The Gulf Coast, Four Years After Katrina
NEAL CONAN, host:
Four years ago today, residents of the Gulf Coast anxiously watched the progress of Hurricane Katrina and prepared as best they could. Two days later, the storm roared ashore to create one of the worst disasters in American history. Nearly 2,000 died, many thousands more were left homeless and Katrina changed the lives of millions in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The worst of the damage was in New Orleans, where reconstruction continues. Many displaced by the storm returned to rebuild their lives, but a lot of people remain scattered across the country.
How did Katrina change your life? How are you doing now? 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Joining us now from New Orleans is Jim Amoss, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and editor of The Times-Picayune. And it's nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.
Mr. JIM AMOSS (Editor, The Times-Picayune): Great to be here. Thank you.
CONAN: And we read in the Washington Post today that employment in New Orleans is strong, foreclosures and bankruptcies are relatively low. It sounds like the economy of the city, at least on paper, is thriving.
Mr. AMOSS: Well, somewhat - we've been somewhat insulated from the national recession by the amount of capital projects that are going forward in New Orleans. There's a tremendous amount of road-building -one giant bridge that was destroyed by Katrina being reconstructed. And all that has increased employment. Of course, long-term, the prospects may be different.
CONAN: And - does that mean that there are still not scenes of devastation in the Lower Ninth Ward and elsewhere?
Mr. AMOSS: Oh, there certainly are. I mean, anytime a city loses 25 percent of its population as we have, the scars remain visible. The Lower Ninth Ward that you mentioned, but also big parts of eastern New Orleans and Gentilly, which is another large neighborhood, are barely inhabited. They are just very spottily coming back.
CONAN: And there are, of course, scars you can't see?
Mr. AMOSS: There are all sorts of psychological scars that you can't see. And both in New Orleans and among people who are - who were displaced from New Orleans would dearly love to come back but simply can't for a variety of reasons.
CONAN: However, there was a time when people questioned the future of the city and a lot of things have happened that seem to be positive among other things. The school system got a chance to almost start from square one.
Mr. AMOSS: The school system - the public school system, which was, I don't mind saying, an abomination, has been reinvented. A large number of charter schools that are working well - much greater parental involvement. In addition to that, you know, it's undeniable that federal government has poured a lot of money into this city, more than $14 billion alone for levee work and storm protection. And just the outpouring of volunteer effort on the part of ordinary Americans around the country has been extraordinary and continues to this day.
CONAN: How safe are those levees now? Obviously, we're in the middle of hurricane season.
Mr. AMOSS: They are safer than when Katrina struck in 2005. We have giant floodgates at the mouths of the drainage canals, which were really the channels through which the city was flooded. And by the year 2012, we will have so-called a hundred-year storm protection, which means that protection from a hurricane that has a one percent chance of occurring in any given year. On the other hand, that's kind of a misleading figure when you consider that since 1965, we've had four 100-year storms. So, you don't have to wait a century for these things to come around.
CONAN: And I suppose everybody watches the weather forecast with great attention.
Mr. AMOSS: Yes. We literally are quaking in our boots between roughly August 20th and the end of September, that's the intense season when we're most vulnerable, when the Gulf of Mexico is at its warmest, and so fosters hurricanes. And as soon as anything resembling low pressure gathers off the coast of Africa, you can bet that every South Louisianan and every New Orleanian is following it, is looking at the newspaper and seeing how it'll develop.
CONAN: We're talking with Jim Amoss, the editor of Times-Picayune. 800-989-8255, email us email@example.com, how are you doing after Hurricane Katrina?
Let's start with Jenny(ph). Jenny with us from San Antonio.
JENNY (Caller): Hi. I was in graduate school at Tulane during Hurricane Katrina. And I had been planning to finish my graduate degree and leave the city after I finished my graduate program. But the hurricane made me fall in love with my neighbors in New Orleans in a way that I don't think I would have if I hadn't seen the destruction. And I ended up staying in New Orleans. And I just moved away a few months ago to continue graduate school in San Antonio. But I think I'll always love New Orleans, and it will always have a special place for me because I couldn't abandon it after the hurricane when it was in such need.
CONAN: And after you graduate, Jenny, might you consider moving back?
JENNY: I don't know. My husband and I talk about that all the time.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Did you meet him in New Orleans?
JENNY: No. We were married beforehand. My husband was a high school teacher in St. Bernard Parish, and we lived in the Bywater. Our neighborhood didn't flood but my husband's school was completely destroyed, so…
CONAN: And what specifically did your neighbors do that made you so - regard them with such affection?
