The tenure of former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has been defined largely by Hurricane Katrina. His expletive-laced interviews infuriated opponents on both sides as he blasted the slow pace of federal and state relief efforts while more than 80% of the city remained flooded.
Katrina was one of the costliest natural disasters and one of the five deadliest hurricanes in the United States. A reported 1,800 people lost their lives in the storm that also resulted in more than $81 billion in damage. More than 800,000 residents were forced out of their homesâ€”the largest displacement of people since the great Dust Bowl migrations of the 1930s. Five years after the catastrophe, Nagin spoke with Black Enterprise about the cityâ€™s fight to restore its health and livelihood.
How would you describe the state of New Orleans?
I would describe her as moving toward full recovery. About 82% to 85% of our population is back, we recently were noted as having [one of] the lowest unemployment rates in the country, and weâ€™ve got so much construction. If you include the Corps of Engineersâ€™ work with the levees, itâ€™s $26 billion worth of construction.
Are African Americans playing a significant role in the recovery, or are they being left out?
I think it depends on who you talk to. I had big controversy [with] some of the things that Iâ€™ve done to make sure African Americans were included, before Katrina and particularly after Katrina. I didnâ€™t buy into this notion that you have to do 35% Disadvantaged Business Enterprises contracts, because I know if youâ€™re not at least an equal partner in a business venture, then youâ€™re on the short end of the stick. I pushed hard for 50-50 joint ventures or for African Americans to be primes. I also made sure that African American engineers and architects participated in the design and rebuilding phase. I knew that we would have a struggle at the actual construction phase because there were just not a significant number of construction companies that were owned by African Americans or females in this city. So, I think theyâ€™ve gotten a fair piece of the pie.
Did government money impact the communities it was intended to? Who do you think benefited?
The state really didnâ€™t put a lot of money up. When they had a boom from the construction I had to force them to put together a $300 million revolving loan fund because everything we do with FEMA and the federal government is reimbursement, so you had to have the cash up front, which we didnâ€™t have. But other than that the state didnâ€™t put up much money at all. As far as the federal government is concerned, I think a significant amount came to New Orleans, but not what was the congressional intent. New Orleans had 57% of all the damage that happened to the state of Louisiana after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But 57% of the recovery dollars did not make it to our city.
Has the oil spill complicated rebuilding efforts and small business in New Orleans?
I donâ€™t think it has hit New Orleans significantly yet. If anything, itâ€™s hitting our restaurants and small businesses that were directly involved in the fishing industry. Most of those businesses are in other parishes or counties. We had a local oyster processing plant that closed down, but there are very few small businesses that have been forced to shut down as a result of the oil spillâ€”yet.
BP will pay a reported $20 billion into a special clean-up fund for the oil disaster and has cancelled shareholder dividends for this year. Do you think thatâ€™s enough?
Well, I donâ€™t know where the $20 billion came fromâ€”if thatâ€™s some type of formula-driven number or somebody decided that was a big enough number to make people happy. Iâ€™m disappointed that the oil rig is still leaking [at press time] and thereâ€™s really no immediate solution to it, as far as I can see. The second thing is that there was no real, all-out effort to contain the oil or to strike or skim the oil in a significant way. Thereâ€™s a solution in Saudi Arabia or Dubai where they brought supertankers in and they skimmed water and oil and it minimized the impact to their shoreline. I just wish we would have done the same.