Sailing into New Orleans' Devastation

Noah Adams wraps up his boat trip through the Gulf Coast's Intracoastal Waterway. He begins with a visit to heavily damaged Waveland, Miss., and ends up in the devastation of New Orleans.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

And NPR's Noah Adams has made it to New Orleans. Noah spent this week on a boat, traveling the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway from Florida to Louisiana. He's been checking in on communities devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Noah's final story begins yesterday morning as he's wading up onto the beach in Waveland, Mississippi.

NOAH ADAMS reporting:

There's a cold breeze just here at sunrise, and a bunch of people in cars and trucks on the beach.

(Soundbite of water)

ADAMS: The US Army Corps of Engineer guys, wearing red windbreakers, meet here every day to drink coffee and make a plan. Their job is debris removal, still enormous, and there could be bodies amid the wreckage of homes and lives. John Anderson has come to talk with us. He's with a California company, New Urban Builders, and one of his planning colleagues, Allison Anderson--no relation--she's with a local company called Unabridged Architecture. They're thinking you could rebuild close to the beach. The plan is to make architecturally appropriate homes that are hurricane-resistant. You can't make them hurricane-proof.

Ms. ALLISON ANDERSON (Unabridged Architecture): Nothing can resist Katrina. Nothing can resist a wall of water that comes in. It would be basically a concrete bunker with very few windows.

Mr. JOHN ANDERSON (New Urban Builders): You'd have to move way inland. If the house you'd live maybe your life and your kids' life in and never see a storm was a windowless bunker, you kind of lose the point.

ADAMS: One thought for the small downtown area of Waveland: build the new stores on pilings. Put the retail on the second floor and have what they call a sacrificial first floor open to the water. Waveland is coming back. A yellow school bus passes. Classes started two weeks ago. The Catholic church has a temporary space. Signs all over say: `Waveland, we are staying.'

(Soundbite of boat)

ADAMS: Back on the water, we find the channel and point the bow west toward Louisiana. We're on the boat in the Intracoastal Waterway, which is a narrow passage through this huge Mississippi Sound. You can occasionally see the red and green marking buoys for the waterway. Feels like we're all alone out here. I saw a shrimp boat just a while ago pass. There's another one up ahead. We're headed toward the Ringalese Cut(ph), which will take us into the city of New Orleans. It's about 37 nautical miles to get there, four or five hours away.

It is now clear a trip like this couldn't have been safe just a month ago. There's still debris in the water. Once we run over something that makes a loud bang against the bottom of the boat. And here we are well west along in the cut. The water here has turned sort of brown and murky. Low grasslands around. We can see New Orleans ahead. It's 10 nautical miles away.

It's peaceful this far out. You might be in a skiff with your friends, hunting or fishing. We've traveled 180 nautical miles from Pensacola, Florida, all along the Gulf Coast on the Intracoastal Waterway, behind the barrier islands and crossing big bodies of water. And we're coming into the Industrial Canal. It leads to downtown New Orleans, the tall buildings, the Mississippi River. If you go north, you go to Lake Pontchartrain. This is New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

We turn the boat to the north, facing a final navigational challenge. The bridge coming up has a 50-foot clearance. Our boat is captained by Kathy(ph) and John Strewkin(ph), and Kathy gets on the radio and talks with the operator of another bridge nearby. Here is the problem.

Ms. KATHY STREWKIN: (On radio) We're 53 feet.

Unidentified Man #1: (On radio) Be careful.

ADAMS: `Be careful,' he said, but that's an understatement. The top of their mast is 53 feet above the water. The bridge is 50. It's a lift bridge, and the center span could go up, but the operator seems to be missing.

Ms. STREWKIN: (On radio) When do you think that somebody might be back on that bridge? Over.

Unidentified Man #1: (On radio) No idea, miss, but it might be somebody on. I don't know. Everything ain't got back to normal since the hurricane.

ADAMS: We proceed, slowing and stopping, starting again. It's the actual water level, the tidal level, we're not sure about. But then the antenna on the mast clears by less than a foot, and we're past. We pull up to an empty dock. This is the Industrial Canal, but here close to dark, no one's working. And later, National Guard troops set up checkpoints on the streets nearby.

Unidentified Man #2: (On radio) Each barge is 297 1/2 by 54.

ADAMS: Some radio talk at the Industrial Canal Lock. This morning we went to see the lockmaster. Michael O'Dowd works at the station right where the canal enters the Mississippi. When Katrina came, he went to work and he brought his family to this sturdy old building.

Mr. MICHAEL O'DOWD (Lockmaster, Industrial Canal): I was right up in the office up there. He had put hurricane shutters on there. So we closed the hurricane shutters, and it was windy and, you know, you felt a little vibration, but we rode it out.

ADAMS: Then came the water. Lockmaster O'Dowd could see right from here, across the wall, down into the Lower Ninth Ward.

Mr. O'DOWD: The whole city was flooded, so we was like an island here. It was pretty hectic, you know.

(Soundbite of lock motors)

ADAMS: These are the lock motors, with blackened steel gear wheels, machinery built in 1921. They swing open the lock gates that weigh 250 tons apiece. When the floods came, Michael O'Dowd and his crew that had stayed behind rigged and rewired and wrestled out a way to get the lock gates open so that boats could get up into the Industrial Canal and try to patch the levees.

Mr. O'DOWD: Basically we started passing boats two days after. We was passing rock barges you use to repair that. It was critical. I mean, the only other way they have is you have to go through Baptiste Collette, and you're talking about a hundred miles out of the way. So I mean, this--that was the only reason they need it open.

ADAMS: Lockmaster Michael O'Dowd, talking with us where the Industrial Canal and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway meet the Mississippi River. Things are running smooth now. About 30 vessels a day go through his lock. Noah Adams, NPR News, New Orleans.

NORRIS: Noah has kept a Weblog during his journey along the Gulf Coast. You can read it at our Web site, npr.org.

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