POLITICS

New Orleans mayor who battled Katrina says Sandy response less political

11/06/2012 06:42 EST | Updated 01/06/2013 05:12 EST
WINNIPEG - The former mayor of New Orleans says the response to superstorm Sandy has been aided by lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina.

Ray Nagin, who was in office when Katrina hit in August 2005, says it has also helped that there has been less political fighting and there are better-skilled people at the top of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"I think with Hurricane Katrina, it just basically overwhelmed all levels of government," Nagin said in an interview Tuesday. He was in Winnipeg to speak Wednesday at a disaster management conference put on by the Manitoba government.

"It seems as though there are more skilled people that are running agencies like FEMA. When I had my experience, the head of FEMA didn't really have any emergency management experience. But now, Craig Fugate, he worked for the state of Florida as the head of their emergency management system."

Katrina slammed into New Orleans, overwhelming its defences and destroying lives and homes. Nagin, a Democrat, lashed out at what he labelled a slow response from the federal government under George W. Bush.

Seven years later, he maintains politics played a role in the disaster effort.

"Politics always creeps in when you're dealing with governmental issues. You know, when the local government got overwhelmed, we expected ... higher levels of government to react and for some reason, they didn't.

"I don't know if it was pure politics, but we had a Republican president and a Democrat for governor and I was a Democrat as mayor, and there were some political issues that got in the way, to be totally frank."

The fallout from Katrina led to the resignation of then-FEMA director Michael Brown, a former lawyer who had worked for the International Arabian Horse Association before joining the disaster agency.

While power outages and a lack of services are still plaguing New York and New Jersey, Nagin feels the response to Sandy was much better in terms of getting supplies into the afflicted area.

FEMA "pre-positioned assets, they had knowledgeable people who were on the ground making sure resources got to localities, and the president was actively involved and told the bureaucracies that no excuses were acceptable," Nagin said. "And that's totally different than what we experienced."

Nagin's speech Wednesday will focus on the need to fund and build disaster-prevention infrastructure before storms hit. He points to the Red River Floodway, a massive ditch that diverts rising water around Winnipeg and that has saved the city from billions of dollars in losses since it was finished in 1968.

"It paid off in spades for you."

New Orleans was preparing to improve its system of flood walls and drainage canals before Katrina hit, but the project was bogged down by "bureaucratic delays," Nagin said.

"(The disaster) ended up costing us 3,000 per cent more than what we would have paid had we built the system earlier."