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Katrina And Three Tales Of Endurance

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Over the past five years, NPR News has featured countless people in New Orleans who told stories of calamity and recovery. Today, nearly five years after the epic hurricane, we revisit a clarinetist, a banker and a gospel choir. Their stories have the same moral: What doesn't destroy you makes you stronger.

The Jazz Man

"For me and many thousands of people, Katrina was a death. I lost quite a lot," says Michael White, an acclaimed New Orleans jazz clarinetist.

Clarinetist Michael White

Michael White, shown here in 2006, says "Katrina was a death. I lost quite a lot." Yet earlier this year he released a CD of new songs, Blue Crescent. John Burnett/NPR hide caption

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Five years ago, the Gulf of Mexico rose up, swallowed the city that care forgot, and destroyed one of the nation's great private jazz collections.

Inside White's yellow-brick house in the Gentilly neighborhood were thousands of CDs, LPs and 78s; books, films and photos; original transcriptions and sheet music; and a collection of vintage clarinets, including a mouthpiece once played by the great Sidney Bechet.

And that was just the beginning. White's odyssey took him to Houston and Baton Rouge to care for his elderly mother, who ultimately passed away, he believes, from stress and dislocation.

White did time in a FEMA trailer. Friends died. Now he lives with his 80-year-old aunt, and he doesn't know when he'll have his own house again.

Yet other things were happening musically.

"I realized that's a little bit too much emotion not to put into music. And I just realized that whatever happens in your life can be inspiration for musical ideas and new songs," he says.

Earlier this year, White released a CD of mostly original songs titled Blue Crescent, available from Basin Street Records.

White says in the midst of his grief, new material just bubbled out of him. And it didn't stop there. Though he's a jazz traditionalist, he's been playing with a Cuban group, an avante garde African group, and, yes, even rock 'n' rollers — though he won't say who, yet.

"You know, in a sense, what's happening to me now is nothing short of miraculous," he says. "I have a whole new life and career. I feel like I'm a kid reborn again. And music is more exciting than ever before."

The Banker

Alden McDonald also lost his home and all of his possessions.

He's president and CEO of one of the nation's largest black-owned banks, Liberty Bank. Even more alarming, the bank headquarters went under 8 feet of water. All of the records were destroyed, and backup records were temporarily lost. Six of eight local branches were flooded, and most of his customers' homes suffered heavy damage.

Banker Alden McDonald stands in front of the Liberty Bank safe.

Alden McDonald's Liberty Bank turned a profit the year after Katrina. And it weathered the nation's financial crisis, helped by close ties to other storm survivors. Greg Miles for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Greg Miles for NPR

"I surprised myself, I think my staff surprised themselves, that we made it through one of the worst catastrophes that anyone in business would experience," he reflects today.

In 2010, Liberty Bank is stronger than ever. It turned a profit the year after Katrina. And over the past two years, as other banks succumbed to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, Liberty's assets have grown by nearly a quarter, to $420 million.

Many of his customers have not returned, but they've stayed loyal. Since the storm, the bank has opened branches in Kansas City, Houston and Detroit.

The bank's home turf, New Orleans East, once a thriving area of black middle- and upper-class homes, is a mixed story. Two years ago, McDonald stood with a reporter in his six-story bank headquarters and looked out on a wasteland of abandoned homes and shopping centers.

And today?

"It's a half a wasteland," he says, chuckling.

The bad news: Five years later, there's still no supermarket in New Orleans East.

The encouraging news: Two out of three residents have moved back, and the city recently purchased the boarded-up hospital to rehab and reopen.

"I think the lessons learned for a lot of people here during Katrina was not only life must go on, but where there's obstacles, there's also 'O' for opportunity," McDonald says.

The Choir

The storm may have provided an opportunity to improve race relations in New Orleans, but to read the local headlines, it's been a missed opportunity.

Joe King Jr. and the Shades of Praise choir. i

The 65 black and white members of the Shades of Praise choir (Joe King Jr. sings here in 2006) have helped one another to raise money and find doctors, housing, schools and new churches. Evie Stone/NPR hide caption

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Joe King Jr. and the Shades of Praise choir.

The 65 black and white members of the Shades of Praise choir (Joe King Jr. sings here in 2006) have helped one another to raise money and find doctors, housing, schools and new churches.

Evie Stone/NPR

There was the urban legend that white oligarchs dynamited the levee to flood the black Lower 9th Ward. Then former Mayor Ray Nagin vowed that New Orleans will always be "a chocolate city." Recently, there were charges that white vigilantes hunted black storm refugees in the Algiers neighborhood.

The interracial gospel choir, Shades of Praise, has quietly defied all of that.

The Shades — as they're called — have been a symbol of racial harmony since the group was founded 10 years ago. They sing every year at Jazzfest, and they will be at the city's Katrina commemoration in Jackson Square this Sunday, Aug. 29.

More than half of the Shades members lost their homes or belongings in the floodwaters. Jobs vanished. And their role changed from civic symbol of racial togetherness to a mutual aid society.

"One of the things that I read once that really rang true to me ... and it partly helped me get through the storm, is that hope is something that comes from the relationships that people have with one another," say Shades co-founder Michael Cowan, a theologian and administrator at Loyola University.

The 65 black and white members of Shades relied on those relationships to raise money for each other, and to help one another find doctors, housing, schools and new churches. Cowan believes the choir's micro-experience contains a macro-lesson for society when it comes to color barriers.

"One of the ways that I have come to think about segregation in America is that networking has been limited by skin color," he says. "And in the choir what began to happen was the normal networking that anybody would do when they needed something or wanted something or had something to offer it would just go on except now it was going on across racial lines."

One wonders whether, on the 10th anniversary of the great flood — in 2015 — the painful lessons of Katrina will still be important, or if the city will be back to business as usual?



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