New Orleans mayor accused of moving slowly on recovery

While Nagin defends record, he's accused of ignoring city's basic needs

November 09, 2006|By Ann M. Simmons | Ann M. Simmons,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NEW ORLEANS -- To hear Mayor C. Ray Nagin and his supporters tell it, New Orleans has made remarkable progress since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city almost 15 months ago, and is moving forward in leaps and bounds.

Water, sewage and electrical services are back to all inhabited neighborhoods. Telephone service is fully operational. Trash pickup has been enhanced. Several new commercial developmental projects have been signed off on or are under way. The mayor predicts the city's population, which he estimates to be between 225,000 and 250,000, could reach 300,000 by year's end.

"We are now completely open with the footprint of the city of New Orleans," even the most devastated areas, Nagin told residents at a recent community forum.

But dissenters insist that the improvements the mayor boasts of don't address greater concerns: spiraling crime, the lack of hospitals and good schools, the city's rundown parks and playgrounds, and Nagin's failure to present a clear-cut plan for enhancing, rebuilding or razing neighborhoods.

Critics contend that "Nagin's inertia" is slowing the recovery of the city, and independent research groups and academics disagree with his estimate of the city's size, putting it between 190,000 and 200,000.

"We need basic infrastructure," said Cory Turner, a New Orleans community activist. "We need housing. We need health care. We need substance abuse and detox facilities. We need public safety. And we need [Nagin] to take the lead."

Several Web sites have emerged calling for action and change in New Orleans. At least two have tried to launch petitions to have the mayor recalled.

But Nagin defends his record, arguing that the challenges he faces are unprecedented. "I don't think I can satisfy everybody's needs right now, with the intensity that's out there, but I'm doing the best that I can with the number of hours in the day," Nagin said in an interview at the community gathering.

He told residents that it would likely take five to seven years to completely rebuild the city.

"I know it's hard," Nagin said. "I know life in the city post-Katrina is not like life in the Big Easy as we knew it. It's going to take some time. There's no short-term, quick fix ... none."

Many residents aren't buying it. In recent months, some have complained that Nagin had been spending too much time making out-of-town trips rather than focusing on needs at home.

His jaunts inspired the Web site "wheresnagin.com" and earned him the nickname "Ray Nay-gone," courtesy of a local talk-show host.

Nagin called dissatisfaction over his travel schedule "an old criticism." He has not traveled out-of-town recently, and his aides have said his trips are essential for spreading the right message about the city.

Peter Burns, a political scientist at Loyola University, said that although it typically takes at least two years for significant infrastructure improvements to take root after a major disaster, the rate of New Orleans' bounce-back was "still slow ... according to standards of disaster recovery."

Detractors point to Nagin's failure Monday to present the Louisiana Recovery Authority, or LRA, with a single prioritized list of infrastructure repair requirements, for which the agency could decide to provide funding using federal money.

Nagin said that details were not ready, and in a written statement said that "in the near future" he would present the LRA with a plan for the infrastructure of the sewerage and water board, the final report of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission that is charged with redesigning the city.

"The fact that he didn't conceptualize, a year after the storm, that he needed to explain what was needed in the city to get money, is obscene. It's total incompetence," said K. Lucy Atwood, a Carrollton neighborhood resident, and spokeswoman for the "wheresnagin.com" Web site.

Virginia Saussy Bairnsfather, a board member for the Broadmoor Improvement Association, said that residents of her historic preservation neighborhood, where almost all 2,900 homes suffered flood damage, were not going to just "roll over" when the mayor's design team decided earlier this year that their area should be turned into green space.

They held a rally, lobbied city officials into submission, and since then have designed their own community development plan with the help of students from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

"We're not waiting around for Mayor Nagin to make the difference, we're doing it ourselves," said Bairnsfather.

The mayor argues that New Orleans' recovery is progressing well considering that the city is surviving on operating on $240 million in federal loans because millions more in federal recovery aid hasn't started flowing yet.

Last week, he proposed a $405 million city budget that would be used to increase spending on fighting crime, restoring parks and youth programs, along with other infrastructure repairs.

Arnie Fielkow vice president of the New Orleans city council backed the mayor's progress report telling residents at the forum that "there's a lot of good things going on in the city, despite what you see and read."

Ann M. Simmons writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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