3 Views On A Tragedy: Reporters Recall First Days After Katrina When Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast, devastating regions of Louisiana and Mississippi, three of NPR's correspondents saw the storm firsthand. These are their stories.

3 Views On A Tragedy: Reporters Recall First Days After Katrina

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On the morning of August 28, 2005, the National Weather Service issued an urgent weather alert. Devastating damage expected, the message read. The area will be uninhabitable for weeks - perhaps longer. The next day, on the morning of August 29, 10 years ago today, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast.


JEFF MORROW: We've been having a tough time here. It's unbelievable.

RATH: Meteorologist Jeff Morrow of The Weather Channel was getting pummeled by winds and rain on TV as the hurricane tore through southern Louisiana.


MORROW: Katrina really has had a kick to it.

RATH: But by mid-afternoon in New Orleans, Katrina slowly moved away, and for a moment, things seems to quiet down. NPR's John Burnett and Greg Allen were hunkered down in hotels in New Orleans. We talked this week about their experience. And looking back, John remembers when he first realized the worst part of the disaster was just beginning.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: It's when the water was creeping up through the city, covering 80 percent of it, and all of a sudden, all of the plans and the investigative reports and all the modeling that this city had feared, was coming to pass. This was the big one and it was almost too mammoth to comprehend, that the city was filling up with water.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: And the experience I had, which really brought it home to me, was we went over to the Cooper Homes - a public housing complex, which has since been demolished and rebuilt with new homes. Well, we went there, and we were talking to residents. We parked on a dry spot in the pavement there. And after being there for about 45 minutes or so, I turned around and I looked at the car - the car, which was on a dry piece of pavement, now had water all around it. And at that point, we knew that the levees had broken, and seeing how quickly the water was rising was really chilling.



ALLEN: Many, like Aubrey Watson (ph), finally decided it was time to leave.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yes, we going to leave. Go to Baton Rouge or go to Texas. We trying to get out - we going to get out.

ALLEN: You didn't know how long you would be able to drive out of the city. At some point, there was some concern - I certainly was concerned of this - that the entire egress would be flooded. That you might not be able to drive out along the river to get out to the interstate. The water was rising - you didn't know how long and how deep it was going to rise.

BURNETT: And then what happens is that everyone is responsible for themselves. There's no help. Most of the streets were impassable. There was no emergency communication, no stores open, no emergency rooms open. There wasn't even a command post. It was literally every policeman, every resident, every reporter, everybody was by themselves.

RATH: John, there's - you'll hear this, I think, a sense of desperation in your own voice. I want to play a clip of you. This is when you're at the convention center - the New Orleans Convention Center, days after the hurricane. And you're describing the conditions there.


BURNETT: I estimate 2,000 people living like animals inside the city convention center and around it. They've been there since the hurricane. There's no food. There's absolutely no water. And there are two dead bodies - lying on the ground and in a wheelchair beside the convention center - both elderly people, both covered with blankets now. People are absolutely desperate there. I've never seen anything like this.

Yeah, all over the city just like that.

ALLEN: You know, picking up on what John was talking about there about the lawlessness - it was something that I kind of came to slowly. Walking down to the corner - into the French Quarter and seeing some people, I went up to talk to them. And as I started to talk to them, they turned around and pulled a gun on me. And they were worried that I was a looter or I was coming to attack them. But suddenly, you realize that it's what John's saying, the rules of society just don't apply right now.

RATH: Greg, I want to play another piece of tape you might not have heard in the last 10 years. This is a woman named Denise Bennett. She was one of the thousands of people stranded in St. Bernard Parish after the storm surge. Here's what she had to say about the floodwaters rising.


DENISE BENNETT: We stood on a roof for, like, 12 hours, in the rain, holding - just clenching and holding onto each other in nothing but night clothes. And we thought the wind was going to knock us in the water.

ALLEN: The thing about that is that was Friday. The storm hit on Monday. That was a full - what - four days after the storm, people were still on their rooftops and getting rescued by, you know, Fish and Wildlife people or neighbors in boats.

BURNETT: And then it was amazing to watch the Cajun armada - these fishermen and these hunters and these oilfield workers came out of south Louisiana from the marshes and the swamps and these small towns. And they all brought their bass boats, and they just converged on New Orleans. No one told them to. And they went from house to house, and started they rescuing people, and they saved countless lives.

RATH: And, John, we have a clip. This is you with Officer Brian French. He is a rookie cop, and he was taking rescue efforts into his own hands.


BRIAN FRENCH: I could compare it to a living hell. Everybody was dying. I mean, there were bodies lined up in the water, bodies lined up on the high-rise. It was just complete hell.

