Review: Ray Nagin's Katrina's Secrets

by Leslie Turk

Former mayor Ray Nagin releases the first volume of his memoir, Katrina's Secrets, Wednesday afternoon at a press conference in New Orleans, and it's a most interesting read.

Former mayor Ray Nagin releases the first volume of his memoir, Katrina's Secrets, Wednesday afternoon at a press conference at the Ashe Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans. It's a most interesting read; Nagin said he self-published the book in order to ensure his voice remained intact on the page, and it's certainly there; you can practically hear him reading it aloud.

The good: Nagin does an excellent job of laying out the timeline in the days after the storm - the feeling that New Orleans dodged a bullet, followed by the collapse of the levees; the desperation at the Louisiana Superdome; the cluelessness of the federal government and the growing anarchy on the ground. Much of the book is dedicated to laying blame, and Nagin does not exempt his own performance, but overall paints himself as a civic chief executive whose attempts to do the right thing were thwarted by state and federal powers. The main villains in his account are then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco and Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, who led the post-K federal response through early 2006. Also unimpressive in Nagin's telling: Sen. Mary Landrieu, FEMA head Michael Brown and President George W. Bush.

There's a good deal of human and piscine interest material about "Fishy," young Tianna Nagin's pet betta fish, which Nagin nursed in his blown-out hotel room while the city fell to pieces several dozen floors below. And the book concludes with a pitch for Katrina's Secrets 2: Rainbows After the Storm, which Nagin intends to publish next year.

"It was destiny I was mayor of New Orleans when Katrina hit," Nagin says early in the book, and it just gets more quotable from there

On the media: "I received relentless media floggings while being positioned as the main Katrina scapegoat [they] turned our misery into the ultimate reality TV show."

On the federal response, or lack thereof: "Was it partisan politics? Were there racial considerations? Were there class considerations? My humble opinion is that it was all of the above."

On Blanco: "Gov. Blanco claimed she never got confirmation the city had descended into this unruly state. I asked her when she thought the buses would show up. She would only say they would be there soon. Since I was operating on so little sleep and under so much pressure, I lost my Southern gentlemanmanners for a moment. I then point-blank said to her that we were going to make this problem more real for her by allowing our stranded citizens to march across the Crescent City Connection Bridge to Baton Rouge. I concluded by saying they would be headed to the governor's mansion, so she should make sure she had food and water when they arrived. She very nervously said she did not think this was a good idea."

On Gen. Russel Honore: "Then the FEMA guys started doing what they do; they shot him a line of bull, and he reacted strongly and without hesitation. He started cussing with his booming voice and said "Stop the bullshit! Tell me what you can really accomplish! Don't blow smoke up my ass! I just smiled inside and out and watched as this very skilled brother firmly established himself. It immediately popped in my head that this was a bad man, a modern-day John Wayne Dude'!"

On "Fishy," his daughter's pet fish: Nagin watched the fish in his hotel room at the Hyatt, making sure it was all right, until it was time for him to helicopter to Dallas to meet his family - whereupon he realized he'd left Fishy at the hotel. "After keeping this fish alive through the darkest days after Katrina hit, I was not going to break my promise to my daughter. I held up the helicopter for 20 minutes or so while Wondell [a bodyguard] went back to the Hyatt and retrieved Fishy and his food. Once he got back, we all had a good laugh, loaded up in the chopper and headed to the airport. Tianna was happy to see me, but she was happier to see Fishy."

After the storm, a Dallas police officer tells Nagin how "proud he was of what we had done": "I had reached celebrity status in Texas and around the country. I was instantly recognized in the airport, and people started coming up asking questions, wanting my autograph and to take pictures. One very nice benefit to all this attention was when we went to a restaurant to eat. No one would allow us to pay for anything."

On a rebuilding meeting with the New Orleans gentry: "It also seemed like I had been invited to a private, secret meeting of the Rex and Comus organizations. I had a target on my back as the guy who stood in the way of their vision of a new New Orleans where mint juleps would once again be the drink of choice in a bleached, adult Disney World-like city."

More to come ...

Kevin Allman is editor of Gambit in New Orleans. This review first appeared in that publication.