Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has graciously answered some questions regarding his experience during the Katrina hurricane catastrophe and the self publishing of his first book: Katrina’s Secrets: Storms After the Storm
Q: My first question would be a general one-How is New Orleans and the people doing these years after Katrina? Has the recovery been slower than hoped for or steady improvement? Now that the spotlight of the press has been long gone, is the area still receiving sufficient funds from the city, state, and federal government to continue the recovery?
A: New Orleans has made a remarkable comeback. Depending upon who you talk to, our population has rebounded somewhere in the low to high eighty percent of what we had pre-Katrina. Our unemployment is at historic lows, our public school system had been totally reformed and there is well over $20 billion of construction in various stages throughout the area. History teaches us that the average recovery from a major disaster takes ten to fifteen years, we are approaching year six. New Orleans has never received its fair share of federal recovery dollars. We experienced almost sixty percent of the damages for the entire state but did not receive anywhere near that level of support. In fact, at the end of 2010, the state of Louisiana has $3 billion of unspent recovery dollars that is still in limbo.
Q: What prompted you to write a book about your experiences during the hurricane, and what do you hope to impart to the public they don’t already know about the events before, during and after the disaster? Did anyone collaborate with you in the writing?
A: As I was getting out of office in May of 2010, I was not planning to write a book but started to assemble my personal library of my eight years in office. As I looked back over the Katrina time frame I was amazed at how amazing the story was and at how much was still not told. In fact, at one point if you Googled Katrina you would get millions of search results. Unfortunately, a significant amount of these postings did not accurately reflect our experiences. So I decided to give readers a unique insider’s perspective on this historic, catastrophic event. My hope is the public will be open to hearing another side of this story. I self-published this book through Amazon’s CreateSpace and wrote the entire book. I had two individuals who assisted me with research and fact-checking and I purchased professional editing services from CreateSpace.
Q: Did you and your staff prepare any differently for Katrina considering the warnings that had been around quite some time regarding the probability the levees wouldn’t hold?
A: Hurricane Katrina was one of the most deceptive ever. She did not fully reveal her true destination until 24 hours before expected landfall. In order to evacuate our region we start 72 hours before a storm is ready to hit. We changed the direction of all interstate highways to where they all flow away from the city. Our evacuation plans are regional where areas closer to the Gulf of Mexico exit first and everyone else is phased for specific timeframes to avoid grid lock on the highways. We executed this update plan and got over 80% of the people out of the region 24 hours before landfall. After getting a call from the head of the hurricane center in Miami Saturday night before Katrina hit on Sunday I ordered the first ever mandatory evacuation in the city’s almost three hundred year history. Ninety-five to ninety-six percent were removed from harm’s way. Unfortunately, it was not one hundred percent and some suffered. No one predicted that the federally built levees would catastrophically fail the way they did.
Q: Why did it seem to the rest of the country that the local, state, and federal government weren’t working together or not working fast enough to relieve the horrific situation within the dome and stranded people floating on rooftops? What decisions were yours to make, and what things were taken out of your hands by the federal government? Did you think “Brownie was doing a heck of a job.” and if not, what power did you have as mayor to force the federal government to do more?
A: The realities of Hurricane Katrina is that all levels of government were overwhelmed. Local government exhausted all of its very limited resources and the federal and state governments struggled to agree upon who had ultimate authority over providing local assistance. I was working on many fronts to coordinate rescues with local first responders, managing an overcrowded Superdome and Convention Center with inadequate amounts of food and water, and constantly shifting exhausted police officers in an effort to contain exculpating looting and other violence. Michael Brown spent almost all of his time in Baton Rouge and Washington while I was in the midst of the suffering and chaos in the flood zone. We all could have done a better job in these historic times. The federal government always had the power to declare this a catastrophic event and override the governor’s refusal to allow federal troops in to help.