BURNETT: It was an airboat and there was a guy from Florida who'd come over with his airboat and then these two New Orleans - young New Orleans cops just jumped on the airboat, and we started going house to house. And what I remember are the - these starving, ravenous, wild dogs on these front stoops and this, you know - this sort of quiet, historic neighborhood. And it was just otherworldly.


BURNETT: Eight days after the storm, the floodwater has become an ocean of debris. The refuse of middle-class lives bobbing in the dark current - refrigerators, sofa cushions, whiskey bottles, a child's slide, a hot tub. Strange metal platforms protrude above the water. They're the roofs of cars and trucks. Next to each one, a stream of gasoline trickles to the surface.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The little wires, you got to be careful.

BURNETT: We come upon the body of a large black man in a T-shirt lying face down on the roof of a small sedan, as though embracing it. His corpse has swollen prodigiously in the torpid heat. It's the fifth body they've spotted in two hours. Officer French radios the dispatcher. Body recovery teams are supposed to be out later this week.

FRENCH: 1722 Franklin Avenue. 1722 Franklin Avenue, 329 on top of a vehicle.

RATH: God, what a story. NPR's John Burnett and Greg Allen spent months covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the devastation caused by the city's failed infrastructure.

RATH: But the hurricane devastated other parts of the Gulf Coast. Mississippi suffered some of the heaviest damage from the storm. Here is then Mississippi governor, Haley Barbour, after he toured the area.


HALEY BARBOUR: I would say 90 percent of the structures between the beach and the railroad at Biloxi, Gulfport, Long Beach and Pass Christian are totally destroyed. They're not severely damaged, T=they're simply not there.

RATH: Former NPR correspondent Kathy Lohr saw the devastation firsthand. She was reporting from some of the hardest hit areas in Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss.

KATHY LOHR: Before the hurricane, there were a series of casinos along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. And they were on barges basically, floating barges. So when the storm hit, it was such a great force, and there was a 28 to 30-foot storm surge. And it picked these barges up and threw them into the coastline. So what I saw was a casino just sitting in the middle of the road as you're trying to drive down one of the main thoroughfares, which is Highway 90. And it's just such a shock to see this.


MATT LEE: It is total devastation. I mean, it's just - it's crazy.

LOHR: Matt Lee (ph), a resident, says he's been walking around for 12 hours in the all-but-vacant streets.

LEE: And these huge casinos uprooted, you know, straight out of the water and put in the middle of the highway. I'm speechless. There's nothing I can really even make of it.

LOHR: And I think that's the situation for a lot of people that live there is that there were so - first of all, the homes were half missing - there was so much missing. People just couldn't find their belongings. They couldn't recognize the area.

RANDALL SCUPPY: There's no question about it. A lot of people thought that they were safe and they weren't.

LOHR: Randall Scuppy (ph) and his wife Lila (ph) have lived in Biloxi all their lives. They look dog tired. They are sweaty. But mostly, they're disturbed that looting came to their neighborhood.

R. SCUPPY: The neighbors down the street saw some people with my guitar and my amplifiers after the storm. And we still don't know anything else that we're missing. We don't know yet. Well, we don't know if somebody...

LILA SCUPPY: We'll never know because everything went out the windows.

R. SCUPPY: There's a lot of things missing, but we don't know if it was looted or if it washed out into the bay.

LOHR: There were piles and piles of debris everywhere. I mean, there was also trailers from processing plants that had been there, that had been thrown around and kind of washed up. And so what I vividly remember is the smell of rotting chicken and walking around in this foot-deep muck. It was mud and sand and oil and whatever else was in that mixture that was supposed to be toxic and kind of sliding around in it, trying to get a grasp on what had happened there.

RATH: Hurricane Katrina was one of the most costly and devastating disasters in U.S. history. More than 1,800 people died. Over 1.5 million were forced to leave their homes. Today, the Gulf Coast is honoring those who are lost. In New Orleans, there's a parade near the French Quarter - prayer services, barbecues and a resilience festival. In the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Kathy says it's a somber day.

LOHR: Many communities are holding memorial services or remembrances and some are holding some celebrations. But the people that I've spoken to in this past week are really telling me this is not a celebration for them. I mean, first of all, there's still a lot of work that needs to be done. There's still a lot of homes that have not been rebuilt, businesses that maybe didn't come back. And so there's still some shock going on. I think people are nervous, and they just are not sure that this is really the time to celebrate.

RATH: NPR's John Burnett says parts of New Orleans also still bear the scars of Katrina. But today, there's hope.

BURNETT: The poor folks had a much harder time coming back, and many are not back. Those with means could rebuild better. But so much of the city has had a renaissance. New Orleans East and the Lower Nine are still in sad shape. But it's just remarkable that we really - there was a time we thought we would lose New Orleans. We really did. And it couldn't be farther from the case.

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