To get to C. Ray Nagin’s office in the boxy modernist City Hall building in downtown New Orleans, one must pass through metal detectors in the lobby, take an elevator to the second floor, walk through a wood-paneled hallway adorned with framed photographs of mayors past, and engage a pair of secretaries who guard the door to a small, sparsely decorated reception area beyond which lie the mayor’s sprawling chambers.
It’s a journey that would have been unremarkable during Nagin’s first term, but nowmore than two years into a second term characterized by intense animosity between the mayor on one side and the press and citizens of New Orleans on the otherit feels like a trip to the inside of a cocoon. Nagin’s approval rating hovers in the 30 percent range. His reluctance to appear in public has earned him the nickname “Naygone.” Earlier this year, he all but stopped granting interviews to the local media, a dramatic departure for the former limelight seeker who famously implored the federal government to “get their asses moving to New Orleans.”
Nagin’s office décor mirrors the city’s culture, a mix of Spanish, French, and African influences: On one wall, there is a bright painting; behind his desk hangs an African quilt featuring jazzy embroidery of musical instruments; leaning against a wall is a photo of Nagin greeting Bush during the Katrina crisis.
The calm in the mayor’s office todaySeptember 11is deepened by a rare run of political good fortune. On Saturday, August 30, as Hurricane Gustav bore down on his citizens, Nagin had hosted a press conference. “You need to be scared,” he warned, “and you need to get your butts out of New Orleans right now.” The Category 4 hurricane, he continued, was going to be “the mother of all storms.” Because the threat to the city coincided with Katrina’s third anniversary and the eve of the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, Nagin was addressing not just his constituents but the nation.
When Gustav made landfall the next morning, however, it was only a Category 2 storm, and it dropped to a Category 1 hours later. New Orleans received just a glancing blow, and Nagin successfully evacuated the city (only about 10,000 residents remained). But many evacuees fumed at the mayor for engaging in pre-storm hyperbole and then instituting a confusing re-entry process; a New Orleans Times-Picayune editorial was headlined NEXT TIME, WE WON’T LEAVE. “I’d do it all over again,” Nagin says defiantly. “I called for a mandatory evacuation on Sunday at 8 A.M. By Thursday morning at 1 A.M. it was lifted. We emptied an entire city and repopulated it in about four days.”
His spirits are elevated further by the opportunity to respond to Hurricane Ike, churning toward Galveston, Texas, safely far to the west. Rising behind his desk, Nagin declares, “We got evacuees coming to New Orleans!” He basks in the unlikely moment. “Maaaan, can you believe that? Evacuees coming to New Orleans.”