Lessons Learned: New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin on Disaster Response

10 months after Hurricane Katrina, Mayor Nagin shares lessons he's learned, what he would have changed


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.

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