Memoirs from Teenage Survivors of Katrina Images of death and suffering dominated the media coverage of Hurricane Katrina last year -- but pictures of looting also sparked national anger and debate. Slate senior editor Andy Bowers profiles a pair of teenagers in New Orleans who witnessed the looting first-hand.
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Memoirs from Teenage Survivors of Katrina

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Memoirs from Teenage Survivors of Katrina

Memoirs from Teenage Survivors of Katrina

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY.

In New Orleans many houses and stores were looted last year after the hurricane. Government officials and home owners blasted the looters as ruthless thieves. Our colleague, Andy Bowers, from the online magazine Slate, has been talking with high school students in New Orleans. Here's Andy with a different perspective on the looting.

ANDY BOWERS reporting:

It's easy in New Orleans to see how much of Hurricane Katrina's legacy is still unresolved. The devastated Lower Ninth Ward looks just as it did in those pictures we all saw last year, minus the water. We also remember pictures of rampant looting, of entire stores being emptied by crowds. Many of those stores remain shuttered today. And it reminds a visitor of the larger moral question we asked ourselves last year. When, in a crisis, is taking someone else's property justified?

Ms. VICKEY BROWN (New Orleans Resident): There was a parking lot full of people. I was scared to go in because there was so much going on. They were running over people, going wild and crazy like mad people.

BOWERS: That's 16-year-old Vickey Brown talking about the frightening scene at a Winn Dixie supermarket near her New Orleans home after the hurricane passed. In an essay for Slate, from which she reads here, Vickey says she was too scared to enter the dark, flooded and chaotic store herself, but her brother wanted to get some food.

Ms. BROWN: So he went into the building and came out with a whole lot of junk. What's going on in there? Why you just came back with junk, I said.

Man, it's dark in there. I can't see a thing. So I grabbed anything I could get and got the hell out of there.

BOWERS: Sixteen-year-old Melvin Carter was living in a housing project during the hurricane. Before evacuating to the Superdome, he and his cousins went to get some food from the project store.

Mr. MELVIN CARTER (New Orleans Resident): We were going to the store because like people was running out of food. But we couldn't get in through the front because they had a gate on the door. So like people, they started hitting stuff against the wall, because I guess the wall was weak. And in like 10 minutes they got it down. People just started to run in there and grab stuff that they needed.

BOWERS: Melvin, Vickey and the other kids I interviewed about their experiences talked a lot about the looting they witnessed. Seeing or even taking part in such unusual behavior left an indelible mark on them. But they don't necessarily think it was wrong. Melvin Carter has no qualms about what he did.

Mr. CARTER: You were doing it to survive. You didn't really care what you were doing because it was a matter of life and death.

BOWERS: Vickey Brown says in her area people looted all sorts of stores, from supermarkets to pawn shops to a car dealership. She says some of that was clearly over the line.

Ms. BROWN: Everybody needs food. You don't want nobody to sit up there and be hungry. You've got to live off food and water, understand that. But stealing furniture and stealing TVs and stuff, you don't really need no material things, because material things come and go. But food and water and stuff you really need to survive.

BOWERS: As I toured the city with Vickey and Melvin, they pointed out a car lot that had been thoroughly looted. That went too far, they said. I agreed, but then I remembered a scene from Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds. The hero knows aliens are coming to destroy his town, so he throws his kids into someone else's minivan and takes off.

(Soundbite of movie, War of the Worlds)

Ms. DAKOTA FANNING (Actress): (As Rachel Ferrier) Whose car is this?

Mr. TOM CRUISE (Actor): (As Ray Ferrier) Get in.

Ms. FANNING: Whose car is this?

BOWERS: The scene is not morally ambiguous. We're meant to think, sure, in such an extreme situation I'd steal a car to save my family too. While Katrina wasn't an invasion, it was the worst natural disaster to hit this country in decades. And many of those who waited for outside help did die. So where was the moral line during Katrina? And where will I draw it after the big earthquake we all expect one day in Los Angeles, where I live? That's what I wondered as I drove around New Orleans.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Opinion from Andy Bowers. He's the senior editor for the online magazine Slate. Go to our Web site at npr.org for a link to essays and videos from the kids he met in New Orleans.

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