Sunday, September 11, 2005

Tim Russert Interviews New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin

Meet The Press Sept. 11, 2005

Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans wonders about the Federal government’s response. After all, according to him “the United States that can move whole fleets of aircraft carriers across the globe in 24 hours”. How many knots per hours is that?

MAYOR NAGIN: You know, I'm sure I could have done a lot of things much better, ….

MR. RUSSERT: What's the biggest mistake you made?

MAYOR NAGIN: My biggest mistake is having a fundamental assumption that in the state of Louisiana, with an $18 billion budget, in the country of the United States that can move whole fleets of aircraft carriers across the globe in 24 hours, that my fundamental assumption was get as many people to safety as possible, and that the cavalry would be coming within two to three days, and they didn't come.

MR. RUSSERT: Many people point, Mr. Mayor, that on Friday before the hurricane, President Bush declared an impending disaster. And The Houston Chronicle wrote it this way. "[Mayor Nagin's] mandatory evacuation order was issued 20 hours before the storm struck the Louisiana coast, less than half the time researchers determined would be needed to get everyone out. City officials had 550 municipal buses and hundreds of additional school buses at their disposal but made no plans to use them to get people out of New Orleans before the storm, said Chester Wilmot, a civil engineering professor at Louisiana State University and an expert in transportation planning, who helped the city put together its evacuation plan." And we've all see this photograph of these submerged school buses. Why did you not declare, order, a mandatory evacuation on Friday, when the president declared an emergency, and have utilized those buses to get people out?

MAYOR NAGIN: You know, Tim, that's one of the things that will be debated. There has never been a catastrophe in the history of New Orleans like this. There has never been any Category 5 storm of this magnitude that has hit New Orleans directly. We did the things that we thought were best based upon the information that we had. Sure, here was lots of buses out there. But guess what? You can't find drivers that would stay behind with a Category 5 hurricane, you know, pending down on New Orleans. We barely got enough drivers to move people on Sunday, or Saturday and Sunday, to move them to the Superdome. We barely had enough drivers for that. So sure, we had the assets, but the drivers just weren't available.

MR. RUSSERT: But, Mr. Mayor, if you read the city of New Orleans' comprehensive emergency plan-- and I've read it and I'll show it to you and our viewers--it says very clearly, "Conduct of an actual evacuation will be the responsibility of the mayor of New Orleans. The city of New Orleans will utilize all available resources to quickly and safely evacuate threatened areas. Special arrangements will be made to evacuate persons unable to transport themselves or who require specific life-saving assistance. Additional personnel will be recruited to assist in evacuation procedure as needed. Approximately 100,000 citizens of New Orleans do not have means of personal transportation."

It was your responsibility. Where was the planning? Where was the preparation? Where was the execution?

MAYOR NAGIN: The planning was always in getting people to higher ground, getting them to safety. That's what we meant by evacuation. Get them out of their homes, which--most people are under sea level. Get them to a higher ground and then depending upon our state and federal officials to move them out of harm's way after the storm has hit.

MR. RUSSERT: But in July of this year, one month before the hurricane, you cut a public service announcement which said, in effect, "You are on your own." And you have said repeatedly that you never thought an evacuation plan would work. Which is true: whether you would exercise your obligation and duty as mayor or that--and evacuate people, or you believe people were on their own?

MAYOR NAGIN: Well, Tim, you know, we basically wove this incredible tightrope as it is. We were in a position of trying to encourage as many people as possible to leave because we weren't comfortable that we had the resources to move them out of our city. Keep in mind: normal evacuations, we get about 60 percent of the people out of the city of New Orleans. This time we got 80 percent out. We encouraged people to buddy up, churches to take senior citizens and move them to safety, and a lot of them did. And then we would deal with the remaining people that couldn't or wouldn't leave and try and get them to higher ground until safety came.

MR. RUSSERT: Amtrak said they offered to remove people from the city of New Orleans on Saturday night and that the city of New Orleans declined.

MAYOR NAGIN: I don't know where that's coming from. Amtrak never contacted me to make that offer. As a matter of fact, we checked the Amtrak lines for availability, and every available train was booked, as far as the report that I got, through September. So I'd like to see that report.

MR. RUSSERT: They said they were moving equipment out of New Orleans in order to protect it and offered to take evacuees with them.

MAYOR NAGIN: I have never gotten that call, Tim, and I would love to have had that call. But it never happened.

MR. RUSSERT: Since 2002, the federal government has given New Orleans $18 million to plan and prepare for events like this. How was that money spent?

MAYOR NAGIN: It's my understanding that most of the money--I've only been in office about three years. So we've mainly used most of the money that we get from the federal government to try and deal with levee protection and the coordination of getting people to safety. That's primarily what we use the money for.

MR. RUSSERT: The Superdome was established as a safe haven for people who could not evacuate the city to go to. Why wasn't there water and food and cots and security in place at the Superdome from day one? Couldn't you as mayor have guaranteed that?

MAYOR NAGIN: Well, we put in place the resources that we had to provide security. There was running water at the time. There was backup systems. There was food. We encouraged every resident that was coming to the Superdome to at least have perishable food to last them about two to three days and also to have water to last them about that time. Keep in mind, we always assume that after two to three days the cavalry will be coming.

See prior posts:
U.S. Hurricanes Getting Worse Due to Global Warming? No
U.S. Hurricane Strikes by Decade
Laguna Beach Bluebird Canyon Slide Deserves Federal Disaster Aid
Help Victims of Hurricane Katrina


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