Katrina & Beyond

Critical Issues Remain in Limbo in New Orleans

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Steve Inskeep talks to author John Barry, who lives in New Orleans, about how things are going in his hometown since Hurricane Katrina. An increase in funding for the city's levee system is a big step, says Barry, but long-term issues still need to be addressed.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

This morning, we have the first in a series of status reports. Over the coming days, we're going to check in on the way that some major stories of the past year are changing. And we start with the devastation of the Gulf Coast. John Barry is a writer who's based in New Orleans. His previous books include "Rising Tide," which explored the devastating Mississippi River flood of 1927. And he's in our studios.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. JOHN BARRY (Author, "Rising Tide"): Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: It's just been a short time since President Bush announced that he would dramatically increase funding for restoring the levee system around New Orleans, which is something that a lot of people have been waiting for.

Mr. BARRY: Well, I think that was an important step, but it was only a step. And what that money will do actually is only bring the levee system up to what it was supposed to be before Katrina. They don't fully address the long-term issues, protecting the eroding coastlines. New Orleans is not naturally as vulnerable or shouldn't--wasn't naturally as vulnerable as it has become. And the chief reason for that is the erosion of hundreds and hundreds of square miles of land that used to stand between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. And that land can be restored.

INSKEEP: Does the federal commitment of billions of dollars for levee restoration do anything so far for restoring wetlands outside of New Orleans?

Mr. BARRY: Well, there's a tiny bit, but it has yet to address the major problem.

INSKEEP: Now you have not permanently relocated to New Orleans again. You have gone back...

Mr. BARRY: Back and forth.

INSKEEP: ...and talked to friends and relatives.

Mr. BARRY: I'll be back in a few weeks permanently.

INSKEEP: What are your friends and neighbors saying? Have your friends and neighbors heard enough from the government to feel confident that they can invest in repairing their houses, rebuilding their houses, rebuilding their lives?

Mr. BARRY: No. Very simply, no. They still need a greater commitment. I know somebody whose--I was in his house a few weeks ago. It's completely gutted, structurally sound. He's gutted the house and he's waiting for assurance on the levees before he decides whether to rebuild the house. So, I mean, there's a concrete example.

INSKEEP: Have you spoken to him since the announcement was made about the levee?

Mr. BARRY: Yeah, that's not satisfactory to him. Most of the people in the city recognize that they need more. But they also recognize that was an important step to take, although one that most people in Washington thought was inevitable.

INSKEEP: Then there's this larger issue of how to rebuild the city.

Mr. BARRY: That's correct. You know, whether or not you allow market forces to work or whether you try to plan what to do--and this gets into race and class, particularly an argument over an area called Lake View, which is right next to one of the canal breaks--vs. the Ninth Ward. Lake View is predominantly white, middle- and upper-class. The Ninth Ward, which is referred to, the Lower Ninth Ward, but lower meaning down river, not that it's lower ground--the Ninth Ward is overwhelmingly black and poor.

INSKEEP: They were both low, they were both devastated.

Mr. BARRY: They both--yeah. Well, actually part of the Ninth Ward and none of Lake View is above sea level. The argument is Lake View people have the resources to rebuild. The Ninth Ward people don't have the money so they're not going to rebuild anyway. And are they going to get services? You can't very well rebuild if you don't have power. The--most of the city today still does not have electricity. Today there are still areas that were never flooded that have electricity but still don't have telephone service. So just basic utility services. Just over Christmas, much of the French Quarter and the hotels and the restaurants, they had problems with smells coming out of the sewer system, and that's just in the last few days.

INSKEEP: Can a city die while people are waiting on decisions about that city's future?

Mr. BARRY: Oh, clearly. I mean, obviously every day that something doesn't happen, then people become more rooted when you're displaced. You can't wait forever to go back to the city. Your kids are in school. You find a job. Yeah, if there's no commitment in the fairly near future, it could finish the job that Katrina started. On the other hand, there is likely to be a lot of opportunity in New Orleans if it gets flood protection. If the opportunity exists, you're going to get new people coming in, which would be a good thing for New Orleans. I think over the decades, it's probably the most insular city, certainly most insular major city in the United States. And the elites have not welcomed new blood in the past and now they, I think, certainly--well, they'll be forced to. And that could create a dynamism in the city that hasn't existed in decades.

INSKEEP: John M. Barry, thanks very much.

Mr. BARRY: You're very welcome.

INSKEEP: John Barry is a writer based in New Orleans. His book "Rising Tide" was about the great Mississippi flood of 1927.

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