Q: To an observer not familiar with the city, it appeared that people who were left behind were those who couldn’t afford to leave, meaning, if you didn’t have a car, there was nowhere to go. Is this perception in any way true, or were there public means of escape before the hurricane hit?
A: There were many classes of people who either couldn’t or wouldn’t leave before the storm hit. We experience evacuations almost every hurricane season. Our citizens are encouraged to have a personal evacuation plan. We also partnered with faith based organizations to car pool senior citizens and others who do not have the means to leave. For a category three storm or above, we open up the Superdome as a shelter of last resort and use local public transportation to transport anyone who wants to go there free of charge. Unfortunately, the last major disaster to hit New Orleans was 40 years ago and too many decided to ride out this storm like they had previously done with other near misses.
Q: What decisions made during the crisis do you look back on with regret, and which do you feel were sound and had positive results? Are there lessons learned from what many regard as ill preparation, insufficient disaster plans, and slow response by all governments involved?
A: I am thankful that we were able to evacuate so many people out of the city and get others out of harm’s way before this very deceptive storm hit. I think back to my decision to call for our first ever mandatory evacuation whether I should have called it Saturday night and not wait for legal clearance. The biggest lesson I learned is the best planning may not be good enough when a historic, catastrophic disaster occurs. I also learned that politics, race and class can affect disaster response and recovery. As a result, New Orleans now had better plans and maybe one of the best evacuation plans in the country that was successfully tested during Hurricane Gustav. I also am convinced that other cities may not be ready for a major disaster. For example, Houston had to abandon their mandatory evacuation during Hurricane Rita as their interstate system experienced total grid lock. Finally, I have also led a U.S. Conference of Mayor’s task force that put together a white paper with specific changes to the federal laws that govern disasters. A unanimous resolution of support was passed by the organization and the document was used to lobby Congress. Since Hurricane Katrina there have been over four hundred major declared disasters in the U.S. and the numbers are increasing substantially.
Q: Did you shop your manuscript around to the publishers before deciding to self publish? And if so, was the manuscript turned down? In many booksellers and publishers opinion, self-publishing is not a legitimate practice, meaning, without someone accepting the manuscript, paying an advance, and editing it for content, typos and errors, what is left is a vanity piece, which is why until recently with e-books available, any book published by an individual by themselves was called a ‘vanity press.’ Did you take this fact into consideration when deciding to go it yourself, and if so, what made you decide it was a stronger plan to self publish? Several weeks after the books release, do your regret that decision, or are you happy with the results? What has been the response to the book?
A: I spoke to several traditional agents who were working with various publishers. There was definitely good interest in this project since Katrina was so high profile. My hesitation was the pushes to either further sensationalize or tone down major sections depending on who I talked to. I was also uncomfortable that once I turned my manuscript over to the publisher that they would have final say on how the book ultimately ended up in print. I decided to self publish my first book to ensure that my voice and story would survive. Any person who actually reads my book and is not invested in a certain storyline should not conclude that this is a vanity piece. I reveal my own feelings of being overwhelmed, regrets, frustrations, and fears. I try to give readers a unique insider’s perspective, a front row seat of a historic, catastrophic event collided with partisan politics, race and class. I also detail the many tough decision I had to make and my perspective on why I did certain things throughout this experience. As far as accuracy is concerned, I verified my journal accounts, notes and tape recorded interviews with many key individuals against news reports, documentaries, and other eye witness accounts. After three weeks I am comfortable that self-publishing was the correct action for me at this time. The book has been featured on the Today Show, the Daily Show, Telemundo, Ebony, etc. and have had several successful book signings. I also have almost completed a second book in this series that deals with the five year recovery period while I was still in office. I am more than open to going the traditional publishing route if the opportunity presents itself. We’ll see what destiny has in store for it.
As this was an interview done via the internet, there was no opportunity to ask follow up questions, which I think I would have done–there are several areas that needed clarifying.
Here is a link to an AP article that disputes some of Mayor Nagin’s claims in his book regarding his role during the Katrina disaster.