Surviving The Storm: Voices From Katrina

Hurricane Katrina blitzed the Gulf Coast four years ago Saturday. Ever since then, researchers from the University of Southern Mississippi have been collecting the stories of those who survived the storm — and its aftermath.

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GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Four years ago, and as Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on the Gulf Coast, here's what listeners heard on this program.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Can you tell me what you noticed as you were evacuating New Orleans today? Were people heeding the advice? Were they able to get away?

Senator MARY LANDRIEU (Democrat, Louisiana): Yes Debbie, people were. The roads are very crowded. What I noticed is how beautiful the weather is. It really is surreal. It is gorgeous; it's sunny; and it is hard to believe that literally 24 hours from now, I mean, it will be anything but what I just described.

RAZ: That's Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana talking with Debbie Elliott who'd just become the new host of this show. Debbie had moved to Washington from the Gulf Coast to become the host and today she's back in Alabama as NPR's southern correspondent and she's with us now.

Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Hello, Guy.

RAZ: Well what was that day like for you?

ELLIOTT: You know, it was very interesting knowing that this was a huge storm coming about to affect a region that I'd been covering for decades and that I wasn't there. It was awkward not to be, you know, in the region covering, but at the same time I felt like it was important for me to be on the air for NPR listeners, you know, as host of the show knowing who to talk to and what was about to happen.

RAZ: Debbie, you've been working on several Katrina anniversary stories.

ELLIOTT: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: And for us, for this show, you traveled to Mississippi.

ELLIOTT: I did. I spent some time on the Mississippi Gulf Coast less than two weeks ago with some researchers at the University of Southern Mississippi. They have spent the last four years documenting people's stories. You know, when a hurricane comes, every survivor has their own tale describing what they went through and what it's been like ever since the storm.

And I spent a day with Linda Van Zandt, she's a researcher. And she talked to me about right after Hurricane Katrina, about three weeks after; she went down to Biloxi to the Back Bay area and started walking along the, what was left of the fishing docks there looking for people to talk to.

Ms. LINDA VAN ZANDT (Managing editor, Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage; University of Southern Mississippi): You know, I just walk along and just kind of start talking to the fisherman and they would be working on their boat. They'd be hammering and working hard and throwing back their nets and they were out there shrimping.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELLIOTT: Van Zandt is the managing editor of the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage at the University of Southern Mississippi. She's back on the docks four years later as a light rain falls on the moored shrimp boats. She recalls that early quest to find hurricane survivors willing to share their experiences.

Ms. VAN ZANDT: And just catching anyone's attention that I could. And I found that people were really very eager to tell their story.

The date is September 21, 2005 and I'm here with Tom and his wife and...

ELLIOTT: At first, she says, there were stories of heroism.

Ms. VAN ZANDT: It was frantic, almost. Yeah, I was saving my daughter from the room. You know, she couldn't swim. She was eight months pregnant. You know, I found this trampoline pad, I'm thinking of Tong Nguyen, a fisherman. You know, I found this trampoline pad, and I roped it together, and I put it around her waste and I, you know, carried her across this road to this boat that happened to wash up and look what I did? I saved my family.

ELLIOTT: Vietnamese shrimper Tong Nguyen and his family were the first people Van Zandt interviewed. They were living in their car and sat outside on a cardboard box to speak in the chaotic aftermath of the storm, helicopters and tanks passing by.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

ELLIOTT: Van Zandt has revisited the family several times since when they lived in a FEMA trailer and most recently, in their new Katrina cottage, the shotgun-style modular home provided by the State of Mississippi.

(Soundbite of dog)

She's welcomed by Tong and Chien Nguyen and the daughter he saved, Kim Uyen(ph) who now has two young children.

Ms. KIM UYEN: Come on Katie(ph). Let's go inside.

Ms. VAN ZANDT: Is this the baby?

Ms. UYEN: Yeah, that's Katie, my daughter.

Ms. KAYLA UYEN: Yeah?

Ms. VAN ZANDT: Hey, is that your little scooper on here?

ELLIOTT: They sit down at the kitchen table. Kim translated.

Ms. VAN ZANDT: Well, Tong, how has your life changed since the hurricane?

Mr. NGUYEN: (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. UYEN: He say, it's better.

