Ex-Mayor Nagin paints himself as hero in memoir

July 9, 2011 - 10:29 AM
Nagins Book

FILE In this June 22, 2011 file photo, former Mayor Ray Nagin arrives to talk about his new book, 'Katrina's Secrets,' at a news conference in New Orleans. Nagin writes in a new memoir that he was the only one to understand how to recover from Hurricane Katrina, and that he endured plots against him and incompetence around him as he set his plan in motion. He publicly contradicted Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, President George W. Bush and U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a move that he writes left him fearing for his life. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin writes in a new memoir that he was the only one to understand how to recover from Hurricane Katrina, and that he endured plots against him and incompetence around him as he set his plan in motion.

That and more is in the recently self-published memoir from Nagin, who was mayor before, during and after the Aug. 29, 2005, storm that flooded 80 percent of the city and took more than 1,700 lives. Nagin writes in "Katrina's Secrets: Storms After the Storm" that he was the only one who understood the storm's dangers and tried to get people out of harm's way before it struck. After the storm, his one-page plan to get citizens back to a restored New Orleans disappeared, likely taken by someone who wanted to write a book, Nagin writes.

These and other claims in the book are not documented, and he writes of things "becoming apparent to him" or being guided by gut feelings. The book was not independently fact-checked because it was self-published.

He publicly contradicted Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, President George W. Bush and U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a move that he writes left him fearing for his life.

"I had a target on my back as the guy who stood in the way of their vision of a new New Orleans where mint juleps would once again be the drink of choice in a bleached, adult Disney World-like city," he writes.

Katrina left entire areas wiped out, buildings off their foundations, electricity gone, and residents stranded in attics. Conditions were so bad Nagin ordered the city emptied of people. Many poor people worried they would not be able to return, fearing others would seize the chance to get rid of low-income, crime-ridden areas.

And, Nagin writes, the rumors of plots against the city's blacks were true.

Nagin discusses conspiracy theories and "shadow governments" aimed at undermining him, including "men dressed in black combat outfits and adorned in bulletproof vest, rifles, and leg straps holding at least two very large handguns each," storming into a meeting and saying they were there to protect the mayor. Another involves others running suspicious wires from the roof of the Hyatt Regency Hotel, where Nagin was holed up, around the door to his suite.

The most prevalent conspiracy theory, however, is that racial prejudice was behind many of the blunders and problems after the storm. Nagin writes that New Orleans was a majority black city before Katrina, and that a group of white residents was determined to change that.

While in Dallas shortly after the storm, Nagin met with a group of white businessmen, with a lone black man among them, that was determined to "keep certain residents out and to shut down parts of New Orleans forever." Yet Nagin appointed the leader those businessmen to his 17-member "Bring New Orleans Back Committee."

Nagin said he was chosen by God to lead the city out of the storm. God also answered Nagin's prayers by sending a brief rain shower to cool the people packed for days into the Superdome after the hurricane, preventing a potential riot, he said.

Many of Nagin's claims are startling to those who stayed through the storm and were involved in the decisions he claims to have made.

The ex-mayor, who has set up a business in disaster consulting, writes that he urged everyone to leave the city before the storm hit. He also asked churches and neighbors to take those who were sick or could not afford to evacuate. And finally he provided city buses to take people to the Superdome — the so-called shelter of last resort.

The city "planned for food and water to sustain up to twenty-five thousand sheltered people for three days," Nagin writes.

But Doug Thornton, vice president of SMG, the company that manages the Superdome, said there were no plans before the storm to use the stadium as a general shelter. It could be used, he said, to house people with medical needs.

"On the Saturday night before Katrina we got the official notice that he was thinking of opening the Superdome as a shelter for the general population," Thornton said. The storm hit before dawn that Monday.

Thornton said he had called Nagin's CEO, Charles Rice, in January 2005 to propose storing portable toilets, cots and other supplies, as well as raising the generator to protect it from flooding. He said he got only an informal reply saying there was no money.

Nagin also claims that an effort by some residents to leave the city by walking over the Mississippi River Bridge and out through Jefferson Parish, only to be rebuffed by gun-wielding police, was actually part of a "freedom march" designed to go to the governor's mansion in Baton Rouge to call attention to the city's plight.

Nagin said he and Lt. Gen. Russel Honore, who was brought in to oversee the post-Katrina evacuations and clean up, planned the march only to have it stymied when Blanco's office leaked word of it to parish officials. However, Honore said he recalled no such conversation.

"The only discussion I remember was about having the people march through a shopping center to reach the buses," Honore said. "Anything else was never on my scope."

Nagin writes that Blanco did not quickly respond to his requests because she wanted revenge for him backing her opponent during the election, and that she was engaged in a power struggle with the president.

"It is unbelievably ridiculous that he should suggest political conflict would ever limit my efforts to rescue hurricane victims in distress," Blanco said in a statement. "Mr. Nagin's self-imposed isolation and refusal to communicate in the most critical hours and days after the storm apparently caused him to dream up false conspiracies."

Nagin also singles out President Bush's post-storm speech from Jackson Square, saying he was surprised it would be given at night because there was no electricity in the city's French Quarter neighborhood.

But by speech time, the area had been spruced up and well-lit, he said.

"It was now fully illustrated that when they put their mind to it they could do anything, including making a dead city look magically alive," Nagin writes.

Jason Recher, a Bush assistant who helped arrange the speech, said Nagin was enthusiastic about the site when it was proposed, saying it would be good to show the world the entire city had not been wiped out.

"I think the only intention in picking that location was to show a part of the city that survived, a landmark," Recher said. "And it was enthusiastically approved by the mayor beforehand."