Mayor Ray Nagin is no Rudy Giuliani, as his critics never tire of pointing out, but the calm, likeable leader of this crippled city was at his best last week when he returned from Washington to report the first good news his suffering citizens have heard since Hurricane Katrina washed away so many of their homes, dispersed so many families and destroyed so many lives.
"It's time for you to come home," he told his widely scattered people after the announcement of $3.1-billion in federal aid to rebuild and "armour" the protective levees that the storm surge breached and flattened, the critical failure that transformed a survivable hurricane into the largest natural disaster in U.S. history. "It's time for you to come back to the Big Easy."
The new levee system "should give everyone comfort that they can be protected and they can make investments in the city of New Orleans again," an equally positive Mr. Nagin told his most recent town hall meeting, held in a local hotel ballroom the next day.
Charming and persuasive, more like a facilitator than the command-and-control dictator much praised for handling New York City's response to the 9/11 crisis, Mr. Nagin outlined the "significant progress" the city has made in recovering from the near-death blow of Katrina and her equally vicious follow-up, Hurricane Rita.
Then reality struck.
It was not the reality that any visitor can still easily perceive amid the sprawling ruins almost four months after the Aug. 29 disaster -- the block after block after block of toppled, sinking and rotting houses, uninhabitable and abandoned, the cubic kilometres of debris still left uncollected, the diarrheic stench of mould wafting out of every gaping doorway, the abandoned cars, the uprooted trees and, most of all, the haunting inactivity of all the shattered streets, shocking in its unmistakable suggestion that so much of this legendary city is now simply dead.
It was the reality of living pain. As soon as the mayor took his seat at the head of a horseshoe-shaped table of experts, desperate citizens rushed the microphone facing him, almost toppling over each other. One after another, in rising tones, they told appalling stories of bureaucratic mismanagement, confusion, breakdown and unnecessary hardship. Many interrupted their own sad tales to pour scorn on the mayor's hopeful invitation.
"You want us to celebrate. 'Come on back like everything's okay,' " sneered one woman who, like so many, had returned only to find her home beyond repair. She paused to draw breath for the climatic reproof, speaking for tens of thousands: " It's NOT okay!"
Unflappably cordial, the mayor heard out every supplicant and never talked back, only sympathizing before he handed them off to various harried officials -- many of whom, the supplicants lament, they had met before. Nobody has trailers. They can't get permits for anything. They are being evicted. They are living in cars. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is cutting them off. One after another, they returned to the same question: How can you ask anybody to return to this carnage, amid this paralysis?
"The city is corrupt from the top to the bottom," one man raged. "All of your city councillors are corrupt. You need to get out of office." How can you tell people to return when they have no place to live? "We got a whole lot to do, but you ain't doin' it," he concluded, striding forward to meet Mr. Nagin face to face. "You're just shuckin' and jivin'."
Long before the last tirade, the last lament or the final tears, the twin images of the optimistic mayor and his stricken city -- both equally charming, equally ineffective -- merged into a single portrait of heartbreaking tragedy.
The mayor begged for positive thinking, warning that "everything we do right now, the world is watching us," and asked for a pledge of renewed co-operation from his fractious and shattered people.
Unmoved, one woman asked for help in her month-long quest for a federal-issue tarpaulin for her roof. "I have everybody in this city's phone number," she said. "Don't send me to anybody else."
"I'm very familiar with this situation," the mayor replied, before sending her to someone else, "because my roof is leaking too."
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