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New Orleans mayor ponders his post-Katrina legacy

Becky Bohrer

NEW ORLEANS — It’s not easy being Ray Nagin.

The New Orleans mayor, now midway through his final term, envisions his legacy as leader of a sweeping rebirth of New Orleans from the ruins of Hurricane Katrina.

Despite bouts of government infighting and red tape, many residents see hopeful signs the city is righting itself. Supporters see Nagin as a man of compassion and faith. Aides say he is working behind the scenes to build a stronger New Orleans, and that he’s more interested in getting the job done than getting any credit.

But many others are losing patience. They view the mayor as ineffective and out of touch. They say he has failed to articulate a clear vision for the city, wrecked when levees broke in August 2005.

With the city moving into a leading role in its recovery, the mayor sees 2008 as a pivotal year. In his recent State of the City address, he expressed optimism and spoke of being ready “for the final push over the next two years that will drive this recovery to its highest levels and ensure the growth of our city for the next 50 years.”

“I have kept my word to you that I would not let New Orleans die,” he said.

During the immediate post-storm chaos, the perfectionist Nagin found much out of his control, and he lashed out. He grabbed the national spotlight with a plea to federal officials to “get off your asses and do something” as the city stood under water.

He found himself in the national spotlight again after a 2006 Martin Luther King Day speech. With thousands of New Orleanians still displaced, he declared that the predominantly black city would be “chocolate” again, upsetting some whites who saw it as a sign they were not welcome. Nagin later apologized.

Despite shaky voter confidence and a big field of opponents, leaders in the black community pressed Nagin to run again in 2006. If he didn’t, some argued, he would have left an awful legacy as the black leader who ran away when the city needed him most.

“I told him he had to run because he could not leave the city in this state,” the Rev. Willie Gable said. “I said to him, ‘As … a black mayor, you have to come back and attack this problem and start the rebuild.”’

Nagin was re-elected, beating Lt. Gov.  Mitch Landrieu, whose family had been a power in local politics for decades.

Early in the recovery, Nagin cast aside suggestions that chronically flood-prone neighborhoods should not be rebuilt. In December 2006, he hired urban planner Ed Blakely as the city’s recovery director.

Blakely, whose resume includes helping the city of Oakland, Calif., recover after the 1989 Bay Area earthquake, spoke of targeting recovery spending. He envisioned a revived Lower 9th Ward that would be as vibrant as the French Quarter, but with an Afro Cuban flavor. But Blakely’s prediction of “cranes on the skyline” by September 2007 became a local punchline as money was slow to flow and development sputtered.

Problems remain: Homelessness is up, and violent crime has grabbed national headlines. Affordable housing, health care and high-paying jobs are scarce. Some homeowners are still waiting on funds to rebuild their hurricane-damaged home or raise their property to help keep it from flooding again.