NEW ORLEANS — To hear Mayor C. Ray Nagin and his supporters tell it, New Orleans has made remarkable progress since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city almost 15 months ago, and is moving forward in leaps and bounds.
Water, sewage and electrical services are back to all inhabited neighborhoods. Telephone service is fully operational. Trash pickup has been enhanced. Several new commercial developments have been approved, or are underway. The mayor predicts the city's population, which he estimates to be between 225,000 and 250,000, could reach 300,000 by year's end.
"We are now completely open with the footprint of the city of New Orleans," even the most devastated areas, Nagin told residents at a community forum Saturday.
But critics insist that the improvements that the mayor boasts of don't address greater concerns -- rising crime, the lack of hospitals and good schools, the city's rundown parks and playgrounds, and Nagin's failure to present a clear-cut plan for enhancing, rebuilding or razing neighborhoods.
Critics contend that Nagin's inertia is slowing the recovery of the city, and independent research groups and academics disagree with his estimate of the city's population, putting it between 190,000 and 200,000.
"We need basic infrastructure," said Cory Turner, a New Orleans community activist. "We need housing. We need healthcare. We need substance abuse and detox facilities. We need public safety. And we need [Nagin] to take the lead."
Several websites have emerged calling for action and change in New Orleans. At least two have tried to launch petitions to recall the mayor.
But Nagin defends his record, arguing that the challenges he faces are unprecedented. "I don't think I can satisfy everybody's needs right now, with the intensity that's out there, but I'm doing the best that I can with the number of hours in the day," Nagin said in an interview at the community gathering.
He told residents that it would likely take five to seven years to completely rebuild the city.
"I know it's hard," Nagin said. "I know life in the city post-Katrina is not like life in the Big Easy as we knew it. It's going to take some time. There's no short-term, quick fix ... none."
Many residents aren't satisfied. In recent months, some have complained that Nagin had been spending too much time making out-of-town trips rather than focusing on needs at home.
A brain-teaser in a recent issue of The New Orleans Levee, a free monthly satirical publication, mockingly captured the frustration.
"Like the child's game 'Where's Waldo?' Can you find, or see Ray Nagin?" the puzzle, featuring a photo collage of television personalities and controversy-prone politicians, teased the reader. His jaunts inspired the website wheresnagin.com, and earned him the nickname "Ray Nay-gone," courtesy of a local talk-show host.
Nagin called dissatisfaction over his travel schedule "an old criticism." He has not traveled out of town recently, and his aides have said his trips are essential for spreading the right message about the city.
Peter Burns, a political scientist at Loyola University in New Orleans, said that although it takes at least two years for significant infrastructure improvements to take root after a major disaster, the rate of New Orleans' bounce-back was "still slow according to standards of disaster recovery."
Detractors point to Nagin's failure Monday to present the Louisiana Recovery Authority with a prioritized list of infrastructure repair requirements, for which the agency could decide to provide funding using federal money.
Nagin said that details were still not ready, and in a written statement stated that "in the near future" he would present the authority with a plan for the infrastructure of the sewer and water board, the final report of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission that is charged with redesigning the city, and the City Council's neighborhood planning process.
"The near future -- that could be any time," Turner said. "In a perfect world, we should have had some sort of plan by now. He should have started the ball rolling. He's made no tough decisions. The only decision he has made is not to do anything."
"The fact that he didn't conceptualize, a year after the storm, that he needed to explain what was needed in the city to get money, is obscene. It's total incompetence," said K. Lucy Atwood, a Carrollton neighborhood resident and spokeswoman for the wheresnagin.com website.
Many residents expressed frustration that the mayor wasn't more assertive about gutting and demolishing blighted properties. Some described his performance as lackluster and devoid of leadership.
Burns, the political scientist, said that governance of the city was "haphazard, at best" even before Katrina, and that lack of cohesive leadership had continued after the storm.