come hell, high water and inordinate self-interests.”

From "Katrina's Secrets: Storms After the Storm" by C. Ray Nagin. Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of CreateSpace.