New Orleans at the New Year

From New Orleans' 17th Street levee, Luke Burbank talks with Farai Chideya about the slow progress of rebuilding the hurricane-ravaged city as it approaches the turn of the year.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

For the Gulf Coast of the United States, 2005 was one of the worst hurricane seasons on record. In August, Hurricane Katrina hit the region with devastating effect. Much of the city of New Orleans was submerged, hundreds of its residents died and hundreds of thousands were displaced. As bitter recriminations ensued between state, federal and city authorities, one of the most contentious issues was why the city's levees didn't hold. With us now from the site of one of those ruptured levees, the 17th Street levee, is NPR's Luke Burbank.

Luke, what's the scene there?

LUKE BURBANK reporting:

Farai, this is really one of the darker points, I think, after Hurricane Katrina, was right here where I'm standing. The 17th Street levee ruptured and flooded the Lakeview neighborhood. Right in front of me is where they've sort of patched it up temporarily. They put a big, huge piece of metal which they've driven down into the soil there as a temporary hold, and throughout the day and night, they continue to haul barges of rocks back and forth on these big heavy machineries and throw the rocks down at the base of the temporary fix to try to keep it there.

CHIDEYA: We can hear some of the construction noise in the distance. How is the reconstruction of New Orleans going?

BURBANK: Well, Farai, where I'm standing right now, I think, is kind of a microcosm of how the construction's going. Some places--you look right across the levee at the part that held, things look pretty much fine. There was some wind damage, but people are back in their homes; they've been able to get things back together. On the other side, things were totally destroyed, and those people are months and maybe even years away from ever being able to get back in their house.

CHIDEYA: So how would you describe the mood in New Orleans right now?

BURBANK: Well, most of the people that are down here that I've talked to are actually fairly positive. I think that's partly because they're the ones that are here. I think if you went out to Houston or Baton Rouge or some of the other cities, you'd get some pretty different answers. Even I--last night, went out to some folks who are living in a trailer and even though they don't have a lot left--their house was totally destroyed--they seem pretty upbeat. It seems to be kind of a common thread, although that doesn't mean people aren't mad at the government officials who they see as kind of responsible for some of this stuff.

CHIDEYA: So are people looking more to federal, state or city agencies for leadership?

BURBANK: I think the answer would probably be none of the above, actually. I mean, people here, even the ones that feel very positive about the potential for rebuilding the city, they don't say, `We're going to rebuild this city with the help of the president or the help of FEMA,' or even the mayor, Ray Nagin. I mean, they're generally saying, `If this city is going to come back to life, it's going to be because of the communities and because of the sort of normal people who have come back and who are going to try to rebuild it.'

CHIDEYA: And what's the most hopeful thing you've seen in the city?

BURBANK: Well, it's not a very scientific measure at all, but I was here a couple of months ago, and when I drove in all the billboards were just kind of sopping wet messes and some of them just collapsed. And this time when I drove in last week, I noticed that all the billboards, most of them, anyways, have been replaced with signs, you know, `New Orleans is coming back,' from local businesses, the police department saying, `We're going to stay here and protect you,' lots of banners hanging from buildings where people are saying, you know, `Welcome back to the new New Orleans.' So outwardly, there seem to be some signs of hope. I guess the big question is if there's anything behind that.

CHIDEYA: NPR's Luke Burbank at the 17th Street levee in New Orleans.

Thanks, Luke.

BURBANK: Sure, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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