Documentary Marks Five Years Since Deadly Hurricane

Next week marks the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which claimed over 1,000 gulf coast residents. Host Michel Martin talks to CNN Special Correspondent Soledad O'Brien about her new post-Katrina documentary "New Orleans Rising," which airs on CNN Saturday.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Next Sunday marks five years since Hurricane Katrina made landfall as a category 5 hurricane. At least 1,800 people died from the effects of the storm and the lives of so many more were drastically changed. CNN special correspondent Soledad O'Brien covered Katrina. She's covered the aftermath and she was just back to report on one community with a long historic tie to New Orleans.

Pontchartrain Park, a middle class black community was one of the hardest hit by Katrina. And Soledad O'Brien documented its journey in a documentary titled, "New Orleans Rising." And Soledad joins us now from CNN New York. Soledad, thanks so much for joining us once again.

Ms. SOLEDAD O'BRIEN (Journalist, CNN): It's always my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So why did you decide to focus on this particular community?

Ms. O'BRIEN: We looked at a lot of communities and the question we were trying to answer was, so how's New Orleans now? Because that's what I'm asked all the time pretty much wherever I go. And what I liked about the focus on Pontchartrain Park was its history. Pontchartrain Park was the first place that African-Americans could buy a home in the 1950s. So it has this amazing history.

And it also has this amazing hero, Wendell Pierce, the actor. You know him from "The Wire" and "Treme," who became this kind of accidental developer when he stepped forward to help people who wanted to return like his parents and like other elderly people in the community. He stepped forward to kind of coalesce all this energy around, can we do it? Because even though, as you point out, and we point out in the documentary, still, a third of the people, only a third of the people had returned. So it's a real struggle for a community that should be one of the best situated to return financially and otherwise.

MARTIN: Well, I want to hear a little bit more about why it's been so difficult. But first, I want to just play a short clip from the documentary from one of the interviews you did with Wendell Pierce. I must say, a lot of people know that he's a New Orleans native, but I don't think I knew until I saw your film just what an active role he has been playing in the reconstruction of that area. Let's just play a short clip. Here it is.

(Soundbite of documentary, "New Orleans Rising")

Mr. WENDELL PIERCE (Actor): Pontchartrain Park is a labor of love. It is my community. It is my home and I would do every and anything to make sure it's restored.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PIERCE: I need to rebuild because we are a family and nothing counts so much as family.

MARTIN: But as you point out in the documentary, not everybody is as excited about rebuilding and moving back as Wendell Pierce is. Here is an interview you did with the wife of one of Wendell's childhood friends, Lisa Oubre.

(Soundbite of documentary, "New Orleans Rising")

Ms. LISA OUBRE: If I were to go and look at Wendell's wonderful new home, it's almost like a home that's now been built over, you know, a battlefield. That's what it feels like. You know that something so bad has happened here and you have this wonderful home that's now built over all of this sadness and so much pain and loss. I can't reconcile the two.

MARTIN: Is that a common feeling?

Ms. O'BRIEN: I know so many people like Lisa Oubre. It's terrible. Maybe they're not fighting with their spouse about moving back. Maybe it's a mother/daughter, maybe it's siblings who say, you know, one person says, I just can't do it. I just cannot bring myself Lisa Oubre has moved on. She moved to Baton Rouge, moved in with family members in kind of a makeshift situation, lots of people living in one house. But she's a manager at the Home Depot.

You know, she's moved her life on. And she says, you know, the way I can heal is to get my life on track, in a new direction. The way that her husband, Herbie Oubre, moves on, is to try to figure out how to rebuild in Pontchartrain Park. And those are, obviously, two trains going two opposite directions. It's so sad, because when you sit down and talk to them, they clearly like each other and love each other, but this issue is ripping them apart.

And I cannot tell you the number of people I know who will say, you know, my parents called and say, should I move back? And I have to say, I don't know. I don't know. You should. Maybe you shouldn't. That, to me, was sort of a very consistent theme in whatever neighborhood you were from in New Orleans.

MARTIN: And to that point, though, there has been a discrepancy between the pace at which other communities have rebuilt in this historically black community. And as you point out, this is a community that is 93 percent homeowners. Why is it that this community, which was almost as hard hit as Ward 9, but hasn't seen as much support and doesn't seem to be able to rally as quickly were you able to figure that out?

Ms. O'BRIEN: That was our question. You know, and my question was, so is this race, or is this something else? And it turns out the answer is more something else. Pontchartrain Park is a community of elderly people. And that, at its core, was the problem. People who were in their 80s, some of them just couldn't really take moving back. So what Wendell's trying to do is to say, great, let's renovate these homes and move younger people into Pontchartrain Park. It should not fall to the hands of developers.

But as Wendell Pierce likes to say, not everyone has your best interests at heart. And I say, well, what does that mean? Are you saying it's racism? Are you saying it's discrimination? Are you saying - what? And I think that he felt, as he went through this process, that they were the people who had their own best interests at heart, so the community was going to buy up the homes and create a system in which they could bring people back, keep the profit, plow it back into the community, make a senior citizen's home and save themselves.

MARTIN: Final question is a tough one. This is five years after Katrina. If you and I come back five years from now, what do you think we'll see?

Ms. O'BRIEN: Much better. I think it's a 10-year rebuilding program. So many people have said that to me. I think you've seen tons of progress, 80 some-odd percent, maybe 83 percent of the city's back. And some pockets are really slow. But, for me, what is an indication of the good news is that people are fighting to do it. I mean, they've sort of given up on it's going to happen quickly and someone's going to come in, that someone from somewhere is going to come in and save us.

I think just as in the immediate aftermath of the storm, there's no someone coming to save you. So, get yourself together and save yourselves. And that's what Wendell, more than anything, is marketing. He says you know, the Pontchartrain Park Community Development Corporation ourselves, are saving ourselves. And this can be a model for anyone who's in New Orleans or outside of New Orleans. Save yourselves. This is how to do it. That's really the message he wants to give.

MARTIN: Soledad O'Brien is a CNN special correspondent. Her latest documentary, "New Orleans Rising," premieres tomorrow on CNN. And Soledad, we're also looking forward to your forthcoming memoir, which will be out later this fall. So...

Ms. O'BRIEN: Memoir sounds old, doesn't it? Don't you have to be, like, 90 to write a memoir? I consider it just a book.

MARTIN: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Your latest book...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...we'll look forward to that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Soledad joined us from New York. Thanks, Soledad.

Ms. O'BRIEN: My pleasure.

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