JENNY: Everybody looked out for everybody else. I think that there wasn't - everyone on our block, we all of sudden all knew each other. And we knew if there was a fire - there were a lot of fires in our neighborhood after the hurricane. And if there was a fire going on, neighbors would come around and knock on the door and, you know, let you know. And if - police protection was spotty, so everybody was out for each other in a way that I've never experienced anywhere else I lived. And I think it was - partially New Orleans, but partially the disaster that helped people pull together.
CONAN: Oh, well, good luck to you, Jenny. Thanks very much for the phone call.
JENNY: Thank you.
CONAN: And Jim Amoss, well, certainly there are stories like that. There are stories that have less happy endings too.
Mr. AMOSS: There are, but what Jenny says were absolutely true. It's a community that's drawn together in a much stronger way than before. And one of the silver linings of the post-storm era is how many people, like Jenny, have stayed here or have come here, volunteered and then stayed. There's a huge influx of professional people and of artists especially in the neighborhood that she mentioned having lived in.
CONAN: Let's go next to Roy. Roy, calling from Salt Lake City.
ROY (Caller): Hey. How it's going, Neal?
CONAN: Pretty good.
ROY: Oh, it's great day to hear somebody talking about this. I actually survived Katrina. Me and my wife and my - then he was - he wasn't born yet, my son Darius(ph). I now live in Salt Lake City, Utah. And, you know, before Katrina, I was - I thought that I had finally found my perfect job at Paramount. And I just thought that I was, you know, on a perfect spot in a perfect place with a perfect music and the perfect food.
(Soundbite of laughter)
But now, I live in Salt Lake City, Utah, and we have actually started a company called Gorilla Design. We do storm-proof, solar and wind-powered housing. And we wouldn't have done that if Katrina hadn't profoundly changed our lives.
CONAN: It sounds like it's almost a direct follow on from Katrina.
ROY: Oh, definitely. You know, You know, so many of our friends and, you know, family were just scattered all over the place. And I saw that they're, you know, they were putting in the FEMA trailers that weren't so strong. And so, we thought, wow, you know, the thing to put there would be houses that were, you know, storm proof.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Thanks very much, and good luck to you, Roy.
ROY: Well, thank you very much. You have a good one, Neal.
CONAN: Bye-bye. FEMA trailers, we're told, Jim Amoss, almost gone.
Mr. AMOSS: You don't see much evidence of them. There is a tremendous amount of subsidized housing and public housing being built in New Orleans right now. And by the time it's finished in 2012, it will exceed the number of units that we had pre-Katrina, and that on a somewhat smaller population-based. The big struggle is people who want to come back and who cannot afford - who formerly had their own house and simply cannot afford, on the basis of what they're getting from insurance company and federal government, to rebuild.
CONAN: And some of the houses, we're told, also being constructed rather more securely and rather higher up.
Mr. AMOSS: You see some amazing structures in this town nowadays. I mean, people who choose to build their houses on 15-foot tiers in the middle of what otherwise looks like a normal neighborhood. And I supposed that's an abundance of caution although I, myself, am satisfied with the 3-foot tiers that my house rests on.
CONAN: Let's talk with Bruce. Bruce, with us from Kansas City.
BRUCE (Caller): Hi, there. Thank you so much for taking my call.
BRUCE: I am in Kansas at the university, and a psychologist. And I have the producer, when I described what my situation was, called it the diaspora, the people who have moved out of New Orleans, from the area. And I was wondering if your guest can comment on how it appears that the, you know, the crisis, the tragedies that have happened there affected people individually, if it's really made a difference. My observation of the people I've seen here is that it's just kind of magnifies who people are as there were people who would go out and be confident and strong and, you know, rescuer-types. They would rescue people, and it's just kind of magnified who they are. And these - there were people who were scared and afraid, it would magnify that. But I'm very interested in what the experience is, actually there.
CONAN: Jim Amoss, what do you think?
Mr. AMOSS: I agree. Absolutely. And it also - it magnified people's fragility. If people were troubled before this storm - I saw many cases, including in my own newsroom, people just falling apart because it just added enormous stresses to their - both their professional and their personal life. And on the other hand, some people emerged as heroes that you just hadn't noticed or that were unlikely candidates.
Yes, it did have that effect of just enlarging both the positive and negative qualities that people have.
BRUCE: And that's what literature says generally about crisis, it's a tragic but really clear illustration of that.
CONAN: Bruce, thanks very much.
