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Mayor Nagin: ‘Physically and Mentally Exausted’

naginNEW ORLEANS - More than any other person, Mayor Ray Nagin has been the public face of Hurricane Katrina's destruction and the multibillion-dollar rebuilding effort that followed.

Nagin, who will hand the job over to Mayor-elect Mitch Landrieu on May 3, said the responsibility took its toll.

"I'm tired. I'm really physically and mentally exhausted," Nagin said in an interview with USA TODAY 10 days before he was to leave office. "I fight burnout all the time."

Today, about 80 percent of New Orleans' residents have returned, and there are more than $1 billion in recovery projects underway across the city.

Nagin said the rebuilding process could have been speedier if federal recovery dollars would have come straight to the city instead of through the state, the way they did in New York City after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"My biggest regret is I didn't lobby to have the money come directly to the city," he said. "That delayed the recovery by at least two years."

A former TV executive, Nagin, 53, won the mayoral post in 2002 as a political outsider who was going to implement reform and clean up corruption.

Nagin, who is black, won his mayoral bid with strong support from white voters - a rare crossover accomplishment in a city as racially polarized as New Orleans, said Elliott Stonecipher, a Shreveport-based political analyst. "He was that post-racial mayor, we all thought," Stonecipher said.

Everything changed Aug. 29, 2005, when Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, flooding 80 percent of New Orleans, killing more than 1,000 of its residents, displacing thousands more and causing billions of dollars in damages.

As the city slowly rebuilt, Nagin was criticized not only for what he did but for what he said.

One of his first initiatives was the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, an idea that drew on different professionals in the community to plan the repopulating and rebuilding of the city. When another panel of experts unveiled a plan - initially approved by Nagin - to turn some of the city's flood-wrecked neighborhoods into green parkways, residents revolted.

"The reaction was so strong, and people were very upset about it," Nagin said. "At the end of the process, I ended up saying, 'Don't worry about the green space; don't worry about shrinking footprints. We're going to rebuild the city back bigger and better than it's ever been.' That kind of calmed everyone down, but it did create some angst."

In a speech in January 2006, Nagin compared New Orleans to a "Chocolate City," a metaphor he said he borrowed from the 1970s funk band Parliament. Nagin said he was trying to encourage displaced African Americans to return home, not alienate the city's white or Asian residents.

"The message got out: African Americans felt better about coming back," he said. "But it offended many other people, and that's unfortunate."

Stonecipher said the "Chocolate City" moment became a turning point for Nagin. "He never regained favor with whites," Stonecipher said.

As he struggled to untangle federal, state and city bureaucracies, Nagin was criticized for not being involved enough.

"Everybody here is saying the same thing: 'Where is Mayor Nagin?' " said Linda Jackson, president of the Lower 9th Ward Homeowners Association.

Nagin plans to stay in the city after leaving office. He wants to join the lecture circuit and start a foundation to help the city's senior citizens and children.

"I think my legacy is going to evolve over time," he said. "I don't know what it's going to be. Whatever it will be, it will be distinctive, one way or another."

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