Thursday, September 1, 2005

The leadership skills of New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin have been put to the ultimate test this week, a test some critics say he is failing as his storm-ravaged city descends into chaos, violence, looting and despair.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune’s Web site has become a clearinghouse for residents of the Crescent City to communicate with their neighbors, and many are taking the opportunity to express frustration with their mayor.

“Where are you?” one person asked on the Web site. “Be a man and take care of your people.”

Another person said he liked Mr. Nagin but wondered, “Where is command central? Can we get some sort of plan, any plan, other than busing the refugees from dome to dome?”

Mr. Nagin, a former cable TV executive, was elected three years ago at the age of 45 after promising to reverse the city’s reputation for corruption. Now, he finds himself saying things about his city that he never could have dreamed possible.

“We’re not even dealing with dead bodies,” he said of his instructions to rescue workers Tuesday. “They’re just pushing them on the side.”

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Nagin even excused looting — until nonessential items started turning up in people’s shopping carts.

“It’s really difficult because my opinion of the looting is it started with people running out of food, and you can’t really argue with that too much,” he said. “Then it escalated to this kind of mass chaos where people are taking electronic stuff and all that.”

Three years ago, Mr. Nagin boasted of turning around one of Cox Communications’ most underperforming cable franchises, serving as chairman of the United Negro College Fund’s Walkathon fundraising campaign and being elected president of the 100 Black Men of Metro New Orleans.

Today, he is trying to shepherd the only large city in America that has experienced such shocking destruction and death — save New York City on September 11. Some commentators are panning Mr. Nagin’s performance compared with that of Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was universally praised for his disaster response in New York.

“On television this week, the mayor has shown no clear inclination to take charge and direct post-Katrina rescue and recovery efforts for his population, as Mayor Giuliani did in New York after 9/11,” wrote Nicole Gelina, a columnist for New York’s City Journal.

However, the criticism was not universal.

“A fellow Louisianian wants all of you over in the New Orleans area to know just how much you all are in our thoughts and continued prayers,” a supporter of Mr. Nagin’s wrote on the Times-Picayune Web site. “I know New Orleans will bounce back. We in Louisiana always do. Mayor Nagin, great job.”

The mayor is not just a leader of the suffering. He is among them. The name of his cousin, Brad Nagin, is among those listed on an Internet board of missing residents of New Orleans.

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