RAY SUAREZ: Welcome back to the Insider Forum from the Online NewsHour. I'm Ray Suarez and this is day three of the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. My guest for this edition of the forum is Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans.
First elected mayor of the Crescent City in 2002, he came to national attention during Hurricane Katrina when the storm ravaged his city and a large chunk of the Gulf Coast. And then, the country watched in shock as his city was inundated when the levees failed. He was reelected after the storm. Mayor Nagin, welcome.
RAY NAGIN: Ray, it's good to be with you.
MR. SUAREZ: Well, we speak here in Denver as Tropical Storm - and maybe Hurricane - Gustav seems to be headed right for the Gulf Coast again.
MR. NAGIN: Yeah, I'm very concerned. As a matter of fact, I will be cutting this trip off tonight and going back to New Orleans to start to manage the process of determining whether we need to evacuate the city or how do we deal with this latest threat.
MR. SUAREZ: What's the best advice you're getting from NOAA, the National Weather Service, and other sources about where and when that storm might hit?
MR. NAGIN: Well, unfortunately, all the models right now - and we've looked at three or four of them - they update them every couple of hours - they all point toward New Orleans. So that's an unfortunate development.
It's going to be a category three storm at least, which is a pretty powerful storm. This will be the first real test that we will have of the federally built - rebuilt - levees. So we'll see what happens.
MR. SUAREZ: What about the design of the emergency preparedness system? What will you do differently in approaching a strong storm coming to the city again?
MR. NAGIN: Well, we've changed our approach to evacuations. Prior to Katrina and during Katrina, we had a shelter of last resort, the Superdome and the convention center. We no longer have that.
So anything above a Category-Two storm, we're evacuating everybody out of the city. And we have buses, trains, and planes lined up to accomplish that. And we've tested the system, we've practiced it and we're ready to implement it.
MR. SUAREZ: Famously, in the days after the hurricane, people were asking where was FEMA? And that one federal agency was given a lot of the blame for how things were handled in the days after the storm.
How has your relationship and the relationship of New Orleans and surrounding parishes to the federal government changed in the three years since Katrina?
MR. NAGIN: Well, we're coordinating much better. And the plans that I just described for you have been worked out with all levels of the federal government. So we're all - and we've practiced on a regular basis to make sure that those plans can be implemented easily.
But as it relates to recovery, FEMA is still the same or similar organization that not only deals with evacuations and post-event but the long-term challenges of a recovery. And we're still struggling with that.
MR. SUAREZ: One of the notable absences in the city in the days after the storm was the Louisiana National Guard. Donald Rumsfeld, then secretary of defense, said, in his own defense, well, we moved all those assets up to northern Louisiana until the storm passed. And people asked, well, where are they now? Is there in place a better plan, a different plan for responding, using the Louisiana National Guard?
MR. NAGIN: It's my understanding from talking to the governor of the state - we have a new governor, Bobby Jindal - who has pre-positioned National Guard troops, several thousand of them, that will be right outside of the city and will be ready to come in.
You're right. Right after Katrina, it was basically the New Orleans Police Department and a small cadre of National Guard officers who basically held that city together for four or five days. Hopefully, we won't have that problem this time.
MR. SUAREZ: It is quite something, the timing, just on the eve of the third anniversary, right in the middle of a major political convention, that once again, New Orleans looks like it has a bull's-eye on its chest. Is this, in an odd way, a good thing that people don't forget about the city? Were you afraid that people were forgetting about it?
MR. NAGIN: Well, I was. But I don't want to remind them with another Category-Three hurricane bearing down on my city.
But you know, it will put us back in the national and international front. Hopefully, this storm will veer left or right. But right now, all the models say it is coming toward us. And we're going to hunker down and get ready for it.
MR. SUAREZ: Let's talk a little politics. What is the coming fall campaign look like to you?
MR. NAGIN: I'm encouraged. I mean, I'm an Obama delegate. I came here as a superdelegate and pledged to Obama.
I've been very encouraged about this convention. I was a little concerned about the potential stress between Obama and the Clintons. But they seem to be working through that. And hopefully, we'll come out of this convention united, because I think he has a real good shot at winning the presidency this fall.
MR. SUAREZ: What about Louisiana?
MR. NAGIN: Louisiana has historically been a red state. But I think we've got a few surprises up our sleeve. I think the turnout is going to be at unprecedented levels. We've registered at least 50,000 new voters in the state of Louisiana. And hopefully, we'll get a good turnout and maybe turn the tides.
MR. SUAREZ: Have the demographics of the Louisiana vote changed because of Katrina?
