Nagin Comes, Sees, Conquers 

Hundreds of New Orlean’s residents gathered to hear their Mayor, Ray Nagin, speak Wednesday night at a town hall meeting at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church on Bellevue. “You don’t know how good it is to see y’all,” Nagin said to a standing ovation.

It was an emotionally charged evening, made all the more so by the surprise reunion of two sisters, Gwen Holmes and Kevalenette Johnson Mars, who had not seen each other since the storm.

Nagin held court on the facts and figures of the disaster, but he also seemed to be reaching out to the spirit of the people.

Attempting to quell fears about a future shift in the city’s demographic, Nagin had reassuring words for the largely African-American audience. “New Orleans has to be chocolate,” he said, before adding slyly that he meant the wonderful mix of Bosco and milk. The youngish mayor even took the opportunity to joke about his quarrels with the federal government, “If you find me dead from a heart attack you know who did it.”

Very rarely did Nagin seem to be out of touch with the needs and sentiments of his displaced citizens, who expressed their admiration for his courage but pressed him for more concrete details. -- Ben Popper

“Welcome to New Orleans in Memphis,” said one the constituents who lined up to address the mayor from one of two floor mikes in the aisles. And, indeed, there was something embassy-like about the environment, this gathering of exiles. There was jocularity, there was friendship, there was love. But there were less glad tidings, too.

Already, the mayor acknowledged, there were signs that the Bush administration and the Congress might want to back out on their pledges to rebuild the devastated Crescent City. But “the world” would not permit that, Nagin said, insisting that others overseas would take up the task, had already offered to. “The French were the coolest,” Nagin said, detailing a variety of offers to subsidize the reconstruction of a place that had once been Gallic, and in many ways, even in desolation, still was.   

He listened to the tales of woe, of loss, of bureaucratic obstacles. He heard out the multitudes – some of them happily transplanted, most of them itching to get back home, even though for most of them there was nothing to get back to and no practical way to get there. What they once had, as many, most of them acknowledged outright, was all gone. 

It was on the very eve of “full access,” Nagin told them. On the very next day, Thursday, the whole of the 9th Ward would be open again for whosoever wished to come. The mayor warned them against the disappointments, the voids, the disappeared landscape.

And he commiserated with the those who told sad tales of being dunned by mortgage companies and tax collectors  and of being stiffed by hard-hearted insurance companies.  “Those insurance adjustors are something else,” he said, adding ominously, “One of them is going to get hurt.”

“Why can’t the president just go to the mint and make money?” someone asked. Nagin considered the thought, encouraged it, said, in effect, Why not? But he morphed that into something harder and less Pollyanna-like. “We may need to fight,” he declared. “To scream and holder. We may have to get some buses, to go up to D.C. and march!”

It was a night of ironies. Directly in front of the mayor, who was surrounded by flowers, and well to the rear of his transplanted, distressed fellow citizens was a sign hanging from the church balcony. A piece of scripture: “..behold, all things are become new…”

That was one way of seeing the future. Another was to be found later on in the words of  a flyer inserted under the windshield wipers of every car out in the parking lot on the other side of Bellevue from the church.  If offered a “free estimate” for  the removal of “debris & sheetrock,” of “small trees,” of tarp roofs, and of carpet and promised to “beat almost any written guarantee.,”  ending with a proper benediction. “God Bless!!!” it said, and repeated: “Free Estimate…Free Estimate.”-- Jackson Baker

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