New Vibe In New Orleans 6 Years After Katrina

As Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast in 2005, New Orleans native Gralen Banks stayed behind while his family evacuated. He tells Michel Martin that his family is together now and doing well. He says the city is seeing an influx of people from other parts of the world and is missing its natives.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Over the weekend, Hurricane Irene made a mess along much of the Eastern United States. Although the storm did not, in the end, do as much damage as had been feared, 20 people were killed. And many people are still cleaning up floodwaters and waiting for power to be restored.

AMY DILK (New Jersey Resident): I usually don't mind, and this is the only time the flood ever scared me. It just came up so fast.

MARTIN: That was Amy Dilk in New Jersey, where the governor there, Chris Christie, said he expected billions of dollars in damage. Vermont is facing widespread flooding, and there are reports that at least three historic covered bridges were lost in flash flooding.

DOUG WILLIAMS (Vermont Resident): I think some of the worst of the damage had had nothing to do with wind. It had everything to do with the torrential rains - is up here in Vermont.

MARTIN: That was Vermont resident Doug Williams. But even as the East Coast begins to recover from Irene, we are reminded that today is the sixth anniversary of the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. In 2005, that storm tore through the Gulf region, completely devastating parts of Louisiana and Mississippi, especially after the levees were overwhelmed. Throughout the program, we will be checking back in with people whose lives were dramatically affected by the storm.

Our first guest is Gralen Banks. He is a fourth-generation New Orleanian. He stayed behind working during the hurricane while his family evacuated. We've spoken with him many times over the course of the last few years. We first caught up with him when he was living in a FEMA-issued trailer. He's now settled in a new house not too far from his original home in the 13th Ward, and he's with us now from New Orleans. Gralen Banks, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

GRALEN BANKS (New Orleans Resident): Once again, Michel, it is my pleasure. How are you? And listen, before we do anything else, thank you for having me. And what I'd like to do is please offer you condolences on the loss of your brother. It's been a while since we've talked, but I knew about that. And I just wanted to tell you we lifted you all up in prayer, and we still do.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. I appreciate that. And as you - we've mentioned, you've had your ups and downs over the last six years since the storm. And, you know, one of the ups being, you know, the Saints winning the Super Bowl, which was an up. But there were some downs, too.

BANKS: Ah, yes.

MARTIN: You were far longer in that FEMA-issued trailer than you had hoped to be. When you think about things six years later, how do you think you and your family are doing?

BANKS: I think my family and I are doing well. It's a blessing, and we are still together. You know, it's not easy. To choose to wake up in this city every morning is just that, Michel. And we do it because we love it, but not for one minute is it easy. You hit the nail on the head when you say it's been a mixed bag. Ups and downs, highs and lows but, you know, we're not going anywhere. And thank God we still have our good health and for the most part, a good state of mind. And we're just going to keep putting one foot in front of the other until we get back to where we need to be.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of getting back to where you need to be, New Orleans right after Katrina, according to the Census Bureau, New Orleans lost about 29 percent of its population. Now, the census figures have counted about a net loss of about 150,000 people. That's just over 10 percent of the pre-Katrina population. Does it feel that way, I mean, to you? Does the city feel like it's still emptied out? Have most of your neighbors come back - half, some? What does it feel like?

BANKS: Some have come back, but that's a very good question because the feel of the city is different because the thing that has happened is, we've got an influx of population from other parts of the country, other parts of the world who want to come down to New Orleans and make a difference. But what we are missing are native New Orleanians - folks who were forced out with the breech of the levees and Katrina itself and for various and sundry reasons, have not been able to make it back. And while we do appreciate the other folks who are coming, there's a flavor that comes to the city, that only comes from folks who know it and love it as natives do.

So there's a change. It's the new New Orleans and has been since the flood because you know what I said a long time ago: The first casualty of Katrina and the floods was normal. And this is the new New Orleans, and it is different. It's not a palpable difference. But for those of us who are natives of this city and love it, there is a marked difference in the vibe.

MARTIN: Well, if you and I were to get back together six years from now - and I hope we will - what do you think we'll be talking about? Do you still we'll be talking about Katrina?

BANKS: Oh, absolutely. And I think they're inextricable now. It's almost like trying to talk about New Orleans without mentioning either Bourbon Street or Mardi Gras. And right now, it's - Katrina's a part of our history, and she was the turning point. She was the 21st century turning point. She changed the city in its entirety. And I know that that change is ongoing. It is not close to being what it's going to be. And I think the more time that we get, the more that change is going to be seen and felt and evidenced around the city.

MARTIN: Gralen Banks is a fourth-generation New Orleanian. He stayed in the city throughout Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath. And we've checked in with him as often as we can, to hear how things are going. He was with us once again from New Orleans. Gralen Banks, thanks so much for joining us, and thank you for your good wishes to me as well.

BANKS: Absolutely, Michel. And once again, it's a pleasure. Who dat? Once again, we'll see you at the Super Bowl.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: All right.

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