Lt. Gov. Landrieu on New Orleans' Future
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
In Washington, congressional leaders said total federal spending for hurricane recovery may top $150 billion. In New Orleans, water is now being pumped out of the city and search-and-rescue operations continue more than a week after the storm.
Earlier today, I spoke with Louisiana's lieutenant governor, Mitch Landrieu, a Democrat, the brother of US Senator Mary Landrieu and son of former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu. I asked him what should be done with those people who refuse to leave New Orleans.
Lieutenant Governor MITCH LANDRIEU (Democrat, Louisiana): My personal opinion is that I think that everybody ought to be moved out of the city. And as hard as that is for everybody, people continue not to be able to get their brain around the enormity of this catastrophe. Just because the water is gone in some areas of New Orleans does not mean it's safe. There's no electricity; in some instances, there's no water. The weather's been beautiful, ironically, in the last four or five days, which was a blessing, but we don't know whether or not another one's coming or when it's going to get here. And this particular rebuilding effort's going to take a tremendous amount of time.
The sitting water is particularly dangerous. From catastrophes that have happened around the world, we know that when sitting water sits for long periods of time, illnesses form. You know, there's a lot of danger out there. The public safety policy should be for everybody to move.
BLOCK: I wonder if you've been able to get your brain around what happened. As much time as you've spent out on the water around the city, does it seem real to you as a native New Orleanian?
Lt. Gov. LANDRIEU: Well, you know, I--it's surreal. It is something that is just almost beyond imagination. And the reason I know that is because no matter how many people I tell, they can't quite fix their brain around the enormity of it. To see it is to be amazed by how powerful Mother Nature can be and just how ferocious this particular storm was.
BLOCK: I want to talk to you about the immediate response to this disaster. There's been a lot of blame put on the federal response, but don't the local authorities also shoulder some responsibility here? Whether it's the city of New Orleans or the state of Louisiana, shouldn't there have been an evacuation system for people without cars and a real, viable contingency plan for this flood that many people had predicted would happen exactly as it did?
Lt. Gov. LANDRIEU: Well, clearly what's going to happen in the months ahead--as there will always be like they are after this investigations about who did what, who should have done what. There's been too much of that blame game going on the last couple of days. It's an important discussion to have. I believe that we're going to have it in a very aggressive way in months to come. The problem now is that we can do that later and have the same result.
BLOCK: I know you're very much caught up in the day-to-day right now, but I do wonder as lieutenant governor, have you been thinking about things you should have done, things you should have had in place that just weren't there when the storm hit?
Lt. Gov. LANDRIEU: Well, quite frankly, again, everybody has been focused on the day-to-day, what we're doing so that we can get past the emergency sector of this. We're going to have a lot of time to revisit all of those issues. Overall, the two big issues that everybody's going to have to look at is communication and transportation--were the two things that really broke down significantly. Now who was supposed to do what or who didn't do what is, you know, again, for another day. And I don't want to really spend a whole lot of time on that because it's really eating up a lot of time in the last few days and taking away some valuable time that we need to focus on other things.
BLOCK: What do you make of the federal response at this point? Are the needs of people in the city still--being met now?
Lt. Gov. LANDRIEU: Well, the answer to that is clearly yes. I would say as of a day and a half ago, this thing really started rolling in a direction the right way. The federal and the state authorities started coordinating very well; all of the promises that the federal government made to bring in troops and supplies started moving in very aggressively.
But you know, the pain and the agony and the issues just build up and build up and build up, and you have to get to them one at a time. You have people out there that are extremely anxious to get back and see their homes, but they can't. And they can't go back sooner rather than later until everything gets cleaned up, or it's going to take longer to actually get the city back to full life, which will happen because we are going to rebuild the city of New Orleans. The heart and soul of that metropolitan area still exists and the French Quarter still exists and most of the historic buildings still exist, and the people that are basically forming a diaspora around the country. And I have no doubt that we're going to be able to rebuild this great place.
BLOCK: How much of the city of New Orleans would you say is salvageable and how much will have to be bulldozed?
Lt. Gov. LANDRIEU: Oh, that's a good question. Most of it's under water. If it stays under water for a long period of time, what remedies are possible is really anybody's guess. Every tragedy gives us opportunities. As you tear down something, you have to rebuild it back again. And it gives you an opportunity to think about, you know, urban planning mistakes that have been made in the past. And, you know, we're going to go through that entire rebuilding process. It's going to be a challenge politically, economically and socially. And, of course, all of that infrastructure's got to be set up, so that discussion can be had and that rebuilding can begin.
BLOCK: I wanted to ask you about that because I'm wondering if you really have to fundamentally rethink New Orleans. The poorest people in that city have always lived in the lowest areas. Do you think this is a chance to really reconsider the whole physical shape of the city?
Lt. Gov. LANDRIEU: Well, I'll mention a couple of things about that. First of all, one of the things that troubled America so much was, you know, we didn't really have to see the poor because they were dispersed. And, you know, everybody got a pretty good glimpse of what all--a lot of poor people look like standing together, and I think it made America feel very uncomfortable. We looked in the mirror and we didn't like what we saw.
Now people are going to talk a lot, as you have already started: Who's got the blame for not moving people out of where they are? There's a much larger question because poor people get trapped, but they get trapped in poor education, they get trapped without transportation, they get trapped without technology, they get trapped without the things that many other people have. And that trap puts them in front of the convention center and in the Superdome. And so the country has to ask itself, you know: `What are we going to do relating to poor people, and what public policies are we going to put in place now that they're standing right in front of us and we can't ignore it anymore? And what have we done in the past that hasn't done particularly well?'
For example, the city of New Orleans, this metropolitan area, has been before Congress testifying for 40 years about the need for higher levees. We've been testifying forever about coastal wetland restoration. And, quite frankly, the country and the political leaders have turned a deaf ear. And so, you know, when we start talking about the issue of responsibility--when you have responsibility, you have accountability--it's going to have to be a very broad discussion in terms of how all of that stuff works.
You know, I think you have to--every time you have an opportunity to create something from nothing, you rethink all of the assumptions that you had before. You try to leave behind the negative things that you did and kind of emphasize the positive things so that you can build on those. And I'm going to try to do that in the next couple of months.
BLOCK: We've been talking with Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu.
Lieutenant Governor, thanks for talking with us.
Lt. Gov. LANDRIEU: Bye-bye.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.