Beignets Back, Nagin Wants Residents Back, Too

Nagin

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, shown here eating a beignet at the reopened Cafe Du Monde in late October, predicted city residents would return once the famous doughnuts were available again. But 80 percent of the population has yet to come home. Chris Graythen, Getty Images News hide caption

itoggle caption Chris Graythen, Getty Images News

PROFILE:

 

Name: Clarence Ray Nagin Jr.

 

Job: Mayor of New Orleans

 

Age: 49, born in New Orleans, La.

 

Education: B.S., Accounting, Tuskegee University, in 1978; M.B.A., Tulane University, in 1994

 

Life and Career Highlights:

 

*Born at New Orleans Charity Hospital, the same one that was notoriously deluged and overwhelmed with patients after Hurricane Katrina.

 

* Grew up poor in New Orleans' rough Treme neighborhood and attended public high school there.

 

*Attended Tuskegee University on a basketball scholarship.

 

*Moved from entry-level manager to vice president of Cox Communications, where he is credited with turning an unprofitable operation into a corporate showpiece. Thanks, in part, to lucrative stock options in the cable giant, Nagin became a multi-millionaire.

 

*After hearing his son complain about New Orleans' lack of job opportunities, he entered the race for mayor in 2002, switching from Republican to Democrat. He went on to win the election (with 58 percent of the vote) on a platform of cleaning up the city's notoriously graft-filled city government.

 

*Embarked on a criminal probe of the city government that resulted in the arrest of 84 city workers — including his own cousin — and pushed for a $4 billion series of economic development programs that focused, in part, on increasing revenue from tourism.

 

*In Hurricane Katrina's wake, founded "Bring New Orleans Back Commission" to revitalize the city.

For all of the disagreement about how to revitalize New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there is one thing that most everyone can agree on: Mayor Ray Nagin has a leviathan task on his hands.

Even before the hurricane hit, the former cable industry executive had struggled to rid his notoriously graft-ridden city of corruption and launch an economic revitalization plan to reverse a decades-long economic decline. While he made progress on some fronts, blacks who had benefited from the city's system of patronage complained bitterly. Some even complained that he was "too white" for New Orleans' 67-percent black majority.

In the wake of the hurricane, he was widely criticized for his failure to prepare a workable evacuation plan for the city's poor. Usually composed, Nagin instead lashed out at federal government officials for their own failure to send National Guard troops to help. "Don’t tell me 40,000 people are coming here," he said in a now famous rant aired on WWL-AM radio. "They're not here. It's too doggone late. Now get off your asses and do something, and let's fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country."

From makeshift quarters in a city hotel, Nagin has since moved aggressively to get the city back on its feet. Within two weeks after the hurricane, he called for the return of the city's residents, declaring, "I'm tired of hearing these helicopters; I want to hear some jazz! You know, I know New Orleans. Once the beignets start cooking up again and the gumbo is in the pots and red beans and rice are served on Monday, in New Orleans and not where they are, they're going to be back."

The beignets are, in fact, cooking again at the famous Café du Monde. Yet despite his best efforts, Nagin has failed lure enough people back even to staff many retail businesses, let alone essential services like the city's hospitals. (It's believed that about 80 percent of the city's population has yet to return.) Nagin has nonetheless pushed ahead with plans to revive the city. After abandoning an early, controversial idea to create a downtown hotel "casino zone," in the past month he has campaigned for public support for his recently announced "Bring New Orleans Back Commission," a 17-member group of city leaders charged with developing a comprehensive revitalization plan.

A key part of that effort involves a rethinking of the city's land use policies. In October, the commission asked the non-profit Urban Land Institute to make recommendations for everything from creating "enterprise zones" for business to decided what to do about restoring the city's low-lying neighborhoods most susceptible to flooding in the future.

On the day the report was issued, host Steve Inskeep spoke with Mayor Nagin on how he plans to move forward.

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