Questions and anger subject for mayor’s first meeting

Some came seeking help with specific problems they are encountering with city bureaucracy, others for general information about the status of New Orleans’ post-Katrina recovery.

But just as many seemed in search of comfort and reassurance or a place to vent their anger at perceived injustices in the way the city is struggling back from a catastrophic hurricane.

"I lost my dignity," one man said in denouncing what he called insultingly low wages being offered local workers by some contractors. "How do I get it back?"

Whether in search of information or group therapy, hundreds of people crowded into a Canal Street hotel ballroom Wednesday for the first of what are billed as weekly town hall meetings Mayor Ray Nagin will hold to update the public and hear their concerns.

The session was supposed to start at 2 p.m., but it was past 2:30 before Nagin, clad in a New Orleans Saints sweatshirt, walked in to a chorus of catcalls about the delay. "You were late for Katrina, too," one man shouted.

Responding with a smile, Nagin told the crowd, "We are going to rebuild this city. We are going to do it together."

Although saying that "we have made significant progress in a lot of areas," he admitted, "We have a challenge with debris," with only 1.5 million cubic yards of an estimated 7 million cubic yards removed so far from streets and yards.

Removing debris was just one of many issues that a long line of speakers raised after the session was thrown open for public comment, with Nagin — joined by three City Council members — often expressing sympathy or promising to look into grievances, but occasionally saying he had no answer or way to help.

Nagin placed the blame for some problems on federal rules and regulations. He also expressed doubt about how much aid Louisiana will get from the federal government, especially compared with the federal response after Hurricane Wilma struck Florida this week. "What I start to realize is that Washington is very skeptical about helping us," he said.

Nagin promised the city will help a man who said he needs permission for a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer on his lot to extend onto the sidewalk by a few inches. "Sometimes we drop back into pre-Katrina mode" and aren’t flexible enough, Nagin said.

Asked whether the city will condemn many flooded buildings, Nagin promised that no buildings will be demolished without the owner’s consent unless they are deemed structurally unsound. Of 50,000 buildings inspected so far, he said, only 1,000 have been found to be unsound.

As he has done several times lately, he promised, "We will rebuild the Lower 9th Ward and New Orleans East, and in a way very similar to what was there before, but better."

He expressed surprise when a Lakeview resident said some residents of the southern part of that badly flooded neighborhood already are back in their homes and at work on repairs.

Criticized for what one speaker depicted as the city’s inadequate evacuation and shelter plans before Katrina, Nagin defended his record, saying that 1.5 million people were evacuated from the New Orleans area. He said the city will re-evaluate its plans for evacuating and sheltering people, but he told the crowd, "If another Katrina is coming, run!"

The mayor also had to contend with a political jab toward the end of the almost three-hour session. Although he told a speaker he did not wish to address strictly political issues, he was stung when the speaker dubbed his Bring New Orleans Back Commission a "re-election commission."

"Man, I am so far not thinking about re-election," Nagin shot back. "You want the job, man? Maybe we can work something out."