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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NPR N: 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.

MICHAEL WHITE: 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.

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: Yet other things were happening musically.

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.

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.

ALDEN MCDONALD: 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: 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?

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.

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: 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: (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)

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

MICHAEL COWAN: 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.

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: John Burnett, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

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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