Nagin Faces New Orleans Residents' Frustrations

New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin scored a big victory in Washington, D.C.: a pledge from President Bush to redouble federal contributions toward rebuilding city levees. But back in New Orleans, local tensions are mounting over late insurance checks and a lack of electricity.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin visited Washington last week and came away with a big victory: a pledge from President Bush to significantly boost federal contributions toward rebuilding levees that failed when Hurricane Katrina hit in late August. But as NPR's Steve Drummond reports, once the mayor returned home to New Orleans, he was quickly reminded the many people find it hard to see the big picture when there's no electricity and the insurance check hasn't arrived.

STEVE DRUMMOND reporting:

They say all politics is local and, in New Orleans these days, local can mean not much more than a motel room, a FEMA trailer or a ruined home on a flooded flooded-out lot.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Ms. WANDA MOORE: Good afternoon. My name is Wanda Moore and I have a serious problem here today. We're staying in a hotel and on December the 22nd we have to evacuate because the hotel says they're not FEMA and they don't have to extend you if they want. And it's ridiculous.

DRUMMOND: The comments came at a town meeting after Mayor Nagin sketched out his major priorities: levees strong enough to withstand another Katrina, housing, and incentives for businesses and people to return. The money from Washington, Nagin said, is a huge step.

(Soundbite from town meeting)

Mayor RAY NAGIN (New Orleans): We now have $3.1 billion that they're going to be utilizing to redo our levee systems right this time. Yes.

(Soundbite of applause)

DRUMMOND: But by the time he put the microphone down there was a big line of people waiting to tell the mayor exactly what's going wrong. Clarence Barrow(ph) said he doesn't care one bit about that money from Washington.

(Soundbite from town meeting)

Mr. CLARENCE BARROW: I don't need a nickel of it.

DRUMMOND: Instead, Barrow held up his insurance policy and waved it at the mayor.

(Soundbite from town meeting)

Mr. BARROW: I want this honored! This policy I've been--had for 27 years on my home!

(Soundbite of applause)

DRUMMOND: On and on for more than two hours, anger, despair and pleas for help where little or no help is to be found.

(Soundbite from town meeting)

Unidentified Woman #1: When will the price gouging on rental property cease? When will it cease? Two bedrooms are going for $1,100.

Unidentified Man: The question is: Why does the electrical permit for a property which has passed inspection sometimes fall into an untrackable morass?

Unidentified Woman #2: Oh, I need to know if there's a DMV or a license renewal or identification renewal in Orleans Parish yet?

DRUMMOND: Nagin has held several of these meetings and, for those with a specific problem, like Marion Garrison(ph), he's got people there ready to help.

(Soundbite from town meeting)

Ms. MARION GARRISON: Yesterday afternoon, a Mr. Clive Laurent(ph) called me from Gibbs Construction Company and told me that I was unable to have a trailer put there until I got the electricity there. I want to know what's to be done about that?

Mayor NAGIN: Ma'am, if you could come up, we're going to get with you with Entergy and see if we can get power expedited to your house. OK?

Ms. GARRISON: OK. I would also like to speak to somebody from FEMA.

Mayor NAGIN: Yeah, he's right next to the Entergy guy.

Unidentified Woman #1: Right next to the gentleman...

Ms. GARRISON: Oh. Thank you very much.

Mayor NAGIN: All right?

Ms. MARGARET SMITH: My name is Margaret Smith. My roof collapsed at 1:30 in the morning and it rained from 1:30 to 12:00.

Unidentified Woman #2: I need a trailer, sir.

Mayor NAGIN: Let's--come on up. Let's help you. Let us help you.

DRUMMOND: Some people here praised the mayor for his efforts. Others, like Sharon Lamberson(ph), were just plain mad.

(Soundbite from town meeting)

Ms. SHARON LAMBERSON: How can you have Mardi Gras? Who can afford to buy beads and doubloons to give to a bunch of drunks?

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

DRUMMOND: Though sometimes the comments got personal, through it all Nagin lost neither his temper nor his patience. But he announced the next town meeting will be different. More of a workshop setting, he said, with less time for open-ended public comment. Steve Drummond, NPR News, New Orleans.

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