NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Weeping and cursing in frustration at one point, jauntily announcing the city’s comeback at another, Ray Nagin has pursued an erratic course as mayor of this woeful city over the past three weeks.

Last week, for example, he announced plans to quickly reopen much of New Orleans without even consulting federal officials. On Monday, he was forced to backtrack as another storm approached the Gulf Coast and President Bush and other top officials warned he was rushing residents back too quickly.

Earlier this month, as New Orleans was being swallowed by Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters, Nagin said the death toll could reach a startling 10,000. On Monday, the Louisiana total stood at 736, and from what search crews have seen so far, the number of dead will probably not come close to Nagin’s projection.

This week, Nagin missed a meeting with the top federal official in New Orleans because of a late flight, and at one point accused that official, Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad Allen, of trying to make himself the federal mayor of New Orleans.

Altogether, some observers from outside New Orleans say, Nagin’s handling of the crisis has created the perception of a leadership void in this city at precisely the time it requires a steady hand.

“He hasn’t demonstrated a clear vision for what should be happening next in New Orleans,” said Melissa Harris Lacewell, a political science professor at the University of Chicago. She described him as a “kind of a passionate character in this whole story,” but added, “He appears to have been pretty unprepared.”

Others have said in Nagin’s defense that he is dealing with an enormous and unprecedented crisis.

Asked Tuesday about criticism of his leadership after the hurricane, the 49-year-old Nagin laughed.

“I won’t even deal with that, man,” he told The Associated Press. “It’s my style, and I love it.” He then walked away.

Nagin, a former cable company executive who made a midlife switch to politics four years ago, was known for blunt talk well before Katrina hit.

He said things that had long gone unspoken, complaining that City Hall was rife with favoritism, the school system was a catastrophe and that upper middle-class whites had abandoned many aspects of civic life. His language was the New Orleans vernacular, from the working-class black neighborhoods Nagin was raised in.

His frank talk – and his status as an outsider, with no political experience – were initially welcomed in the city.

But his shoot-from-the-hip style has not served him well in a crisis, and has resulted in sometimes ill-informed or premature public pronouncements.

His competence and his ability to work the levers of political power have also been called into question.

He was accused of inadequately protecting his city’s poor and making sure they got out safely. Evacuees at the Superdome and the convention center furiously denounced Nagin, holding him responsible for the miserable conditions there.

Nagin, who is up for re-election early next year, has periodically been absent from the city over the past few weeks, flying back and forth to Dallas, where he has rented a house for his family and enrolled his daughter in school.

His mood has gone up and down with New Orleans’ fortunes.

With tens of thousands of people trapped in the city and food and water running out fast, the mayor erupted in tears during a radio interview and angrily told the federal government, “Get off your asses and let’s do something.”

Two weeks later, he sketched out a sunny future for the city: “I’m tired of hearing these helicopters, I want to hear some jazz. You know, I know New Orleanians. Once the beignets start cooking up again and the gumbo is in the pots and red beans and rice are served on Monday, in New Orleans, and not where they are, they’re going be back.”

After the 2001 terrorist attacks – the last time a major U.S. city was brought to its knees – New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was celebrated for his steady leadership.

Nagin’s defenders say Nagin’s crisis is far bigger than Giuliani’s. He has nothing approaching a functioning city, unlike New York after the terrorist attacks. There are almost no people here, no businesses, no economy. And impoverished New Orleans, under the best of circumstances, commands a fraction of the resources of a New York.

“He tried the best that he could, under the circumstances,” said Ivor Van Heerden, director of Louisiana State University’s Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes.

He said that Nagin was concerned about hurricane preparations soon after taking office in 2002 and that it was “totally unfair” to blame the mayor for the days of crisis following the storm.

Nagin aide Sally Forman said of her boss: “This mayor is a very bright and innovative thinker. He is analytical, while at the same time being a risk-taker. I believe he was the perfect person to handle the monumental task dealt to this city as a result of Katrina.”


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