Katrina & Beyond


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

There's a bumper sticker that's long been popular in New Orleans that says, `New Orleans: Proud to call it home.' Since Hurricane Katrina, new bumper stickers, as well as T-shirts, have emerged which say, `New Orleans: Still proud to call it home.' Our editor Gwendolyn Thompkins bought one just the other day. New Orleans is her hometown, and she went back to see how the city is making out. With more than 300,000 people gone, she says, New Orleans is exactly that: new. She brought back these impressions.


The most often repeated line in the new New Orleans is by far...

Unidentified Man #1: How'd you make out?

THOMPKINS: My friend Jim Varney told me that before I arrived. That's our way of asking people whether they still have a home, whether anyone they know or loved was lost in the floodwater, and whether they still have a job and will be coming back to stay. These questions are just too hard to ask outright, so we just say...

Unidentified Man #1 and Unidentified Woman #1: (In unison) How'd you make out?

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Listen, I see somebody marching, marching down the street. Yeah, yeah.

THOMPKINS: Most of New Orleans is gone for the moment. Well more than a quarter million people have made a trail of tears to some other reach of the state or the nation. Even the birds are gone. When you drive through the city, there are miles of empty houses, many of them with their doors flung wide open. In a single neighborhood, a thousand lifetimes of debris spill out onto the street, and that's just during the daylight. Come sunset, the city really empties out.

The Interstate 10 cuts all the way through New Orleans. It goes straight through like a bullet shot, really. So on the way heading in, there's not much traffic. It's very--it seems kind of ordinary. On the way out, you would think that you were watching an exodus. There is bumper-to-bumper traffic, slow-moving. People are getting out. I don't know where they're going.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Why are they making--tell me now why you had to be making that former sound?

THOMPKINS: Turns out they are the city's new commuters, New Orleanians who now live on the west bank of the Mississippi River or in Baton Rouge or Houma or Alexandria. They drive into work every day or they come in to meet the FEMA man or the insurance adjustor or the crews cleaning up their houses. Trust me, most of the people who drive out of town every night wish they were heading in the opposite direction.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) And I know we can make it.

Chorus: (Singing) I know that we can.

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) I know darn well that we can work it out.

Chorus: (Singing) Oh, yes we can. I know we can, can. Yes, we can, can. Why can't we? Yes, we want to. Yes, we can, can.

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) I know we can make it work.

Chorus: (Singing) I know that we can.

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) I know we can make it...

THOMPKINS: But the folks who stay the night and wake up in New Orleans every morning have their own way of making a life and a living here. The Garden District, the French Quarter, the Faubourg Marigny and the Bywater neighborhood were spared from the flooding. Their Creole cottages, shotgun houses and two-story wood-framed mansions were the cornerstone of the old New Orleans. They're now the cornerstone of the new New Orleans.

(Soundbite of traffic)

THOMPKINS: It feels like a movie set here, a whole lot of commotion concentrated on two or three long streets and surrounded by nothing but wind. Just a few blocks this way or that way and you're right back in the tumbleweed of upside-down cars, soggy Sheetrock and sofas standing on end on the sidewalk. People write messages on the refrigerators they leave for curbside pickup. One says, `Take me. I'm yours.'

(Soundbite of traffic)

THOMPKINS: On Magazine Street, a two-lane road that curves with the river from the Central Business District to uptown New Orleans--there's the stuff that makes life possible: a grocery store, a bank, a hardware store, restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, boutiques, coffee houses. Magazine Street is practically Manhattan compared to Lake View, a neighborhood near Lake Pontchartrain that used to make up nearly a third of the city's tax base. Here's the sound of Lake View at rush hour.

(Soundbite of wind)

THOMPKINS: New Orleans today is a mixture of high and low, with not much in between.

(Soundbite of piano)

THOMPKINS: You see adults and some young people, but almost no schoolchildren. They're all finishing the semester someplace else. The wealthy and the upper middle-class are mostly here, but the middle middles and the low middles are mostly gone. Many of the poor people who remain have nowhere else to be. They queue up, black and white, in integrated lines at FEMA stations or Red Cross staging areas for the meals ready to eat. But don't let the lines fool you. A city that used to be more than 60 percent black is now overwhelmingly white. It feels kind of strange to go back to being a minority in New Orleans. I'm frequently the only black person I can see on the street. And the white people look just as surprised.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #4: (Singing) You know my red beans is cooking, girl. Yes, my red beans is cooking and I'm going to give you some.

THOMPKINS: But doing without the middle class means doing without the mom-and-pop shops that keep New Orleans in red beans and rice, smothered chicken, seafood gumbo and oyster po' boys. I'm talking about Vasquez and Gentilly, Lovecchio(ph) in Lake View, and the St. Roch fish market in the Ninth Ward. They and scores of other treasures are now all closed, and that leaves a smattering of small restaurants, all the beignets you can eat at Cafe du Monde and fine dining. With mold spores on our shoes, producer Sarah Beyer Kelly and I sat down to a starched, white-linen tablecloth at Lilette Restaurant on Magazine Street. There we enjoyed satsuma-infused sorbet and a perfect Manhattan. Creme of brandy soup with caramelized onion followed at Paris Style(ph) in the French Quarter, maybe the best restaurant in town before or after the flood. Within walking distance of our beautifully appointed table, some people are living in tents without electricity, gas or telephones.

Ms. DANELLE PERRY(ph) (Owner, Plum Gift Store): (Reading) `Having a survival attitude for whatever may occur is extremely important.'

THOMPKINS: That's Danelle Perry. She owns a trendy gift store called Plum on Magazine Street. I asked her to read from my new favorite book, the US Army Survival Manual.