Mr. NGUYEN: (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. UYEN: Because it's a start over. I guess what my dad's trying tell is that he doesn't take a lot of things for granted. You have to almost lose everything to realize what's really of value.

ELLIOTT: The experience also provided a revelation for Kim Uyen.

Ms. UYEN: Took that day to realize that my dad loves me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. UYEN: Because in our Asian culture, you ask anybody, a lot of them will tell you their parents aren't very intimate with their children. So my dad always, he only say what he needs to as I was growing up. So, but that day I really - it made me see that (unintelligible) you don't need words to show that you love (unintelligible). That day, he love me and I can tell.

ELLIOTT: The Oral History Project presents participants with both a recording and a bound transcript of their stories. Back at the docks, Van Zandt says she thinks it helps storm victims move on.

Ms. VAN ZANDT: It was such a good sort of therapy for them to tell their story and to be listened to, to sit knee-to-knee and in a time when they felt like they had no control over their lives and not much power at all in the situation. It was a way to empower them.

ELLIOTT: As she has followed people in the four years since the storm, van Zandt has noticed distinct stages of dealing with the trauma. Early on, she says, you can hear the jubilation of survival. Here's Barry Jones(ph) of Gulfport, Mississippi a few weeks after the storm. He's describing how he clung to the top of a tree after Hurricane Katrina's 30 foot storm surge washed him away and stripped him of everything, even his dentures.

Mr. BARRY JONES: I started praying. I said, God, this is funny. I said, Lord, don't let me die naked and no teeth. And then, yeah, I thought about it. I said, wait a minute, I came in the world that way. I just thank God (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JONES: And right after that, I am not lying, the Whitecaps quit and they swelled(ph). I said, oh God, I made it. I'm going to make it. I'm going to live. I know I'm going to live now.

ELLIOTT: Then van Zandt says the frustration and despair of dealing with the recovery sets in. In an interview last year, Biloxi City Councilman Bill Stallworth struggled to recount the first dark days after Katrina.

Councilman BILL STALLWORTH (Democrat, Mississippi): It takes me back and to the utter helplessness of the situation.

ELLIOTT: In the days leading up to the hurricane, he drove through his district begging residents to evacuate. Here, he describes walking those same streets after the storm had passed.

Councilman STALLWORTH: Seeing the bodies of people who, you know, you just saw the day before that just, you know, you tried to get them out and you look at them and you knew they didn't make it. People saying, well, you know, councilman, there's a body over here. What are we going to do? How are we going to get food? What are we going do? And I got to somebody who had a cell phone that was working and I remember calling my brother, Jeff. Brother, we need to have some help. There was nothing, no food, no water and we needed some help.

ELLIOTT: But Stallworth also found what Linda Van Zandt calls a renewed spirit that some hurricane survivors seem to experience. Seeing volunteers flock to the Coast helped Stallworth overcome his cynicism about human nature.

Councilman STALLWORTH: They came in and did some of the stinkiest, messiest, dirtiest jobs. I mean, everything from pulling out bodies, getting immersed, digging out people's mud, pushing mud out the houses, ripping out old stinky sheet and rotten furniture, foulness. And they would come in and do it with such a willing heart. I couldn't believe it and I still can't. It was just nice to know people cared.

ELLIOTT: As hard as it has been to relive such harrowing times, researchers have found that people are eager to participate in the oral history.

Mayor TOMMY LONGO (Democrat, Mississippi): What we have been through needs to be documented and what our community has gone through and endured.

ELLIOTT: That's Mayor Tommy Longo of Waveland, Mississippi which was right in the eye of the storm. Longo has given two lengthy interviews amid the grueling effort to rebuild, one from a makeshift City Hall about two weeks ago describing Waveland today.

Mayor LONGO: It's a different place than it was. I mean, it is just, you know, we're in temporary facilities, you know? And it's been a tough almost four years. We lived outdoors for a long time and we lived in Quonset huts, then we lived in FEMA trailers. And then, if you were fortunate enough, you lived in a Katrina cottage. I mean, that four years is almost like a blur.

ELLIOTT: He's hopeful the Oral History Project will serve as a living laboratory of how you start over after such a catastrophic event. The University of Southern Mississippi has collected more than 400 interviews since Hurricane Katrina, each of them a lesson in survival and revival.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News.

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