Former New Orleans Mayor's Aide Tells Insider Tale of Hurricane Katrina

pAfter Hurricane Katrina inundated his city with floodwaters, leaving in its wake a wave of human suffering and lawlessness, Mayor C. Ray Nagin surveyed what was already being called the nation's worst natural disaster from the window of a sweltering hotel suite he'd commandeered.

Are you OK? his press secretary, Sally Forman, asked.

"This was God's plan for me, Sally," Nagin said.

"What was?" she asked.

"To rebuild New Orleans."

That exchange is one of the many insights into the man and the chaos that reigned after the storm that Forman writes about in her book "Eye of the Storm, Inside City Hall During Katrina," which is being released this week to coincide with the two-year anniversary of the devastating storm.

In the book, Forman, who left the Nagin administration when her husband ran for mayor last year, details the problems, politics and bureaucracy that hindered efforts to save the city.

Forman, whose regard for the mayor is obvious, said that when she told him about the book's release a few days ago, Nagin said he didn't mind — as long as it was truthful.

On Saturday, Nagin's spokeswoman, Ceeon D. Quiett, said that the administration and the mayor were not contacted prior to publication to verify any facts or anecdotes.

"Therefore, we will not, after final publication, validate or invalidate the content of this publication," Quiett said in an e-mail.

Nagin took office promising a new day in government, more transparency and an end to the corruption that has long plagued politics here.

But Forman says the business executive-turned-mayor's distrust of politicians, his outsider status, and — perhaps most of all — his sense he was on a mission from God, hurt the city after Hurricane Katrina.

Nagin's decision to initially run for mayor, forsaking his successful business career, surprised many, including his wife, Seletha, who told Forman the couple felt they had no choice.

"Clarence is a GOOD, HONEST, CHRISTIAN man who didn't have to take on the huge challenge but out of all the men in the city we sincerely believe that a higher being felt like he was the one to do it," Seletha Nagin wrote Forman in an e-mail.

When Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005, Nagin was nearly finished with his first term — disillusioned with police chief Eddie Compass, who he later fired, and navigating a rocky relationship with Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, Forman writes.

Though government at all levels seemed to pull together before Katrina — Blanco joined Nagin in a New Orleans news conference, and the White House ordered federal aid for the area — just days into the disaster, communications and cooperation had broken down, Forman writes.

With water pouring into the city and the pumps needed to drain it out in danger of flooding, Nagin asked the state to use helicopters to drop sandbags into the breech of the 17th Street Canal levee. None were dropped, he learned that evening. Sewerage & Water Board executive director Marcia St. Martin said it was her understanding that Blanco diverted the helicopters to a church where a thousand people were stranded on the roof.

"She diverted the choppers for a minister?" a furious Nagin said. "A minister had more clout with the governor than we have? This is a bunch of bull."

Marie Centanni, a spokeswoman for the governor, on Saturday called the story "absolutely untrue."

"Someone else asked about that story and the governor said she had never heard of it even," Centanni said. Centanni said it sounded like a book about the rumors going around after the storm.

The evening of the storm, Marty Bahamonde, public affairs liaison for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told Nagin about extensive flooding.

"After the meeting, Bahamonde used the phone to call FEMA officials in Washington to report his findings. In later testimony to federal investigators, Bahamonde stated that he tried desperately for 16 hours to communicate the urgency of the situation to FEMA officials in Washington," Forman writes. "This testimony would contradict FEMA Director Michael Brown's allegation that he wasn't aware of the grave conditions in the city for days after the hurricane."

With communications limited and misinformation rampant, Nagin met with military leaders and others.

FEMA's Phil Parr said the agency was "here to head up command and control." Parr also warned all FEMA guidelines would have to be followed.

"His words thudded down like sandbags as he rattled off technicalities that made me wonder if FEMA's motto was `Just say no,"' Forman wrote.

A note was delivered saying President Bush was trying to reach Nagin and that Bush had "visited New Orleans," though it was really a fly-over.

"When we were alone, the mayor commented that it 'must have been one serious telescope to observe the city from a 747."'

When Nagin finally spoke to Bush, he asked for help patching the levees at the 17th Street Canal and getting the pumps needed to drain the city working.

"We'll take care of that," Bush said.

As the days dragged on, buses failed to show up to ferry people from the Louisiana Superdome and convention center — shelters turned into sites of squalor and suffering — some even waylaid by officials from neighboring Jefferson Parish, Forman said. At one point, Nagin planned to have people walk out of the city until buses reached them, even if that meant walking to LaPlace, 32 miles away.

Nagin hadn't showered in days when he finally met with President Bush. Forman arranged for him to shower on Air Force One, after assuring a Bush representative that any negative things Nagin said about the president weren't personal.

After a tour with the president, members of the congressional delegation and the governor, the president offered Blanco immediate help, Nagin told Forman.

"The president called me in that office after that and said, `Mr. Mayor, I offered two options to the governor. I was ready to move today but the governor said she needed 24 hours to make a decision,"' Nagin said.

Although the governor was mistrustful of the federal government's plans, Nagin found her delay unbelievable, Forman writes.

"She could have owned this," Nagin said. "She could have walked out on that tarmac with the president and said, `we have a solution to the problems' and she would have been the hero."

Centanni said there was no offer of aid at the meeting, however, the president only suggested federalizing the National Guard.

Parr, in a meeting with Nagin, said that if the mayor continued to evacuate New Orleans, FEMA couldn't provide food to people left in the city.

"Almost a week after the storm, FEMA was still telling us what they could not do," Forman writes. Help had arrived, she says, but "bureaucracy was still tightening like a noose around our necks."

One of the more bizarre incidents Forman describes is a call by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff for a meeting with Nagin at the New Orleans Saints practice facility. They arrived to find Chertoff talking to reporters and touring a field full of equipment the city badly needed. They followed Chertoff for half an hour but he ignored them, and they finally left, Forman said.

Forman said she wrote the book to provide a history of what happened and so that other cities might learn from New Orleans' experience.

Looking back, she sees how "partisan bickering, senseless bureaucracy and failures within government, including my own, may have delayed our recovery and stopped many from coming home."

It hasn't killed New Orleans, Forman writes. But the city's medical and tourism sectors and its infrastructure took hits, and the murder rate has again begun to soar.

"Topping it off, slow moving and disjointed planning efforts have made new Orleans a case study in how to recklessly rebuild a major American city," she writes.