For the city of New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina was not so much a sudden calamity as a slow-motion catastrophe. The whole country watched in agony as the flood waters rose and houses, neighborhoods and society itself began to disintegrate along with the city's broken levees.
60 Minutes Correspondent Scott Pelley has been in New Orleans looking into how much of what happened was natural disaster and how much was man-made and avoidable.
The mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, is on his way to take the measure of the misery in the worst American disaster in 100 years. Most of his city has surrendered to the sea. The streets of the Big Easy are now subject to the tides of the Gulf of Mexico.
Two days before the storm, Nagin ordered the biggest evacuation in U.S. history — but he told us he never imagined his city would be abandoned, as he sees it, by the state and federal government. Nagin says communication failed and agencies dithered over jurisdiction while New Orleans drowned.
"Too many people died because of lack of action," Nagin says. "Lack of coordination and some goofy laws that basically say there's not a clear distinction of when the federal government stops and when the state government starts. And if you have federal - if the federal government takes over, then you're giving up some powers. Or if the governor don't ask the president and the president don't ask the governor, and it was just b.s."
When Pelley suggests that bureaucracy might be the cause of the confusion, Nagin replies bluntly, "Bull-crap. When people are dying, bureaucracy should be thrown out of the water."
Asked if he thought people died because of the delays, Nagin says, "There is no doubt about it. I watched a guy jump from the Superdome yesterday, just couldn't take it anymore. We have two police officers that have committed suicide. They couldn't take it anymore. This is, this is hell. And to have this happen in the United States of America in the state of Louisiana, and to not have immediate, immediate response regardless of the laws, is tragic."
National response authorities would say, "It's a disaster. It's hard to get stuff in there. It's hard to fly the helicopters and trucks in there," Pelley tells Nagin.
Nagin was unmoved. "Man, I don't wanna hear any of that. Yhis is a national disaster on U.S. soil. And if we can deploy troops around the world, if we can deploy national guards and in a confined area, this is a - this is a small city. It's about 500,000 people. We're not talking about taking over a country. We're talking about 500,000 people. And with all the resources that this state and this country has, it should've gotten done quicker."
We met Nagin at his headquarters - this shattered downtown hotel with no power—no water. He's a cable TV executive with no political experience — he won a surprise victory in 2003. This week, holed up in darkness, he lashed out on a radio talk show saying politicians bragged about their efforts while his city descended into chaos.
"They don't have a clue what's going on down here," Nagin said on a recent broadcast. "They flew down here one time two days after the doggone event was over with TV cameras, AP reporters, all kind of goddamn -- excuse my French everybody in America, but I am pissed."
Pelley also mentions that on the radio show, Nagin said that the people who failed to bring aid in here in 24 or 48 hours ought to go to hell.
"Well, I said - they're gonna have to account for that. And, and here's the issue. And here's what the nation needs to get ready for: they're seeing, you know, the, the starving people and evacuations and the lawlessness and, you know, that's all entertaining, but let me tell you what's getting ready to happen.
"We're getting ready to drain this city. And then we're gonna go on search, seek and find missions for dead bodies. And the body count is gonna go up. And it's gonna go up to a tremendous level. And then everybody's gonna start to wonder: if we had responded quicker, did more bodies die, did more people die because of the storm or because of the lack of response? And that's gonna be the big question."
Even now some people remain trapped. On our flight Nagin noticed a man marooned and delivered the aid himself.
Pelley tells Nagin, "When you were looking at your city from the helicopter today, mayor, I had the sense that your heart was broken."
Nagin agreed, "You know, my heart is broken. And, you know, it's, it's a tough thing. When you see a city that you love so much, and you see it so devastated and so - almost dead, and you wonder what the future looks like, i'm basically homeless now."
Nagin says the nation still doesn't know how desperate New Orleans was in the hours of anarchy — the three days before the national guard broke through.
"My police chief almost got kidnapped. He was trying to calm the crowd out at the convention center and they got into the middle of a crowd and the guys tried to take him hostage. I mean there are stories that are unbelievable, police officers crying, screaming over the radio saying 'I'm under fire help, I'm running out of ammunition.'
"My assistant police chief basically said that that is the first time in 25 years he ever heard of a police officer in the city of New Orleans saying he's getting ready to run out of ammo in a gun fight. I mean there's stories. People give me a baby saying 'look, take my baby please I can't take care of her,' you know, little old ladies saying 'just let me lay down and die.' I mean you want stories? There's stories."
You find a story on every corner when you walk in the dark, oily water downtown. It's strange to feel with your feet familiar things you're used to seeing: curbs, flower pots. We were walking down Tulane Street when we came across an armada of airboats.
They were texas game wardens heading to evacuate the biggest public hospital in the state. this is what their drive down tulane is like.
Here the living have waited days for rescue and the dead of unknown names and numbers wait in the debris, not a priority. Not yet.