MR. NAGIN: It has somewhat. But what's happened after Katrina is that as time went on, people moved from Texas and from other states back into Louisiana. And they've been moving closer and closer to New Orleans.
So even though they may not all be in New Orleans, they're around the state. And they're poised and ready to vote.
MR. SUAREZ: We've got some questions from NewsHour viewers around the country. Shanta writes, "I was a resident of New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit. I'm still trying to get back. Do you think if a Democrat is elected, it will improve New Orleans and the country as a whole? Or will people like me be left behind again?"
MR. NAGIN: I don't think she's going to be left behind. Every day, the city gets a little bit stronger. I've talked to Barack Obama about New Orleans and about what we need, particularly about affordable housing and more rental units in the city. And he says he's fully committed to helping us once he becomes president. So I think the prospects will be better.
MR. SUAREZ: Joan writes from New York, New York, "How is it possible that 1.9 billion in FEMA dollars has not yet been distributed to New Orleans, and that only 82 out of a projected 10,000 rental homes have been rebuilt from those damaged or intentionally demolished? Do you dispute those figures? If so, what are your estimates?"
MR. NAGIN: Well, all I can tell you is that there is several billion dollars that has been allocated to the city and to the state. But getting through the process of getting those dollars actually down to do the type of work that we need for our citizens has been incredible. It's been a bureaucratic maze.
We still only have FEMA agreeing, like if we're trying to fix a fire station or a police station. Overall in aggregate, only they've agreed to replace or to fund 37 percent of the value we think we need to repair those facilities.
MR. SUAREZ: Where is the holdup? Is there a place along the chain that the money gets to and then stops before it gets to peoples' hands?
MR. NAGIN: It does. It gets held up in this bureaucracy that basically says we're going to go in and analyze exactly what the damages were. And then, it seems to be a negotiating process that is ongoing and never-ending about what the true values are. And if you don't have cash that you can make up that gap, then you're kind of stuck.
MR. SUAREZ: One person suggested to me that one negative change in the city since the storm is that people aren't looking out for each other quite as much, that because some people got money and some people didn't, some people are waiting to see - so it weighs down entire blocks as people are not fixing up because they want to see which way things are going and sort of looking to save their own chestnuts but not necessarily looking out for the people around them.
MR. NAGIN: Well, we have some of that, but we also have many people that are working with their neighbors. One of the challenges, though, one of the many challenges that we have is that are many senior citizens that were impacted by Katrina. And for whatever reason, they couldn't come back to repair their homes or they were delayed. And that's what's been holding up our recovery the most.
And the other thing I will tell you is that the Road Home program, that were grants to help out citizens rebuild, only about 70 percent of those grants have been awarded. So 30 percent of the people are still waiting for money.
MR. SUAREZ: What about the schools? One of the things that you see when you ride around the city are schools that are still shuttered that were not repaired after the storm, yet in their place, there's a lot of new schools.
MR. NAGIN: That's one of the bright spots in this recovery. We've totally revamped our school district there. We have charter schools, we have new schools that are built, we have our old school district that is working better to educate our kids. We had too many school facilities prior to Katrina and they weren't well-maintained.
Now we are right-sizing the system, and I think the educational system is going to be much better.
MR. SUAREZ: But if people start coming back, are you going to have the school space for their kids?
MR. NAGIN: Well, so far we have been able to accommodate that. And we've got Paul Vallas who did some great work in Chicago and Philadelphia now heading up our school district. And he's doing some incredible things with that school district. Every senior in high school has a laptop. The ratios of students to teacher is at the lowest levels I've ever seen it. Things are moving forward.
MR. SUAREZ: Elizabeth writes from North Carolina, "Leading Democrats seem to be leaping on the off-shore drilling bandwagon, but I never hear them talking about onshore environmental problems associated with such drilling, from tearing up fragile marshlands for pipelines, to increased road or rail lines, storage and refining operations. It just doesn't seem to me that many people are looking at the whole picture." And certainly the destruction of wetlands was given a lot of the credit for how bad Katrina was."
MR. NAGIN: Absolutely. Well, you know, if you're going to drill, there's going to be some impact to that. For every action there's a reaction. I know we've learned a lot over the years, and as we continue to drill, it does not seem to do as much destruction to the environment as before, unless you have a major spill, which is always a possibility.
Our fundamental problem as a country is we're consuming way too much oil. Twenty-five percent of the world's oil is being consumed by us, but we only have three percent of the reserves. So we have a problem, and we need to move toward what Barack is talking about, more diverse types of energy sources, more renewable energy sources, and I hope we'll get there.
