Nagin's task: Reinvent city's economy

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin celebrates after narrowly winning re-election in the mayoral race May 20, 2006.

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MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: Over the weekend, voters in New Orleans narrowly re-elected Ray Nagin as the mayor. He will undertake one of the largest reconstruction projects in US history. Nagin vowed to spend the first 100 days of his second term finding ways to speed up rebuilding, solve the city's housing crisis and clean up debris left by Hurricane Katrina. Marketplace's Sam Eaton looks at some of the challenges ahead.

SAM EATON: In the past Ray Nagin has taken hits for his off the cuff remarks: His attacks on president Bush after Katrina and references to New Orleans as a "chocolate city." In his election night victory speech he said he'd once again stray from the script. But this time, his remarks were aimed to please.

RAY NAGIN: This great city, New Orleans is ready to take off. We have the levees being repaired, we have incentive dollars for businesses and for people. We have citizens around the country who want to come back to the city of New Orleans and we gonna get 'em all back to the city of New Orleans

[ Applause]

Nagin now has the unenviable task of fixing this devastated city. Less than half of its population has returned. The stain of Katrina's water line is still visible on thousands of destroyed homes and abandoned cars.

Political analyst Silas Lee says despite Ray Nagin's optimism New Orleans is likely to live with these grim reminders for some time.

SILAS LEE: We are one year into it right now so you're looking at a good extensive, long-term economic development project anywhere from 5 to 10 years easily if not longer.

New Orleans' economy took an estimated $200-billion hit from Katrina. Lee says in Nagin's next four years in office he'll not only need to jumpstart that economy, he'll need to reinvent it.

SILAS LEE: We have to look at it as rebuilding a new economy. Not the economy we had before which was focused on tourism and the service sector. But more of an economic sector that will encourage people really reaching their potential as well as encouraging some entrepreneurship.

Many who voted in Saturday's election were driven by more immediate concerns like repairing broken stop lights and hauling away rotting debris piles. Kim McNeil's East New Orleans neighborhood was one of the hardest hit. She now lives in Houston, Texas and says she isn't willing to move back until some basic services are restored.

KIM NCNEIL: From New Orleans East the nearest place to go to get groceries is in Metarie so that's quite a drive, like a 30 minute drive to go grocery shopping.

Besides, she says all the children are gone from her neighborhood. And as a pediatrician she wonders whether she'd have any customers if she reopened her practice there. Economists say this points to one of the biggest challenges facing Ray Nagin and New Orleans. How do you bring back the schools, hospitals, businesses and people at the same time if each is waiting for the other to make the first move?

In New Orleans, I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

About the author

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist. His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.

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