Letters: Katrina Coverage We read from listeners' letters, weighing in on what went wrong during Katrina, efforts to help displaced workers and another devastating flood that took place in Oregon more than 100 years ago.

Letters: Katrina Coverage

Letters: Katrina Coverage

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We read from listeners' letters, weighing in on what went wrong during Katrina, efforts to help displaced workers and another devastating flood that took place in Oregon more than 100 years ago.


On Monday, we read from your letters.

Many listeners to add their voice the question: What went wrong in the lead-up to Hurricane Katrina? Among them was Cindy of Salt Lake City, Utah. She says preparations begin at home and people should take it on themselves to think ahead. `This is true leadership,' she wrote. `A few hundred such individuals among 10,000 is worth more than all the money and politicians we could possibly throw into government solutions. All catastrophes and all solutions are ultimately very local. While we're complaining about government, let's remember we, the people, are the government.'

Last week, we also talked about how companies around the nation are offering to hire displaced workers in the aftermath of Katrina. That prompted former Louisiana resident Aaron Merritt to write in with a word of caution. He says, `It is also important that the New Orleans area not lose its most skilled workers to jobs in other states. True, these companies do want to help, but I also wonder how many of them were already looking for skilled workers in their own area and see this as an opportunity to recruit talent from New Orleans. The real disaster would be if the most talented and skilled workers never do return to rebuild.'

Finally, an e-mail from Mary Medley of Portland, Oregon, brought to our attention the story of another town ravaged by floods over a half century ago. The town was called Vanport and it was, she wrote, `at the time of the flood, the second-largest city in the state. It was built during World War II as housing for the shipyard workers. It was also the most integrated city in the state, possibly the region. It did not flood because of heavy rain but because a levee holding back the Columbia River broke.'

We wanted to know more, so we're joined now by Michael McGregor, an associate professor of Portland State University who wrote an article called The Vanport Flood and Racial Change in Portland for the Oregon History Project.

Thanks for being with us, Professor McGregor.

Professor MICHAEL McGREGOR (Portland State University): My pleasure.

NEARY: Tell us about Vanport, Oregon. What was it like before this flood?

Prof. McGREGOR: Well, Vanport was a unique city. It was at the time the largest housing project that had ever been built in the United States. It was built very quickly. Within one year, they had constructed all the housing, 10,000 units. The problem was that they had built it on what was a flood plain because in the city of Portland, the housing authority did not want new construction of public housing to compete with private housing. And particularly they didn't want many of the African-Americans that Henry Kaiser had brought in to work in his shipyard. So Kaiser went outside the city, bought 650 acres, financed the project—very quick building—with public funds and with kind of cast-off products, a lot of plywood and cheap materials that weren't needed in the war effort. So it was a pretty rickety thing and it was never meant to last. It was meant to be taken down at the end of the war. But there were many people there that didn't have anywhere else to go and the city didn't want in particular the many African-Americans who were living there to come into the city. So the housing continued in this very rickety situation.

NEARY: How did the levee break? What led to the breaking of that levee?

Prof. McGREGOR: Well, it was actually a railroad bridge, a trestle—not a bridge, a trestle. And it was really just landfill. So there was no formal construction of a levee. On the other sides of the project were more formal dikes, but this was just landfill and so it was very susceptible to seepage. The Columbia River was 15 feet above normal. There had been heavy snows and not much melting till that month, the month of May.

NEARY: And what happened to the town?

Prof. McGREGOR: Well, a wall of water about 10 feet high flooded through. The people had been told even that morning that they were safe, they didn't have to worry about it. A few had not believed authorities and had evacuated, but the water flooded the whole area. The good news is that there were very few deaths. Only about 15 people died. Most people were able to get out because the flooding filled into some lower bog areas first before it eventually took over the whole region.

NEARY: And was the town ever rebuilt?

Prof. McGREGOR: It was never rebuilt. It was razed afterward. There was a small area called Albina, which was the only area that African-Americans were really allowed to live in. They absorbed as many as they could, but they couldn't take in everyone. And so the city—many of the kinder citizens in the city opened their homes, they opened shelters in that area, and most African-Americans who were part of Vanport stayed in the city and really led in the future to a greater openness to integration in Portland, which had been a very segregated city before that.

NEARY: Interesting. Thanks so much for filling us in on that story.

Prof. McGREGOR: My pleasure.

NEARY: Michael McGregor is associate professor of English and non-fiction writing at Portland State University.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

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