BRUCE: My pleasure. Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with Jim Amoss, editor of the Times-Picayune, a Pulitzer Prize winner. And he's with us from the studio of Audio Works in New Orleans, four years ago today, Katrina was gathering.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And Jim Amoss, let me ask you about the newspaper itself. We read about the struggles of so many newspapers across the country dealing with fewer readers and less advertising revenue. How is the Times-Picayune doing?
Mr. AMOSS: Well, we're blessed with a very loyal readership. It's a good print town. And it's tremendously newsy place, so there's never any lack of great stories to report on. And the paper, if I say so myself, produces great results for its advertisers which is an important ingredient for a publication.
You know, we are afloat in the same economy as everybody else, and newspapers are always good barometers of the economy. And I think when it comes back, we'll have to see how newspapers in general fair.
But we are - if you're going to any coffee shop in New Orleans on any given morning, you'll see, you know, at 80 percent of the tables, people reading us.
CONAN: That's a good sign. Yeah.
Mr. AMOSS: Yeah, that's, (unintelligible) for a bright future.
CONAN: Let's talk with…
Mr. AMOSS: A viable one.
CONAN: …Harry. Harry is with us from Pelzer in South Carolina.
HARRY (Caller): Hi. How are you? Katrina really changed my life a lot because I ended up volunteering for the Red Cross, spending what I thought would be three weeks. They ended up getting me into the headquarters in Baton Rouge, putting me as a manager of the whole hotel system. I got deep into New Orleans and really saw that effects.
What really changed me is, when I left, I got this whole service aspect into my life. And now I'm a director of a nonprofit that I've started for the town of Pelzer, South Carolina, a small mill town. And we're doing the same thing, restoring the town, feeding people, getting the buildings back up and going. So it really effected me and it really got me to really change my outlook on life.
CONAN: Am I reading too much into this, Harry, to say in Katrina you found your calling?
HARRY: In Katrina I found my calling. I found my calling for service. To take that business mind that I had - I used to have a restaurant in New York City, and I've had the business side - but it took that and said -put it into a service aspect where I wanted to take that same energy and help people, 'cause it felt, I mean, you know, we work 17 hours a day, seven days a week. And every single morning when we woke up to go to work, instead of saying another day, another dollar, it was another day, another thousand lives saved. And that energy took us through 17 hours with not even a problem.
CONAN: Harry, thanks very much, and continued good luck to you.
HARRY: God bless you. Thank you, guys.
CONAN: Bye-bye. A lot of people have Harry's experience.
Mr. AMOSS: Indeed. It seems like kind of a cold thing, detached thing to say, that a tragedy that killed in this state alone 1,400 people had silver linings.
But we visited several world disaster areas as reporters in the months after Katrina: Kobe, Japan, the Netherlands for their 50th(ph) floods. And one of the refrains we kept hearing was that your recovery will come - to be sure, you'll need government help for the mega project - but your recovery will largely be fueled by the grassroots, by ordinary people in their neighborhoods and by volunteers coming in. And that was born out by experience.
CONAN: Let's go to Rachel. Rachel, with us from Grand Rapids in Michigan.
RACHEL (Caller): Hey, Neal. I have a quick love story to share with you.
CONAN: I think we've got time to hear that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
RACHEL: The winds of Hurricane Katrina actually brought love right into my life. I work at an integrated medical clinic at a local hospital. And at that time, in September, we needed to hire an acupuncturist. And one of my colleagues thought that maybe someone have lost their clinic in New Orleans. So they contacted this gentleman, brought him here, interviewed him, and eventually offered him the position to be a staff acupuncturist at our hospital. And it was probably, maybe a year and a month later, we were engaged and we are now looking to get married. So…
CONAN: Well, congratulations, Rachel.
(Soundbite of laughter)
RACHEL: Thank you. It was a wonderful love story. And it just shows how you may set off in one course but, you know, your heart is going to lead you in the right direction eventually.
CONAN: Well, there's a little bit of kismet there from Katrina.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Rachel. Appreciate it.
RACHEL: Thanks, and I love your show.
CONAN: Thank you. And let's thank Jim Amoss for his time today. Jim Amoss is the editor of the Times-Picayune. And no doubt, planning the fourth anniversary edition?
Mr. AMOSS: We've been publishing anniversary pieces all week and will continue to.
CONAN: Jim Amoss joined us from New Orleans.
Tomorrow, Paul Raeburn will be here as guest host on SCIENCE FRIDAY. He'll talk about whether boiling, roasting and grilling our food may have given humans an evolutionary edge. Plus, how a testosterone may affect some women's career choices. That's all tomorrow on TALK OF NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. We'll talk to you again on Monday. Have a great weekend everybody.
This is Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.