Ms. PERRY: (Reading) `Knowledge and rehearsal of survival procedures will give you a feeling of confidence and will prepare you for any emergency, even though you may be semiconscious at the time. A person without a positive mental attitude may panic under dire circumstances.'

THOMPKINS: Aside from explaining how to skin and cook a squirrel or how to make a sundial with a stick and string, the US Army Survival Manual gives terrific advice on how to solve a problem like Katrina. Think of it this way: If you lived in a city where most of the population was gone, where the National Guard is the only clear and visible presence holding the place together, where there is such a labor shortage that you can't buy groceries or, in some cases, gasoline, or even a sandwich after 7 PM, and where in some neighborhoods you are living with a loaded gun, bottled water and no electricity, what other book should you be reading? Danielle Steele?

(Soundbite of music)

THOMPKINS: National Guard Specialist Sharaqa Jack(ph) says he's never finished the book, but he read from my copy one night on the corner of St. Claude and Poland avenues. That's the checkpoint where people cross from Orleans Parish into St. Bernard Parish, a place even sorrier than New Orleans right now. When I showed the book to my neighbor Elmo Dix, who is living on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain, a few days later, and then to Congressman William Jefferson in the Garden District, they were to a man drawn to the same passage. It begins, `The following personal qualities are important to survival.'

Specialist SHARAQA JACK (National Guard): (Reading) `Being able to make up you mind, being able to improvise, being able to live with yourself, being able to...

Mr. ELMO DIX (New Orleans Resident) (Reading) ...adapt to the situation, to make a good thing out of a bad thing, remaining cool, calm and collected, hoping for the best but preparing for the worst, having patience, being prepared to meet the worst that can happen, being able to figure out other people, to understand...

Representative WILLIAM JEFFERSON (Democrat, Louisiana): (Reading) ...and predict what other people do, understanding where your special fears and worries come from and knowing what to do to control them. These are important personal qualities to survival.'

THOMPKINS: This is the kind of stuff my dad has been preaching for years. Right now, my father is at home in New Orleans, east of the Industrial Canal. He lives on the second floor of his house, which is as spick-and-span as it was the day before the hurricane. He's waiting for the first floor to dry. Three months after the flood waters drowned his cedar trees and everything else in the neighborhood, the first floor studs are still damp. They're being treated with a potion of bleach and water to keep the mold from ever coming back. My sisters and I begged Dad to find someplace drier to live, someplace with more amenities, like electricity or hot water. He refused. `You have to protect what you have left,' he told me. `I can't afford the luxury of comfort right now.'

Ms. GRETCHEN KANE (Head Mistress, Ursuline Academy): (Reading) `You must learn to accept the reality of a new situation or of an emergency and then take suitable action. This is one of the most important psychological requirements for survival. Do not sit down and worry. Stay busy.'

THOMPKINS: That's Gretchen Kane, head mistress of Ursuline Academy, the oldest all-girls school in the nation. Although her school and my dad's house are on opposite sides of town, they are both raising their electrical outlets right now so the next time there's a flood they might be able to turn on a light.

Ms. GILDA DIX(ph) (New Orleans Resident): `Lack of the will to keep trying can also result in a passive outlook. Lethargy, mental numbness and indifference creep in slowly, but they can suddenly take over and leave you helpless.'

THOMPKINS: That's my neighbor Gilda Dix. She's not sure whether she's coming back to our neighborhood in Gentilly, and she's not the only one. Until we know what's going to happen to the levees--whether the rest of the country will help us or just feel sorry for us--we are immobilized. We cannot rebuild until we know that our levees can survive next year's hurricane season and the one after that. We cannot rebuild until we know how high off the ground our houses must be. The Army Corp of Engineers and Mayor Ray Nagin are supposed to give us some indication about that next month. But it's a long time to wait, not knowing which way to turn.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #5: (Singing) If you're lonely like I'm lonely for you...

THOMPKINS: Perhaps the toughest part of surviving for New Orleanians is the loneliness. That's because we're used to having company, either our neighbors or people from all over the world who want to come and see us. These days, the hotels are filled with contractors and FEMA people and folks on assignment who would rather be at home with their own families and friends. Some of them will never get the hang of it here. I saw one man at Cafe du Monde in the French Quarter snap his fingers at a waiter and in a booming voice say...

(Soundbite of fingers snapping)

THOMPKINS: `Hey, I want beignets and a coffee au lait.' That kind of talk is a no-no in these parts.

(Soundbite of music)

THOMPKINS: Which brings me to my favorite passage from the US Army Survival Manual and my best advice to anyone living in the city right now. It's under the heading called "Act Like the Natives": `If you are in a friendly area, one of the best ways to gain rapport with the natives is to show interest in their tools and their ways of procuring water and food. By studying the people, you will learn to respect them. You can often make valuable friends and, most important, you can learn to adapt to their environment and increase your chances of survival.' To that I can only add: Hooah, y'all. Hooah.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) I'll see you there...

Chorus: (Singing) ...at the foot of Canal Street.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) What will they wear...

Chorus: (Singing) ...at the foot of Canal Street?

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) Will the band be playing...

Chorus: (Singing) ...at the foot of Canal Street?

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) What will the people be saying...

Chorus: (Singing) ...at the foot of Canal Street?

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) Does your father lie there? Does your mother pray? I'm gonna put on my golden crown...

Chorus: (Singing) ...at the foot of Canal Street.

SIMON: New Orleans native Gwendolyn Thompkins, who is the senior editor of this program.

And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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