The Sydney Morning Herald

By Damien Murphy

The former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin has some advice for Australian governments struggling with last summer's disastrous floods and cyclone: let local people own the recovery.

''I think New Orleans is a key study of a horrific catastrophe and how we struggled to plan and implement to get the city back to recovery,'' he said. ''I will tell you that there are lessons for Australia governments in trying to recover and authorities could well look at us. One of the key things is to engage the citizens in a big way. They must be involved so they own the recovery.''

Natural disasters this year have cost Australia about $9 billion and various inquiries are under way to help prepare for future floods, cyclones and fires.

Mr Nagin's exhortation to former US President George Bush and the federal government to ''get off your asses and let's do something, and let's fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country'' after hurricane Kristina devastated his city attracted worldwide coverage. He said the recovery work following was greatly hampered by private and corporate sectional interests trying to make money, and government bloody-mindedness.

Speaking six years after the disaster he said President Bush eventually got his act together in responding to hurricane Katrina, but thought his orders were countermanded by Vice President Dick Cheney. ''Cheney's latest book showed he had his own agenda,'' Mr Nagin said.

Mr Nagin was in Sydney to attend the two-day Emergency Management and Business Continuity Summit 2011 at Darling Harbour.

As the man in charge of New Orleans when hurricane Kristina hit on August 29, 2005, Mr Nagin offered an insider's account on how the city coped while chaos reigned, how indecision and bloody-mindedness from the Bush administration stymied the recovery and how 85 per cent of the population had returned as the rebuild economy kicked in.

Mr Nagin said institutional issues like race and class had secretly conspired to control and slow down New Orleans' recovery.

Mr Nagin stepped down from mayor's job in May last year. His ratings were at an all-time low.

''After the storm I had to fight with the elites, the wealthy, of the city. They wanted to socially engineer. They wanted to put moratoriums on where people could build. It was primarily based upon class, but it was really race. Some business people did not want poor people to return, primarily African Americans. I rejected that. I was villainised for five years.''

He said the smell of money attracted a wide range of carpetbaggers. ''I call it disaster capital. Lots of people came in, they started subcontracting,'' he said. ''But throughout it all, the city was amazingly resilient.''

C. Ray Nagin is the former Mayor of New Orleans and is in Australia as a visitor of the US Studies Centre.