Lessons Learned: New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin on Disaster Response

Listening to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin speak, you'd think he'd have an "I Love Challenges" bumper sticker on the back of his car. A self-admitted "challenge freak," Nagin left his executive position at Cox Communications to run for chief executive of the city in 2002, focused on stopping corruption and economic decline. Some three years later, he was seeing signs of progress. In his keynote address at The Security Summit, a security and disaster conference held June 28 and 29th in San Diego, Nagin quipped, "I was getting ready to go to Disney World. Then, as things were going very well, we had a little visitor called Katrina."

Despite the fact that it has been almost 10 months to the day since Katrina made landfall in South Mississippi and since it's outer bands pushed heavy rains and strong winds in New Orleans, Nagin's task is far from over. Mold-filled homes, abandoned by their owners, encompass blocks of the city. Submerged vehicles sit as eyesores on the city's streets. A number of businesses exited the city, not comfortable with the ability to create continuous business in a city plagued by violence and the threat of natural disasters. Criminals, which seemed to vacate the city after the storm are now coming back, bringing legacies of murders and drugs with them. Debates rage on about how the levees were rebuilt and whether the repair was most akin to an inner tube patch on a bald tire. Still, Federal monies have flooded the city, giving Nagin's administration a chance to rebuild. It's a slow process, one where progress faces the rights of property owners, some of whom are not willing to let go what they had before the city's flood.

The Security Network invited Mayor Nagin to San Diego this week for its third annual networking event for government officials, security executives, technology providers, and first responders. The mayor, who was recently re-elected following a run-off in the city, pointed to lessons he learned in the disaster. His first lesson: Know who's in control.

"Get some clarity pre-event, or as quickly as possible, on command and control," said Nagin. "If the local and state governments are overwhelmed, [those officials should] discuss with the Feds who will have control."

Another lesson that Nagin seems to have taken away is that city leaders should be able to turn their resources and city control over to the federal government and its military resources. Based on his major hurricane experience, the mayor is convinced: "The federal government should have a direct window of authority, say for 7-14 days," he said. "I had 1,400-1,500 New Orleans police, 800 firefighters, and 200 National Guard to control a city that was totally devastated. It took too long to figure that out."

Nagin urged that the Stafford Act be updated to set solid criteria for bringing federal help in case of disaster. Currently, he said, "it's very situational." When more than one state is affected and resources needed are beyond what's available locally, command and control should clearly and immediately go to the federal government, said Nagin.

And despite the confusion that ensued in a city where real leadership had not been defined, Nagin said he had great praise for the military efforts to help, not only for the commanders who led the assistance, but especially the individual troops who brought their expertise and dedication.

A third lesson that Nagin has taken away from the Katrina situation is one of communication. On interoperability of first-responder communications, Nagin said, "It's not fixed. It's not working."

For a better outcome from future disasters, he implores that the country has to be prepared with redundancy of communication systems. "Bell South's copper lines were flooded. Cox was just getting into [telecommunications], and cell phones did not work," said Nagin. "All the wireless providers were all gone. Antique 800MHz radio was the only thing working."

But there are other lessons that Nagin could learn as well. Asked about how he could have developed public and private partnerships before the storm to aid in disaster planning, the mayor was confused and bewildered at the question. There is the lesson that disaster planning isn't a task specific to big city mayors. It's done every day by business owners and security and business continuity directors at such cities' leading business - and there's a lesson to leaders like Nagin that the private industry experts can be a huge resource to their cities.

With the hurricane behind him and the city still struggling to recover, Nagin pointed to three things he would have done differently.

First, he says, he would have issued the mandatory evacuation notice earlier. If he had decided to issue the mandatory order to evacuate 10 hours earlier - and had he been able to convince more people to follow it -- Nagin knows that it could have made a difference in the aftermath.

Secondly, he would have coordinated evacuation better. Knowing now the extent of the flooding and the number of citizens who stayed, despite evacuation orders, he would have sent city buses out of the vulnerable areas before the storm, and then brought them back to transport people more expeditiously.

Thirdly, having seen the "dance" between levels of government in the days of the disaster, Nagin now sees the necessity for advance planning that clarifies who's in charge, under what circumstances and for how long.

As a parting shot, Nagin was asked: Could the lessons learned apply in the event of a terrorist attack on a U.S. city?

"Absolutely," he said. "Katrina was a deceptive enemy, not revealing herself until the last minute. Deceptive. Destructive. Devastating. Complete."