Nagin Explains 'Chocolate City' Remarks in Lakeview
and on CNN with Anderson Cooper
By Gwen Filosa
Times-Picayune staff writer
A contrite Mayor Ray Nagin said Saturday that emotional stress from
witnessing Hurricane Katrina and a history of accusations that he
doesn’t care about black people led to his gaffe-filled Martin Luther
King Jr. Day speech in which he said New Orleans will be a “chocolate
At an outdoor meeting of several hundred Lakeview residents, Nagin said
that when he was elected, “I took great pains to bring in every segment
of the community. I got attacked. I was called ‘Ray Reagan,’ and that
white man in black skin stuff. I had a stigma that Ray Nagin does not
care about black people.”
When he held town meetings across the South for evacuees after the
storm, Nagin said, “I heard hopelessness and I heard the theory and the
feeling that some people weren’t welcome back in my city. I carried that
around for months. I was emotionally drained.”
Nagin said that his MLK Day remarks, which included his comment that God
wants New Orleans to be “chocolate,” and that God is angry at America,
were a mistake. “I got in the heat of the moment and said things that I
shouldn’t. Life does not have a rewind button.”
Lakeview residents welcomed Nagin’s explanation, which came during a
two-hour question-and-answer session on the blacktop of St. Dominic’s
Church in the heart of the flood-ravaged neighborhood. Most of the
meeting was a fact-laden litany of rebuilding, including Nagin’s pledge
to oppose a four-month moratorium on issuing building permits in flooded
"I’m not going with a moratorium,” Nagin said, of the Bring New Orleans
Back commission’s recommendation. “We’re going to keep going forward.”
Nagin Interview with Anderson Cooper
So, what did Mayor Ray Nagin mean when he called New Orleans a
"chocolate city"? Tonight, you will hear his explanation. I talked to
the mayor about the present and the future of this great city.
Also tonight, the new victims of Katrina -- a look at the alarming
suicide rate in New Orleans. Why are some of the most respected men and
women here taking their own lives? What, if anything, does it have to do
From New Orleans and around the world tonight, you're watching 360.
COOPER: And welcome back to 360.
As you can see, we are kind of surrounded by police cars right here.
There seems to be some sort of an incident on Bourbon Street and -- and
Contay (ph). There's probably half-a-dozen police vehicles. We saw a
number of officers running. And they have cordoned off an area outside
the Saint Anne Hotel -- police officials going in and out of the hotel.
We're not sure exactly what's going on. As you can tell here on Bourbon
Street, probably about the only part of New Orleans of which this can be
said, life returning to normal. Elsewhere, of course, it's not. The bars
are open. The music is playing. And, well, the police are out in force,
as you can see.
We have said it before, but it remains true. Even almost five months
after Katrina, you can't really imagine just how daunting the task of
rebuilding New Orleans is. You know, it feels like a lot of the country
has just moved on. And when you go out just -- you know, you -- you go a
few miles from where Bourbon Street is, and -- I mean, it's all the
Everyone's possessions are still just laying all out in the street. The
homes haven't been rebuilt. The debris is everywhere. It is -- it is
just -- it's an eye-opening experience. The disaster is still continuing
here in New Orleans, even if much of the country doesn't seem to be
paying much of attention to it.
Right now, the challenge of rebuilding New Orleans falls to Mayor Ray
Nagin. That, of course, could soon change. He's up for reelection coming
up in a few months. And it's fair to say he has taken a pretty good
beating from Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
Before coming mayor, Ray Nagin never held an elected office. His
tendency to speak bluntly, some might even say recklessly, has made him
a target at times, most recently this past Monday, when he talked about
New Orleans as a "chocolate city" and about God seeking, well, to punish
We talked about that -- about that and much more with Mayor Ray Nagin
COOPER (voice-over): Wherever New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin goes, he's the
center of attention and often the center of controversy.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How you doing, Ray?
COOPER: We met with the mayor in Lakeview, just one of several
neighborhoods in New Orleans still in ruins.
(on camera): Do you get used to seeing your city like this?
RAY NAGIN (D), MAYOR OF NEW ORLEANS: I -- you know, I don't ever get
used to it. I really -- it's depressing. I mean, when you come out here
and you see it, you know, it's pretty depressing, because you think,
after -- after four months, you know, you wouldn't see as much.
COOPER (voice-over): It's been a difficult week for Ray Nagin. On
Monday, comments he made at a Martin Luther King rally stunned many in
the city and around the country.
NAGIN: This city will be chocolate at the end of the day. This city will
be a majority African-American city. It's the way God wants it to be.
COOPER: Four days later, the mayor is still doing damage control.
(on camera): So, I got to ask you about it.
NAGIN: Yes, go ahead.
NAGIN: I would be surprised if you wouldn't.
COOPER: All right.
