Katrina Update: Staying Put in the 9th Ward

Officials continue to pump floodwater out of New Orleans, but much of the city's poorest neighborhood, the 9th Ward, remains underwater. Madeleine Brand talks with Washington Post reporter Manuel Roig-Franzia about the people who are so far ignoring the mayor's order to evacuate, choosing instead to stay put.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Coming up, why some people in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, aren't too thrilled with the evacuees from New Orleans seeking shelter there.

But first, we go to New Orleans itself, where the police chief said today his officers are still carrying out voluntary evacuations of the city's residents. He says when those voluntary evacuations end, his officers will go house to house to force people to leave. With us now is The Washington Post's Manuel Roig-Franzia. He's been reporting from New Orleans over the past week. Recently he was in the city's 9th Ward. That took the brunt of the flooding.

And welcome to the program.

Mr. MANUEL ROIG-FRANZIA (The Washington Post): Happy to be here.

BRAND: So the 9th Ward is the city's poorest. Did it also suffer the most from the flooding?

Mr. ROIG-FRANZIA: It did. The water is up to the store tops in some areas, and what's most heart-wrenching is the people who are still there--afraid to leave.

BRAND: Afraid to leave why?

Mr. ROIG-FRANZIA: Afraid to leave because their homes will be left unattended, because the few things that survived could be taken away by looters, they suspect. But also there's just a general sense of mistrust and suspicion of authority in neighborhoods like that in New Orleans, which have had a sense of isolation for a long time, geographical and cultural.

BRAND: Now the people who are staying behind--how are they surviving? Are they sitting in rooms full of water and how are they getting food?

Mr. ROIG-FRANZIA: It depends on the circumstances of the individuals involved. Some have provisioned themselves well through what some people would call looting, what other people would call simple survival tactic, going into grocery stores and taking what they can get. Others are getting food and water from the authorities: Navy officers going through and handing out MREs and water. They're stockpiling those as much as they can. At some point they fear that the authorities will stop handing out those MREs and stop handing out that water. And at that point, they're going to have a very difficult decision to make.

BRAND: And the city won't be functioning for months. How do they hope to survive in the coming months?

Mr. ROIG-FRANZIA: I don't think a long-term perspective is in the heads of a lot of people right now in places like the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans and other parts that suffered the most here. These people are living day to day.

BRAND: There are now hundreds, thousands of armed officers patrolling the streets. What is the relationship like between them and the residents?

Mr. ROIG-FRANZIA: What I've witnessed and what I've encountered has been a mostly gentle, cordial relationship between the police officers, the Navy, the Coast Guard, the individuals who are walking around the streets and providing food and water to the holdouts, as you might call them. In some respects they're trying to be gentle persuaders. I listened to a Navy officer spend a great deal of time trying to explain the potential for biohazards to one man who is in the Lower 9th Ward and the conversation never reached a confrontational boiling point. At some point, many people fear that those conversations which have been proceeding in a cordial manner could get rougher.

BRAND: Can you describe one scene that has stuck with you?

Mr. ROIG-FRANZIA: I clearly remember--and I don't think I will ever forget--opening a door in the Lower 9th Ward at a home that I had been told a woman was staying, and the overpowering stench that came out of that house--the mildew, the mustiness, the rotting couches and chairs. And seeing that woman sitting inside that house, and then talking to her afterwards about how she had chosen that environment over what she had encountered at the Louisiana Superdome, which was supposed to have been a place of refuge, a sanctuary, and turned out to be a place that was as vile and as fetid as the neighborhood that she had fled. It's jarring, and it hits you right in the stomach.

BRAND: Manuel Roig-Franzia of The Washington Post, speaking to us today from New Orleans. Thank you very much.

Mr. ROIG-FRANZIA: My pleasure, Madeleine.

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