New Orleans: Impressions of a Devastated City

Media coverage simply is not enough to prepare a first-time visitor for the scope of the devastation in New Orleans. Particularly haunting are the high-water marks on the city's buildings.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Let's bring in another voice now, another person captivated by those watermarks on those New Orleans buildings. It's NPR senior correspondent, Juan Williams, who has just returned from three days in the city. Juan, good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Good morning, Steve

INSKEEP: So, we've all seen these television images of New Orleans. How is it different when you get there and have a look?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, those water lines that Mr. Johnson mentioned, they're just haunting. It's as if someone let the water out of a bathtub, and left a ring of soap and grime. Well, New Orleans has a ring around its buildings. That's where the water sat and left its stain. The water may have reached higher, but the water line indicates the level at which dirty water was in place for quite a while, and it's just stunning. Close to downtown, it's knee level, but as you head out north or east, it just gets higher and higher. It's hard to believe. Half of the city was in more than four feet of water. You know, that's like more than 100,000 houses.

So, it's the scope of the damage that surprised me, Steve, and also the power of the water. It wasn't just floodwater that sat there. You had water moving houses off of their foundations. And when you look inside houses, you know, the outside can be fine, but if you look inside, everything is stripped out. You have like pieces of cloth and plaster, electrical wires sticking off of the stud beams, because everything was just pushed away. So, you have like dry, stringy remains that are left hanging off a dead animal skeleton; that's what the inside of the houses look like.

And, of course, in New Orleans, lots of people have pleasure boats, and those small boats have been tossed around, smashed against houses. And in St. Bernard Parish, I saw a large, red fishing boat, I mean, huge, just jutting out of second story of a house. Near the industry canal, I saw a huge steel barge outside of the waterway, you know, and in my rationale mind, I kept thinking, someone must have docked it there. But it's hard to believe, it was the force of the water that lifted it over the levy. It just seems beyond reason.

INSKEEP: No matter how many times you see that, it still strikes you. Juan, let's talk a little bit about rebuilding New Orleans. Fred Johnson told us that he thought everybody was coming back, all kinds of people were coming back, he couldn't stop it. Some people wonder about that. And the mayor, Ray Nagin, sparked controversy last week when he said that New Orleans was going to once again be Chocolate City. Why was that a controversial remark?

WILLIAMS: Well, it's such a racial subtext to so much of what's going on, especially the politics, Steve. The mayor, Ray Nagin, said that he said that because he wanted to speak to the psyche of black people who have left the city, as Mr. Johnson said, all over the country, and who have heard that maybe they're not going to be welcomed back; and he wanted to on the King holiday, signal to them that, in fact, they should feel welcomed to return to New Orleans. But you look at that Ninth Ward, the really poor black neighborhood, I don't think that that's going to be rebuilt. There's just such devastation. And there's a real question about how much of the city will be put back together.

INSKEEP: Did you see many children?

WILLIAMS: You know, you don't see many kids, Steve. I see a few black kids, not many white kids. The only white children I saw were on the playground of a private school. Some of the schools, especially the private and parochial schools, are now reopening, and there are only seven public schools open. So, in a city that was 462,000, it's now widely reported to be that the city's population is about 130,000, and very few of those are little toddlers, Steve. I just didn't see many of them.

INSKEEP: Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR senior correspondent, Juan Williams, who's just back from a reporting trip to New Orleans. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News, and I'm Steve Inskeep.

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