"Chocolate city." What were you thinking?
NAGIN: You know what, man?
You know, I have thought about this and thought about this a long time.
You know, I'm African-American, OK? Just to kind of put that out there.
It's part of our culture to talk about chocolate cities.
You know, D.C. was the first chocolate city that ever came on the map,
Newark, Detroit, New Orleans. So, for me, the vernacular of saying
chocolate city was not a big deal. I have used that in speeches for
three-and-a-half years now. And I have even used it on Capitol Hill. So,
I didn't really think it was a big deal.
Where I crossed the line was bringing God into the whole, you know,
COOPER: Do you think it hurt or will hurt relief efforts, perception of
you, perception of the leadership here in Louisiana, especially in
NAGIN: Let me tell you what -- what is happening. As far as Washington
is concerned, I don't think so.
And I -- and I will tell you why. The day after the event, I talked to
Secretary of HUD Alphonso Jackson. We talked about it. He kind of kidded
about it, because he made a comment in Houston...
NAGIN: ... about the city not being black again.
COOPER: I remember.
NAGIN: So, he got admonished by the president and all that. So, he was
COOPER: There's a lot people in Washington who have said things they
would like to take back.
NAGIN: I said -- I said, does the president care about this or does he
have any issues? He said no.
The secretary of commerce was in yesterday. Talked to him about it. He
said, man, you're fine. We are going to continue to help us. The
president has everybody focused on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. So,
I'm not seeing any evidence of anything.
As a matter of fact, this is kind of -- you know, there's lot of people
upset about the comments. Don't get me wrong. And I'm not trying to
minimize that. But it's grown into this whole kind of whimsical, you
know, chocolate city with bars and T-shirts.
COOPER: Yes. They're making T-shirts on Bourbon Street, Willy Wonka
NAGIN: Yes. I mean, so it has kind of turned. You know, if I had to do
it over again, I would do it differently.
COOPER: ... want to get into that.
Well, that's not all Mayor Nagin and I talked about. Coming up, the
biggest mistakes he says he made during the Katrina crisis in his own
words, the first elected politician to actually come out and admit
specific mistakes he made. Hear what he has to say coming up.
Also, disaster still unfolding in New Orleans along the Mississippi.
Nature's speed bumps are disappearing. We will explain coming up on 360.
COOPER: Don't you wish politicians would just admit the mistakes they
made? Well, tonight, Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans does just that --
next on 360.
COOPER: We're live from Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
What you see behind me and all around me is just a -- a snapshot of this
city, not a very accurate one. To get a true picture, an accurate
picture of what the city and the people who live here are facing, you
have to travel beyond the corner.
Today, I went with Mayor Ray Nagin to a neighborhood northwest of here.
It borders Lake Pontchartrain. That's about the only thing that hasn't
NAGIN: And, sure, they didn't like it.
COOPER (voice-over): We met with Mayor Ray Nagin in the devastated
neighborhood of Lakeview, where the streets are still lined with
personal possessions and homes still stand as they were after the storm.
(on camera): I mean, when you see a house like this, what -- what do you
NAGIN: Well, I think, you know, like that song, this house was a home.
And now look at it. It's devastated. It's turned upside-down by the
force of nature. And somebody used to live here. And -- and now they
can't live here. And that's -- that's just something that's pretty
COOPER: I mean, these are like shrines, almost. You know, people put up
their certain memories of better days, a little boy with his suit. These
-- I guess these are his clothes.
I mean, it's -- you know, people want to remember. And they want to
think back to what it used to be. And it's going to be a long time
before we ever get back to what it used to be.
COOPER (voice-over): Mayor Nagin has received a lot of criticism for the
way he handled Hurricane Katrina. One of his critics, former FEMA
Director Michael Brown, on Wednesday, talked for the first time about
mistakes he himself made, saying he should have demanded the military
intervene in New Orleans sooner.
I asked Mayor Nagin what he thought of Brown's admission.
NAGIN: You know, I -- I was a little surprised, but kind of expected it.
You know, at some point in time, the truth needs to rule.
COOPER (on camera): The first couple weeks after Katrina, you were
saying the mistake that you made was sort of being naive, in thinking
that the cavalry was going to come after two days.
COOPER: It's been now a couple of months. Have you -- as you have looked
back and reassessed, were there other mistakes, specific things that you
did you feel that...
There's three things that I would do totally differently now. I wish I
had talked to Max Mayfield earlier, number one.
COOPER: When was it he called it? Was it Saturday or Sunday?
NAGIN: It was a Saturday evening.
NAGIN: And I wish I had talked to him earlier, so the possibility of a
mandatory evacuation would have been done 24 hours later -- earlier.
COOPER: Max Mayfield from the National Hurricane Center.
NAGIN: National Hurricane Center.
