Even as Hurricane Katrina destroyed much of the city of New Orleans, it became an instant defining moment for Nagin, the city's mayor. By turns, he drew praise for calling for help for his beleaguered city, criticism for his administration's lack of disaster preparation and his impolitic remarks, and skepticism that a rookie politician could manage the massive renovation of a major city.
Though Nagin was elected to a second term last spring, his critics are far from silenced. Much of the city's population remains displaced, with no idea when they will have homes or jobs to return to. Many now say plans for restoring the city are lagging far behind schedule. Despite all this, Nagin is a determined optimist. Essence spoke with him about the enormous effort facing the city.
ESSENCE: Clearly the focus of your second term will be rebuilding the city of New Orleans. But with another hurricane season here, what do you tell people who wonder if it makes sense to rebuild?
C. Ray Nagin: I tell them that any area of the country has natural disasters, whether it's earthquakes in the West, snowstorms in the North or hurricanes in the South. This debate over whether a great city is worth rebuilding is just ludicrous.
ESSENCE: One of the things that thrust you into the spotlight in the days after the hurricane was the raw emotion you displayed. As a native of the city looking at Katrina, what has been its biggest impact on you personally?
Nagin: It thrust me into an arena that's not normal for a mayor of a medium-size city. Personally, it's hard: If I go into some of the areas that had two feet of water or less, they look pretty good. But then as you venture into some of the more devastated areas, it's discouraging.
ESSENCE: The speculation from the beginning has been that the rebuilt city is going to be smaller and Whiter. Do you think that's inevitable, and is it good or bad?
Nagin: New Orleans has always had a significant number of African-Americans in it, and I think that's what makes New Orleans what it is. It's not going to be what it was before, when it was 70 percent African- American. But it will be 60 percent, absolutely. And I think that's a good thing.
ESSENCE: Harry Connick, Jr., a native and famous jazz entertainer, talking about a trip he took, recently said, "You go back, and there's no music there. The soul is gone.'' Do you think the soul of the city has been lost?
Nagin: I think it's just temporarily relocated. A lot of our musicians are still not back. We're working on that.
ESSENCE: In your best-case scenario, what will New Orleans look like the day you leave office?
Nagin: I think it will be the same size, if not larger. Our levee system will be one of the best ever built in the country. I think our economy will be back, and our city will be thriving.
ESSENCE: If you had known what you would be facing, would you have wanted to be mayor?
Nagin: That's a heck of a question, man. I don't know if anyone would have signed up for the largest natural disaster in the history of the country. You have to be thrust into that. I'm just glad we got through it. If I had had options, I don't know if I would have signed up for it, to be honest.