Katrina And Three Tales Of Endurance Nearly five years after the epic storm, we revisit a clarinetist, a banker and a gospel choir. All have the same moral: What doesn't destroy you makes you stronger.
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Katrina And Three Tales Of Endurance

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Katrina And Three Tales Of Endurance

Katrina And Three Tales Of Endurance

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Over the past five years, NPR News has introduced you to many people in New Orleans who've told you their stories of calamity and recovery. Today, correspondent John Burnett revisits three characters who figured prominently in his reporting after Katrina: a banker, a theologian and a clarinetist.

JOHN BURNETT: The three men you're about to hear from each have different stories, but their stories have the same moral: What doesn't destroy you, makes you stronger.

Professor MICHAEL WHITE (Xavier University, Musician, Historian): My name is Michael White. I am a New Orleans musician and a jazz historian, and professor at Xavier University. For me and many thousands of people, Katrina was a death. I lost, you know, quite a lot.

BURNETT: The Gulf rose up, swallowed the city that care forgot, and destroyed one of the nation's great private jazz collections. Inside Michael White's yellow-brick house in the Gentilly neighborhood were thousands of CDs, LPs and 78s; books, films and photos; original transcriptions and sheet music; and a collection of vintage clarinets, including a mouthpiece once played by the great Sidney Bechet. A year after the storm, White stood, brokenhearted, in what was his music room, blooming with multicolored mold.

Mr. WHITE: And most of the music, I mean, just sort of crumbled up and disappeared. If you can see all the different shreds of paper molded together and whatever, that's what's really left of a very extensive collection of music.

BURNETT: And that was just the beginning. Michael White's odyssey took him to Houston and Baton Rouge to care for his elderly mother, who ultimately passed away, he believes, from stress and dislocation. White did time in a FEMA trailer. Friends died. Now, he lives with his 80-year-old aunt, and he doesn't know when he'll have his own house again.

Yet other things were happening musically.

Mr. WHITE: I realized that that's a little bit too much emotion not to put into music. And you know, I just realized that whatever happens in your life is really - can be inspiration for musical ideas and new songs.

(Soundbite of music, "Blue Crescent")

BURNETT: This is "Blue Crescent," the title track from his new CD of largely original material, available on Basin Street Records. White says in the midst of his grief, new material just bubbled out of him. And it didn't stop there. Though he's a jazz traditionalist, he's been playing with a Cuban group, an avant-garde African group and yes, even rock n' rollers - though he won't say who, yet.

Mr. WHITE: You know, in a sense, what's happening to me now is nothing short of miraculous. I mean, I have a whole new life and career. I feel like I'm a kid reborn again. And music is more exciting than ever before.

(Soundbite of music, "Blue Crescent")

BURNETT: Alden McDonald also lost his home and all of his possessions. He's president and CEO of one of the nation's largest black-owned banks, Liberty Bank. Even more alarming, the bank headquarters went under eight feet of water. All the records were destroyed, and backup records were temporarily lost. Six of eight local branches were flooded, and most of his customers' homes suffered heavy damage.

Mr. ALDEN MCDONALD (President, CEO, Liberty Bank): I surprised myself, I think my staff surprised themselves, that we made it through one of the worst catastrophes that anyone in business would experience.

BURNETT: Today, Liberty Bank is stronger than ever. It turned a profit the year after Katrina. And over the past two years, as other banks succumbed to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, Liberty's assets have grown by nearly a quarter, to $420 million. Many of his customers have not returned, but they've stayed loyal. Since the storm, the bank has opened branches in Kansas City, Houston and Detroit. The bank's home turf, New Orleans East, once a thriving area of black middle- and upper-class homes, is a mixed story.

Two years ago, McDonald stood with a reporter in the six-story bank headquarters, and looked out on a wasteland of abandoned homes and shopping centers. And today?

Mr. MCDONALD: It's a half a wasteland.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURNETT: The bad news: Five years later, there's still no supermarket in New Orleans East. The encouraging news: Two out of three residents have moved back, and the city recently purchased the boarded-up hospital to rehab and reopen.

Mr. MCDONALD: I think the lessons that were learned for a lot of people here during Katrina was not only life must go on, but where there's an obstacle, there's also O for opportunity.

BURNETT: The storm may have provided an opportunity to improve race relations in New Orleans, but to read the local headlines it's been a missed opportunity. There was the urban legend that white oligarchs dynamited the levee to flood the black lower Ninth Ward. Then, former Mayor Ray Nagin vowed New Orleans will always be a chocolate city.

Recently, there were charges that white vigilantes hunted black storm refugees in the Algiers neighborhood. Shades of Praise has quietly defied all that.

(Soundbite of song)

SHADES OF PRAISE (Gospel Choir): (Singing) Every breath I breathe, every word I speak...

BURNETT: The interracial gospel choir has been a symbol of racial harmony since it was founded 10 years ago. The Shades, as they're called, sing every year at Jazzfest, and they'll be at the city's Katrina commemoration in Jackson Square this Sunday.

(Soundbite of song)

SHADES OF PRAISE: (Singing) Let every, every breath I breathe, every breath that I breathe, every word that I speak, every word that I speak, lift you higher, lift you higher, so much higher, so much higher...

BURNETT: More than half of the Shades members lost their homes or belongings in the floodwaters. Jobs vanished. Their role changed from civic symbol of racial togetherness to a mutual aid society.

Shades co-founder Michael Cowan is a theologian and an administrator at Loyola University.

Professor MICHAEL COWAN (Theology, Administrator, Loyola University): One of the things that I read once that really rang true to me - and I actually read this a long time before the storm, and it partly helped me get through the storm - was that hope is something that comes from the relationships that people have with one another.

BURNETT: The 65 black and white members of Shades relied on those relationships to raise money for each other and to help one another find doctors, housing, schools and new churches. Michael Cowan believes the choir's micro-experience contains a macro-lesson for society when it comes to color barriers.

Mr. COWAN: One of the ways that I have come to think about segregation in America is that networking has been limited by skin color. And in the choir, what began to happen was the normal networking that anybody would do when they needed something or wanted something or had something to offer, it would just go on. Except now, it was going on across racial lines.

BURNETT: One wonders if on the 10th anniversary of the great flood, will the painful lessons of Katrina still be important? Or will the city be back to business as usual?

John Burnett, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song)

SHADES OF PRAISE: (Singing) I said change, I said change, oh, change, you've been changed, I've been changed, we've been changed, they've been changed, oh, oh, change. I've been changed, we've been changed, they've been changed, oh, oh, change. Change, I'm changing, you changed, oh yeah. Oh, praise the Lord, we've been changed.


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