Putting the gumbo back in New Orleans

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Like New Orleans after Katrina, Mayor C. Ray Nagin now has been given hope of recovery from his post-hurricane missteps. Voters reelected him Saturday by a slim margin, opting for continuity but signaling that the city, too, will learn from mistakes and rebuild.

Voters forgave Mr. Nagin for his slow response to the nation's worst urban natural disaster, one that left half of the city's 455,000 pre-Katrina residents living elsewhere and killed more than 1,500 in Louisiana.

And by winning a quarter of the white vote, the black mayor was partly absolved for the few times he introduced racial divisions into the campaign with his white opponent and during Katrina's aftermath.

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The former business executive admitted his own long learning curve in coping with such a devastating event over the past nine months. Such humility will serve him well during the next four years as he works with state and federal governments to oversee one of the largest reconstruction projects in US history.

New Orleans needs a bootstrap mentality, as well as leadership continuity, as it enters a new hurricane season in June with not all levees expected to be repaired soon.

While millions of federal dollars will be flowing into the city this summer to rebuild levees, homes, and businesses, much of the recovery depends on residents shaking off old habits and starting afresh.

They did that four years ago in electing Nagin, a blunt, brash, but honest man who appears to have ended the corruption and patronage that long hurt New Orleans city hall.

And this election campaign, which showed few policy differences between Nagin and his fellow Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, highlighted a common desire of residents to rebuild all neighborhoods, fight off a new crime wave, revive the economy, and set right one of the nation's worst school systems.

The election showed an eagerness to move quickly toward recovery after months of local and national debate. The city still remains littered with thousands of empty and damaged homes, as well as hundreds of abandoned cars, appliances, and other debris.

A unifying desire to rebuild helped create a civil tone to the campaign. Just the process of voting alone revealed a new type of New Orleans gumption. Voters in the diaspora - who are in nearly every US state - had to make special efforts to cast ballots by mail or fax. Many drove hundreds of miles just to vote.

With many fewer people, and thus less money, the city is stumbling to recover its finances. New Orleans will benefit from Nagin's reelection because of his closer ties with President Bush, who can keep federal aid flowing to the city.Nagin was also able to secure a $150 million line of credit from banks last week.

That was the kind of leadership he will need to show in the years ahead as he brings in new talent and new ideas for a city that can reinvent itself. The mayor should also heal any racial rifts from this campaign by including as many qualified people as possible from New Orleans' rich mix of colors and ethnicities.

Drawing on all of New Orleans' resources will help it cope with any next big challenge from nature.

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