Nagin Holds Meeting with Evacuees in Houston

In Houston Sunday, about 600 Katrina evacuees attended a town hall meeting with New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. He said progress is being made in rebuilding of the city and urged them to come back and help rebuild the city. Ed Mayberry of Houston Public Radio reports.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The mayor of New Orleans is still trying to bring back his city's residents and yesterday his search took him to Houston, Texas, home of many refugees now. About 600 people heard from Mayor Ray Nagin at a town hall meeting, one of many meetings Nagin has held across the country. Ed Mayberry reports from Houston Public Radio.

ED MAYBERRY reporting:

The audience at the Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church was composed largely of New Orleans residents who were anxious to return to their city. The mayor thanked Houston for taking in evacuees and tried to reassure the crowd that things are slowly getting better back home.

(Soundbite of town hall meeting)

Mayor RAY NAGIN (New Orleans): We have 60 percent of all the electricity throughout the city. 911 services are up and operational. Schools are reopening throughout the city. The airport is open. Amtrak is operational. Greyhound is back on track. RTA is operating, with free bus services throughout the city.

MAYBERRY: But many were critical of the ability of the mayor's office to effectively communicate with residents who fled the city. Still facing challenges with insurance companies, contractors, utilities and jobs, they were angry and frustrated at the slow rate of progress. Toni McElroy with ACORN, a group of public housing activists, says the city's tarnished image is slowing progress.

(Soundbite of town hall meeting)

Ms. TONI McELROY (ACORN): Everywhere we go, people say we're hoodlums. We're not hoodlums. Mr. Mayor, everybody in New Orleans, we love New Orleans. They may have had some criminal activity, but if the police would have--wasn't been criminals, and some of the corruption in the elected officials wasn't criminals, then New Orleans would be rebuilt. Don't keep us out. We love our home. We want to come back.

MAYBERRY: Mayor Nagin responded that the city has several campaigns in development to re-establish the image of New Orleans. He says that other pressing needs include solving housing issues and creating tax incentives to entice residents and businesses to return. But as the city tries to get back on its feet, the financial base of New Orleans--tourism--has eroded.

(Soundbite of town hall meting)

Mayor NAGIN: Your city is a broke city, but I must admit to you we have no revelers coming in. We are a tourist-based economy; there's no tourists in New Orleans.

MAYBERRY: And one of the biggest challenges is rebuilding the levees. New Orleans resident Peter Boutie(ph) lived in Lakeview, and wants better protection from flooding.

(Soundbite of town hall meeting)

Mr. PETER BOUTIE (New Orleans Resident): The Corps of Engineers are talking about the levee system. We're saying five to 10 years. There's next year's hurricane season. We all know the seasons are getting more and more active. If we're not stable at this particular time, how are we going to guarantee that we're going to be stable next year?

MAYBERRY: Mayor Nagin says he doesn't have a good answer on the levees yet, saying the Army Corps of Engineers needs to convince him that they're being rebuilt stronger. But for many New Orleans residents like Duffy Mills(ph), strengthening them may determine whether or not she'll return.

Ms. DUFFY MILLS (New Orleans Resident): They're going to have to give us a little bit more of a concrete guarantee that we are going to be safe. I do not want to run. I do not want to take my grandchildren and run again. I do not want to live like this.

MAYBERRY: Mayor Nagin told the crowd he's fighting some in Congress who wonder whether the city should even be rebuilt. But the mayor says residents should still return and get their valuables, clean up and start to gut their homes. He urged displaced residents to join in rebuilding the city, using this natural disaster as an opportunity to make New Orleans bigger and better than ever before.

For NPR News, I'm Ed Mayberry in Houston.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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