New Orleans Mayor Praised For Handling Of Gustav

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New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was among the government officials most criticized for his failure to prepare adequately for Hurricane Katrina. But even his harshest critics are giving him high marks for his performance during Hurricane Gustav.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

So far, the city of New Orleans is getting high marks all around for its planning and preparation leading up to Hurricane Gustav. Three years ago, Mayor Ray Nagin was excoriated by critics for his management during and after Katrina.

Today, as NPR's John Burnett reports, Nagin is getting praise even from skeptics for his leadership during Gustav.

JOHN BURNETT: Is this the redemption of Ray Nagin? Granted, Gustav passed west of New Orleans with less wind and water than expected, but still, the mayor had to make the call to evacuate and then safely and smoothly depopulate a city of more than 300,000 people, many of whom had no transportation.

Now that the stormy weather has passed, even some of his harsh critics are giving grudging praise to the 52-year-old baldheaded mayor. Felix Pettie(ph) is a painting contractor who rode out Gustav in his uptown house listening to the mayor's press conferences on his radio - prefacing the interview that he can't wait for the end of Nagin's second term as mayor.

Do you think that he has shown more leadership this time around?

Mr. FELIX PETTIE: Yes. I do. I would say he is - it's a huge improvement over, you know, Katrina.

BURNETT: According to the evacuation plan, residents without their own vehicles reported to 17 collection points in the city where school buses carry them to shelters outside the hurricane storm zone. There are reports that when residents at the pick-up points grew hot and thirsty, the city delivered water, food and even a misting tent.

When state-contracted ambulances didn't show up on time for medical evacuations, the city came up with its own ambulances. Shelley Midura is a native New Orleanean and former Foreign Service diplomat who ran for and won a seat on the city council in part because she was so upset by the city's terrible handling of Katrina. And she's been a critic of the mayor's administration over ethics.

Midura vividly remembers the image during Katrina of school buses stranded under water. This time, she says, everything was different.

Ms. SHELLEY MIDURA (Member, New Orleans City Council): As I was driving in to work to the - to city hall on this empty I-10, a whole caravan of public school buses is driving out of the city. And I really did get goosebumps. And I called the mayor right there and I said congratulations. You're getting the buses out. I'm so happy. And you really deserve credit.

He said, you know, he's very casual. He's like, you got it, man. I wasn't - you know, man - I wasn't going to let that happen again. We got everything under control. And he's right.

BURNETT: Nonetheless, some people were shocked that the mayor said this on Saturday night as Gustav was about to enter the Gulf.

Mayor RAY NAGIN (Democrat, New Orleans): This is the mother of all storms. This is the real deal. This is not a test. For everyone who is out there thinking that they can ride this storm out, I have news for you. That would be one of the biggest mistakes you can make in your life.

BURNETT: Harold Gaspar(ph), a local community college dean, sits on the front porch of his Broadway home where he rode out the storm.

Mr. HAROLD GASPAR: He played himself as an idiot - because subsequent to that, I seen him on TV and then he's got the grin on his face, well, you know, I just had to scare the heck out of people that's why I wanted them to leave. But then, my concern is going to be when the next one comes, and it's for real, are we going to believe him again?

BURNETT: Nagin jokingly acknowledged his hyperbole later, saying perhaps he should have called it the mother-in-law of all storms.

As it happens, 10 days before Gustav arrived, Nagin accepted an award for his role in Katrina. It was for distinction for recovery, courage and leadership bestowed on him by an honorary committee made up of his political allies. Local pundits ridiculed the award and 75 protesters showed up outside the posh hotel where the ceremony took place. Perhaps Ray Nagin will get another award like this after Gustav.

John Burnett, NPR News, New Orleans.

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