COOPER: And he called you Saturday. And he said that that was the --
only the second time in history he has ever called a politician directly
to -- to personally warn them.
And he -- you know, I knew we had done a great job as getting people out
-- as far getting people out. Eighty, 85 percent had gotten out. But,
when I got that call, and he was so emphatic and so passionate, we had
never -- this city had never done a mandatory evacuation in its history.
I immediately called my city attorney and said, look, in the morning, I
don't care what you have to do. Figure out a way for us to do this. I
wish I had done that earlier.
COOPER (voice-over): It wasn't until Sunday that Mayor Nagin made the
evacuation mandatory. Crucial hours had been lost. The mayor now admits
his second mistake was the buses. Hundreds of school and city buses that
could have been used to evacuate stranded residents were left in
NAGIN: If I had to do it again, I would probably go to the school board,
cut a cooperative endeavor agreement with them, move all the
city-controlled buses to another section of the state, probably up
north, so that they're readily available, and we will just deal with the
driver issue later.
COOPER (on camera): You knew, based on the census, there were about
100,000 people who didn't have access to a vehicle.
NAGIN: We got everybody out, except for 50, which I think is kind of
incredible. Fifty thousand people, at the end of the day, were in the
Superdome and in the Convention Center. So, there was 50,000 people that
we needed to deal with. You're right.
COOPER: OK. So, it was really -- for you, it's -- now looking back, it's
the buses and it's the mandatory evacuation?
And the third thing is what you mentioned earlier. We always said, if
the big one happened, we would get as many people to, you know, shelters
of last resort and out of the city as possible. And then we would hunker
down for three days, and the cavalry will arrive. I'm not going to
depend upon the cavalry anymore. We're going to be as self-sufficient as
possible from start to finish going forward.
COOPER: You're the only elected official up to now who has actually said
that they made mistakes, that -- and actually named a -- two specific
things that they have done.
Are you aware of that?
COOPER: That -- that I asked the governor last night specific mistakes.
She said she couldn't think of any. The president, of course, has said,
you know, general -- general mistakes.
Why don't more politicians just -- just do what you did?
NAGIN: You know, I don't know, man.
And, you know, people ask me all the time why I do what I do.
NAGIN: And, sometimes, I can answer them, and, sometimes, I can't.
COOPER (voice-over): More than four months after Katrina, there's not
much in New Orleans to laugh about. Half the businesses are still
closed. And unemployment is around 17 percent.
(on camera): What do you want people to know about what's happening
here, about what's -- what has happened here and what -- what continues
to happen here?
NAGIN: Well, it's kind of an issue of, you know, contrasting views, from
the standpoint, I want America to understand, the city of New Orleans
took on so much water, that 80 percent of it's flooded.
And we still have a tremendous amount of work to do. And we need
tremendous amount of more help from the federal government. And it's
coming slow. And we're frustrated. And I can't get people back here
The second thing I want people to understand is that the storm spared
our culturally unique sections of the city, downtown, French Quarter,
uptown, Convention Center, all of that good stuff. We're in a position
now to handle tourists and people visiting. And they need to come
support us, so that we can stand up our economy and get back on our
COOPER: Mayor Ray Nagin.
To rebuild New Orleans, the mayor and the city must also recover the
marshlands that surround this city. It's the first line of defense
against a hurricane. It may soon disappeared.
CNN meteorologist Rob Marciano has more -- Rob.
ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Anderson, you're right.
The wetlands are disappearing. And, ironically, the main reason is the
levees that are built to protect New Orleans from the Mississippi
flooding. Since about 1927 -- they had a major flood then -- they have
built up those levees.
Now all of the water and silt from the Mississippi has dumped deep into
the Gulf of Mexico, away from those marshes. And the landscape has
changed. The wetlands in Louisiana are actually disappearing. So, that's
a big problem, not only for wildlife, but for humans as well. Humans in
southeast Louisiana are protected by those wetlands when killer
hurricanes roll in. The storm surge, the battering waves, are absorbed
by those wetlands.
Coming up, we are going to talk about what can be done to stem the tide
of those vanishing wetlands. It's a big-time problem, Anderson. We will
see you in about 20 minutes.
COOPER: Rob, thanks for that.
Coming up, we want to remind you, we are expecting a news conference on
the mine fire in West Virginia -- two missing miners. Here -- we are
going to bring you that press conference live, as well as also from the
governor of West Virginia.
Here in New Orleans, a deadly problem that may only be getting worse.
Why are so many professionals committing suicide? And why many believe
Hurricane Katrina may be to blame.
Also tonight, the long road back -- months after the hurricane, the
people who have lost everything finally returning home in some places.
From Bourbon Street in New Orleans and around the world, you're watching
COOPER: So many of the stories of this city after Katrina are
heartbreaking, perhaps none more so than those of the people who made it
through the storm and then simply could not go on. A report on that in a