A New Orleans Native Seeks News of City

Gwendolyn Thompkins, senior editor for Weekend Edition Saturday, is a New Orleans native who was visiting family and friends a week ago. She left ahead of the storm, and now she is struggling to get a fix on what has happened to parts of the city that haven't made it to TV screens.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Gwendolyn Thompkins is a senior editor of this program and a native of New Orleans. She happened to be visiting her hometown last week. She left on Saturday when evacuation was still voluntary. She joins us by telephone from Tallahassee, Florida.

Gwen, hi.

GWENDOLYN THOMPKINS: Hello, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Let me just ask you, first of all, if you're reasonably sure that most of your friends and family are safe.

THOMPKINS: No, I'm not reasonably sure. I mean, I think my family is safe, but I still have some friends and acquaintances who are unaccounted for, and we are still frantically making telephone calls to everyone we can to find out if there's any news.

WERTHEIMER: You know, we're all looking at these pictures of New Orleans taken from the air, you know, and thinking how horrible it looks. But of course, these are neighborhoods that you know.

THOMPKINS: Exactly. New Orleans is a fairly small town. It's always been known as a 20-minute town; you can get from one end to the other in about 20 minutes. And so I can tell you that I know these streets extremely well, but even I am having problems figuring out what I'm looking at. The thing is we're seeing a lot of photographs from downtown. We're seeing a lot of photographs from around the Superdome area and the convention center, some from the French Quarter and from St. Charles. But most New Orleanians don't live in those areas. We live in Gentilly and the Lower 9th Ward and Pontchartrain Park, and we're thirsty for photographs of these areas just to know not only whether our property is all right, which is probably isn't, but also whether our neighbors are all right.

WERTHEIMER: New Orleans has always been a good-time city.

THOMPKINS: Yes.

WERTHEIMER: A very kind of laid-back, easy-going place, and it's shocking--the pictures we're seeing from New Orleans now.

THOMPKINS: It is shocking, and what I like to think of it as--it's an extremely generous town. The let you be whoever you want to be in New Orleans, and it breaks my heart to see such a generous group of people in the position of having to beg for a day's bread.

WERTHEIMER: Another thing that I've always heard about New Orleans is that people don't like to leave it.

THOMPKINS: That's exactly right. It's a multigenerational city, and in fact, if most people who are born there, who live there are given their druthers, they will never leave New Orleans. And so when it comes to a situation like this where you have a natural disaster, whole families got to evacuate at the same time and they may have one relative who lives someplace else. They're opening their doors and seeing 15 and 20 people from New Orleans coming out of one caravan who are looking for a place to live because we don't move.

WERTHEIMER: When you look at all those pictures we've all been looking at, do you think you're going to get it back? New Orleans?

THOMPKINS: Yes. This is a great American city. If you drive through the streets of New Orleans and you look at the street signs--you know, the streets are named after the Nine Muses: Euterpe and Erato and Terpsichore and Thalia and Clio and Melpomene, but, you know, in New Orleans we call it `Melpomine' (pronounced differently), you know. If you look at the Mardi Gras parades, if you look at the Krewes--they're all named after Rex and Bacchus and Endymion and Nirva(ph) and Perseus and Olympia and Atlas and Jupiter and Dionysus, and you start to understand that we rely a great deal on mythology and ancient history to understand where we come from and to understand who we are. And what's happened to us is a tragedy of mythic proportion. But we will live to fight another day, and we simply have to because there's no other place on Earth where we would rather live and there are no other people on Earth who understand us like other New Orleanians understand us. So we have to go on.

WERTHEIMER: Gwendolyn Thompkins. She's the senior editor of this program. She's a native of New Orleans. She spoke to us from Florida.

Well, Gwen, come back to us soon.

THOMPKINS: Thank you.

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