Leaders Handle a Local Catastrophe

Robert Siegel talks to Joe Riley, mayor of Charleston, S.C. Riley, who was first elected mayor in 1975, led the recovery effort in Charleston in 1989 after Hurricane Hugo devastated the region. Riley says that while he understands there's a huge difference in magnitude between Hugo and Katrina, the role of a public official before, during and after a storm is very similar.

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One mayor who has some idea of what New Orleans is facing is Joseph Riley of Charleston, South Carolina. He's been the mayor there since 1975, and in 1989 he faced Hurricane Hugo, which at the time was the most devastating hurricane in terms of damage.

Mayor JOSEPH RILEY (Charleston, South Carolina): You begin putting the city back together and you approach it--we did here--as a Manhattan Project; that every deadline you're given, you say, `No, that's not fast enough.' If you say six weeks, I say two weeks. Let's make it happen. And so you get--create a sense that there is going to be a speed and a steady course of restoration that gives people hope. It's like a war going on. The enemy is decay. The enemy is defeat. So you have all these balls in the air. You never let one drop and you keep pushing--getting it clean, getting the power on, getting the stores open, getting the business open, getting the schools open, getting people's lives back to normal.

SIEGEL: You're a mayor who is very much involved with urban planning and trying to engage your other mayors in urban planning. How different might a city emerge--how different might, say, New Orleans emerge from a hurricane? How different did Charleston come out of the hurricane from what it was before?

Mayor RILEY: Charleston came out better and stronger. We didn't compromise our standards. We adhered to our historic preservation requirements. And I think that a city need not be a changed city after a natural disaster in terms of changing its style or its character.

SIEGEL: Well, the part of New Orleans that's sort of the tourist cliche, the French Quarter--that part seems to be relatively dry. That's the part that seems that it'll come out of this looking much as it did.

Mayor RILEY: It will, I think, thank goodness. And, you know, one thing that happens with a terrible natural disaster is that a building boom ensues. And so you not only repair the damage that occurred to buildings but usually you take the opportunity to give it a 50-year rehab or, in terms of our old churches in Charleston, a 150-year rehab. And so there--you never want a natural disaster but it does produce a stronger, sounder building stock than you had before, and buildings get spruced up and get more modern conveniences and, you know, the HVAC systems are better and more modern and things like that.

SIEGEL: Should there be a city where New Orleans is? I mean, this is a city under sea level that will always live in some hazard from water.

Mayor RILEY: Of course. Of course, there should. Venice should always be Venice and New Orleans always New Orleans. They'll make the levees bigger and they'll make them stronger so this never happens again. But this city, so important to our country, of course, it should always be there. It's going to emerge from this better and stronger. And every citizen in America will have an enhanced attachment to New Orleans. It will redound to the benefit of that great city without question.

SIEGEL: Mayor Riley, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mayor RILEY: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Mayor Joseph Rile, mayor of Charleston, South Carolina, since 1975. He was mayor back in '89 when Hurricane Hugo hit the Carolina coast.

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