MR. SUAREZ: But doesn't that put Louisiana in a kind of a bind? It's a state that wants more jobs. It's a state that wants more investment, and might that mean taking some of that investment, even if it means damage to a fragile ecosystem?
MR. NAGIN: Not in the short-term. The main thing that we need to do is take this time when oil prices are high and invest those dollars in the alternative sources of fuel, invest those dollars in our educational system and making Louisiana stronger and better. If we do that, then by the time those technologies come into vogue, if you will, and are massed produced, we'll be in a much better place.
MR. SUAREZ: Diane writes from San Francisco, "Successful public transit in city centers like New Orleans and San Francisco offers residents the opportunity to enter the workforce and otherwise participate in the culture without the initial buy-in and ongoing commitment of car ownership. In this way, liberated from the necessity of a car, citizens are empowered. Do you perceive a change in public opinion on the role and value of public transit and density in New Orleans?"
MR. NAGIN: I think because of the high price of gasoline in the country, public transportation is becoming even more relevant.
One of the fortunate things about Katrina is that we are replacing all of our public transit. We're buying new buses. They're bio-fuel buses. We also have restored all of our street carlines, and we're talking about extending those to get to more neighborhoods. So we see public transportation as a key for us as we rebuild New Orleans.
MR. SUAREZ: There are a lot of people coming back for a visit.
MR. NAGIN: Yeah.
MR. SUAREZ: Do we know yet whether they're spending the kind of money they used to spend before the storm?
MR. NAGIN: They are. We're on pace right now to approach record-setting spending levels, not the number of people who are visiting us. We're not going to reach 10 million visitors, but we're going to get somewhere around seven to eight million, but they're spending at a much higher level, and we should reach about $5 billion in tourist spending this year in '08.
MR. SUAREZ: How do you get that out of the French Quarter and the Garden District to penetrate more into the rest of the city?
MR. NAGIN: Well, one of the things we're doing is as people come into the city, we try and give them information on where to go beyond just being in the French Quarter.
We're also developing six miles of riverfront. That's going to extend all the way down to the upper ninth ward, which is pretty famous right now with most citizens. And we're going to have riverfront development that will be an alternative to the French Quarter, and we'll encourage people to go visit other neighborhoods. And we're going to have to continue that, because there's too much pressure on the French Quarter right now.
MR. SUAREZ: And also, people will stay longer, I guess, if they've got more things to do and more things to see, right?
MR. NAGIN: Well, one of the things we're noticing with the cruise ship industry is that people are coming before their cruise and they're staying after their cruise to extend their vacation which allows them to spend more money in the city. So from that perspective it's working.
MR. SUAREZ: Well, what's the business community setting as the priority now? When they approach you, chamber of commerce, convention and tourism bureau, what do they say is job one?
MR. NAGIN: They want to make sure that we take this opportunity with all of this construction-related activity, is to build up our infrastructure, number one. Number two, we want to diversify our economy.
We're building two major medical teaching hospital, the VA and LSU right next to one another, and then we're going to have a biomedical research district associated with that. So that's number two. We have the NASA facility that builds the fuel tanks. We want to expand that and do some more research in advanced metals. And then we have the technology sector. And of course we have the creative industries with movies and Broadway plays and of course our wonderful chefs.
So we're trying to diversify the economy so that New Orleans is not solely dependent upon tourism.
MR. SUAREZ: Well, finally, Mayor, as we said at the beginning of today's program, Tropical Storm Gustav is probably going to re-strengthen to a hurricane and head for the U.S. Gulf Coast. Give me an idea of the chronology of the decisions that have to be made between now and landfall. When will you have to make some determinations about whether people should leave yet?
MR. NAGIN: Well, she's - the current estimates are she's scheduled to make landfall some time Monday. We always start back 72 hours from that, and at the 72-hour point, we have to make some global decisions from the region on how we start an evacuation process.
The lower-line parishes that are closer to the Gulf of Mexico go first and then we follow in a certain progression. They turn all of the highways around - it's called counter-flow, and we get as many people out as possible. So probably this Friday evening we'll make some critical decisions about whether we need to evacuate the entire city and the entire region.
MR. SUAREZ: Well, Mayor Nagin, I know everybody wishes you and the city good luck.
MR. NAGIN: Thank you.
MR. SUAREZ: And hopes for the best.
MR. NAGIN: Yeah.
MR. SUAREZ: Thanks for joining us.
MR. NAGIN: Thank you.
MR. SUAREZ: And thanks for joining us today, and thanks to all of you who sent us questions throughout the week. Please continue to do so; we have a lot more guests coming up as we continue to cover the Democratic National Convention. Join us again tomorrow. Thanks for watching.