Thoughts on Katrina, One Year Later

Katrina: One Year Later

Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina striking America's Gulf Coast — the biggest and costliest natural disaster in the nation's history. Alex Chadwick takes a look back at NPR coverage of the story as it was broadcast a year ago, and how knowledge of the full extent of the damage became evident.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

The winds and water of Katrina battered the coast of Mississippi and left many of the fishermen and shrimp boat captains there without a way to make a living. The projected costs of clearing broken boats, flooded cars and houses is about a quarter of a billion dollars. And that still may not be enough.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This week, NPR News follows the money trail with our series Katrina: Where the Money Went.

Today, we focus on private money, and NPR's Noah Adams begins with a boat ride along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

NOAH ADAMS reporting:

We are on the shallow waters of the Mississippi Sound. It's a zippy Coast Guard patrol boat - 25 feet long, an orange floatation hull, twin outputs.

(Soundbite of boat engine)

Unidentified Man #1: All right. Let's get out of here.

(Soundbite of radio beeping)

Unidentified Man #2: Three-five-five, three-five station Gulf Port, go ahead.

(Soundbite of radio beeping)

(Soundbite of boat engine)

ADAMS: The boat eases away from the harbor at Gulf Port and starts a fast skim a few miles offshore, heading west.

If you're on the crew of a Coast Guard vessel in these waters, you're always looking for stuff that shouldn't be out here. Bosun's Mate third class Justin Boze(ph) is driving. He's been out almost everyday since right after the storm, and he's seen the worst of it.

Bosun's Mate JUSTIN BOZE (Coast Guard): Trees, houses. The sunken barges are bad because one, they're brown in color and the water in the Gulf of Mexico is not exactly the clearest so it blends in real well and you can't see them. So that the barges that were tied - it doesn't really matter how secure the barge was. With a 27-foot tidal surge, it doesn't matter what kind of mooring line you have. It's either going to be under water or it's going to break free.

(Soundbite of boat engine, water splashing)

ADAMS: We turn up into the Bay of St. Louis. Bosun's Mate Boze wanted to show me this treacherous spot.

On the morning of landfall here in the bay, the highway bridge dropped. It became debris, and so did the CSX rail bridge.

B.M. BOZE: The construction folks that were working on bridges and the CSX people that came out - they were one of the first people out here working on bridges - they were finding cars and trucks. They were hitting them with their boats.

ADAMS: The money to fix most of this mess comes from Washington. The Coast Guard has the mission assignment from FEMA: find the debris, hire contractors to get it out. Bosun's Mate Justin Boze is like a scout, peering out over the bow of his boat.

So too is Petty Officer Luther Latner(ph), who takes me in his truck up along the back roads.

(Soundbite of car doors closing)

Petty Officer LUTHER LATNER (Petty Officer, Coast Guard): This is Discover Bay. In this area right here, we got about 15 vessels.

ADAMS: The surging water reached up into these bayous and found vessels hiding from the storm or under repair at marinas. We're looking at the biggest one: a 90-foot shrimp boat lying on its side.

Discover Bay is now a neighborhood of broken boats.

Mr. LATNER: You got a lot of people up here, they live in trailers. They live in a campground. And a lot of these people up here fish. They fish and shrimp and everything like that, and it's just a thriving little community.

ADAMS: Or used to be.

Mr. LATNER: Yes, sir. Used to be.

How y'all doing today?

Mr. TOM LESAAB(ph): All right. How you doing?

Mr. LATNER: You know.

Mr. LESAAB: (Unintelligible)

Mr. LATNER: Unfortunately.

ADAMS: A Discover Bay shrimper named Tom LeSaab has stopped to talk. And he tells us what happened when Katrina closed in.

Mr. LESAAB: I was tying the boats up here, and then I left and went up to the Smoky Mountains.

Mr. LATNER: Oh, good.

Mr. LESAAB: I got the hell out of Dodge.

Mr. LATNER: And when you came back, you found them in the trees.

Mr. LESAAB: Yeah. That's what I come back to - nothing. We ain't making no money right now.

ADAMS: Tom LeSaab owns two shrimp boats, but the Cassie and the Carly(ph) might have ended their fishing days.

The Coast Guard had been helping out as part of its mission to deal with hazardous material on marooned vessels: diesel fuel, oil, batteries. But two days after we talked with Tom LeSaab, FEMA decided no more money would be spent to re-float these remaining boats - that it was beyond the legal scope of the mission.

It's possible a new funding source could be found, or the wrecked boats will just stay back in the trees.

(Soundbite of bulldozer)

ADAMS: The coast of Mississippi is 70 miles wide, and nearly smooth white sand all the way from Louisiana over to Alabama. But it's trashy white sand now. And the various communities have been using volunteers and sometimes tractors to clean things up.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

At Waveland, Mississippi, I talked with Nora Wyckoff(ph) one morning. Determinedly, she still brings her kids to the beach, lets them go out on the water about three feet.

Ms. NORA WYCKOFF (Mississippi resident): They see a lot metal, sheets of metal roofing in the sand which is almost disguised. And the landscape changes every week. We come out, we see something brand new in the water, so. Which is why it's not terribly safe to go too, too far.

ADAMS: A Mississippi marine company now has a $6.7 million contract to clean up the beaches, taking trash from the high tide mark and from underwater as well, as far out as half a mile.

If you add up the Coast Guard contracts and projected contracts for marine debris recovery - and this includes clearing out bayous and canals and waterways, making them navigable - cleaning the banks. If you add all this up -$232 million dollars. If the work is finished by May 15th next year, the federal government pays all of it. If not, the locals will have to kick in 10 percent. And perhaps then, Nora Wycoff's young son Daniel can go back in the water at Waveland Beach with only the normal fears.

Mr. DANIEL WYCKOFF (Nora Wycoff's son): I like to stay in shallow water because I'm afraid about little sharks biting me. So I stay in the shallow water.

ADAMS: Noah Adams, NPR News.

CHADWICK: Senior correspondent Noah Adams reports from the Gulf Coast this week and shares his observations in the blog Mixed Signals. You can find it at our Web site, npr.org.

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