New Orleans: One Year Later

Mayor Ray Nagin Talks About Efforts To Bring The Crescent City Back To Life

Last Updated Jan 13, 2009 2:00 PM EST

Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans a year ago this Tuesday, and CBS News national correspondent Byron Pitts has been covering the story ever since.

As Pitts notes, it is once again the heart of hurricane season. Yet for people who live along the Gulf Coast, it's the hurricane past that still causes sleepless nights.

Hurricane Katrina killed more than 1,300 men, women and children. Many of those who died, died in New Orleans.

One year later, New Orleans is still struggling to recover.

The man in charge of bringing the city back to life is Mayor Ray Nagin. But there are questions: Is he up to the job? And what if there's another direct hit.

"Is New Orleans ready for another hurricane?" Pitts asks Nagin.

"I think we're ready for another hurricane like Katrina," Nagin says.

"There's a headline," Pitts says.

"Absolutely," Nagin says.

"How is that possible?" Pitts asks.

"When Katrina hit us, our highest levees were 12 to 13 feet. The ones they're building now, as high as 20 feet," Nagin says.

The failure of those levees was the signature event behind the flooding that left 80 percent of New Orleans underwater after Katrina.

Today, in one of the few visible signs of recovery, the 220 miles of the levees damaged by the storm have been repaired or restored by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Visiting one of the repaired levees, Pitts asks Nagin how it compares to the old levee wall.

"Oh, it was a third of that. Maybe. It was just dirt," Nagin says. "And that was part of the problem. When the water was overflowing, it came and started digging. It dug holes on this side of the levee. And this is the anti-scouring part. So now if the water flows over, it won't dig a hole and when it dug a hole, it weakened the whole levee and it just kinda caved in."

And will it hold in the face of a Category 3 or Category 4 storm?

"Look at this man, where's this gonna go?" Nagin asks, standing at the base of the wall.

If New Orleans is prepared for a hurricane today, that was not the case a year ago. Nagin helped make a bad situation worse by not ordering a mandatory evacuation until the morning before the storm made landfall.

His delay and indecision almost certainly cost lives.

"That was heart-breaking," Nagin says. "Seeing dead bodies in the water and watching babies and old people, elderly people, really suffering. That was very, very tough."

Nagin says that about 600 people died in New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. Pitts asks if there are private moments when Nagin blames himself for those deaths.

"Absolutely," he says. "I think about whether I could have ordered a mandatory evacuation earlier. I think about what we could have done differently and better with the Superdome and with getting more people out of the neighborhoods. I contemplate and think about that a lot."

How would Nagin evacuate people differently in the event of another storm?

"We're getting everybody out. And we're gonna use every medium available," Nagin says. "No shelter of last resort, buses, trains, planes. Everybody's gotta go."

Under the mayor's new plan, no Superdome, no convention center. When a Category 3 or higher hurricane threatens New Orleans, everyone leaves.

Planning for the next disaster seems simple compared with fixing what was broken by the last one.

One year later, parts of New Orleans look the way they did days after the hurricane. There's tons of debris still scattered about. Six of the city's nine hospitals are still closed.

Before Katrina, some 65,000 children attended public schools here. This fall, that figure could be down to 21,000. Thousands of families remain in government trailers.

Neighborhoods are still deserted - block after block of deafening silence.