Is it possible that Katrina roared out of the Gulf and shattered New Orleans and the surrounding region almost a year ago? The anniversary — no, somehow that word doesn't seem right when we're talking about disaster; perhaps "day of remembrance" fits better — comes up at the end of the month: Aug. 29. And already our colleagues are descending on the region to sort out how people are faring today. Who's healing? Who's suffering? Who's making progress and who's falling further behind?
John Ydstie has been traveling with one of our talented young producers, Evie Stone (you'll hear their reports, along with ones from other NPR voices later this month), and he says they're astounded how FEMA trailers have spread across the landscape, like weird mushrooms. "Some are perched on front lawns of homes, others are in the backyards and then there are the trailer camps," John writes. "People have a love/hate relationship with the small metal dwellings. They're glad to have a place to lay their heads near their homes, but the trailers are so small, people have to take turns getting dressed in the morning. I've also heard stories of malfunctioning air conditioning systems, trailers leaking during rains and noxious fumes from wallpaper making people sick... and the shocking fact is that nearly a year after the storm, more than a quarter of a million people are not back in their homes."
When I visited New Orleans not long ago, I was having breakfast one morning at a cafe in the French Quarter; I was checking out my tape recorder, to make sure the batteries were fresh and the cords were working, because I was getting ready for a day of interviews. I was pleasantly surprised to realize that the couple at the next table were tourists — tourists are back! — and I heard them mulling over how to spend their day. "Forgive me for overhearing and intruding," I said, "but I urge you to spend half a day doing something that, well, won't be fun – but it will blow you away... and it might even change your lives." "That sounds great," the husband said, cheerfully. "What do you suggest?" So I suggested that they hire a taxi for the morning and drive from one side of the city to the other, and see the mind-boggling swath of destruction. Lakeview. Gentilly. The lower 9th Ward. "No matter what you've heard on NPR or seen on television, " I told them, "you can't even begin to imagine how Katrina devastated this city until you see it for yourselves." "Oh, uh, that's interesting, thank you, " the wife said, uncomfortably. And they went back to discussing how to spend the day in the unscathed French Quarter.