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

Aug 29, 2015
Originally published on August 31, 2015 7:41 pm

On the morning of Aug. 28, 2005, the National Weather Service issued an urgent weather alert.

"Devastating damage expected," the message read. "Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks ... Perhaps longer."

A day later, on the morning of Aug. 29 — 10 years ago Saturday — Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast. By that afternoon, the storm had slowly moved on. It appeared that the worst was over.

"The city officials were glibly saying, 'Looks like we dodged the bullet,' " recalls NPR's John Burnett. "And in fact, the bullet hit us in a bull's-eye."

Burnett and NPR's Greg Allen were hunkered down in hotels in New Orleans at the time. Burnett remembers when they first realized that the disaster was just beginning.

"The water was creeping up through the city, covering 80 percent of it," Burnett says. "And all of a sudden, all of the plans, and the investigative reports, and all of the modeling that the city had feared, was coming to pass. This was the big one, and it was almost too mammoth to comprehend."

The hurricane decimated other parts of the Gulf Coast, too. Mississippi suffered some of the heaviest damage from the storm.

Former NPR correspondent Kathy Lohr saw the devastation in the state firsthand. Reporting from some of the hardest-hit areas, in Gulfport and Biloxi, she saw wreckage ripped from the water and splayed across roadways. Those stark images still stay with her, she says.

"Floating barges that had been casinos in the Biloxi-Gulfport area were picked up and slammed down onto the shore. The three-story Copa Casino [barge], which was a pastel pink, ended up in the middle of Highway 90," Lohr says. "And it's just such a shock to see."

Hurricane Katrina ultimately became one of the most costly and destructive disasters in U.S. history. Some 1,800 people died; 1.5 million were forced to leave their homes. In property damage alone, costs amounted to $108 billion — as expensive as the entire Apollo moon-landing project.

Burnett, Allen and Lohr reported from the ground in the midst of the storm and its aftermath. Below — and at the audio link above — they share their memories of the devastation.

John Burnett

The indelible memory I have of covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans was how quickly and completely a modern, powered, connected, policed, orderly American city can descend into utter chaos.

There was no 911 service; streets were impassable. No emergency rooms, no electricity, no stores, no communication system. The city had become pre-industrial, medieval.

And no one was coming. No one was in charge. No one knew what to do. Once people were rescued from rooftops and deposited on dry land, they were left completely on their own.

Reporters became, in some cases, first responders. We were the first individuals that some evacuees encountered when they trudged out of their underwater neighborhoods. They wanted food, water, diapers, medicine — they didn't want an interview. All we could do was get their stories. I recall an overwhelming sense of powerlessness that we could not do more to help people, instead of just making deadline.

Of course we had a job to do, because the rest of the country needed to see and hear what was happening to this great Southern city. They needed to see that the reassuring pronouncements from federal officials meant absolutely nothing. New Orleans had dissolved into bedlam and the scale of the disaster had overwhelmed every local, state and federal emergency response plan formulated to handle a major hurricane.

The storm didn't just strip the city of law and order and utility services. It stripped people down and revealed who they were. How would you react? Some police stayed on the job heroically. Others abandoned the city. Still others joined the looters. Some flood victims preyed on one another. But most of the victims of Katrina helped one another. I watched people at the Morial Convention Center sharing water, sandwiches, and clean clothes lifted from the mall next door.

What I will never forget is the sense of despair in the voices of evacuees waiting in the squalid convention center, day after day, for aid and buses that never came.

"You know, everybody there just felt like trash," remembered Kevin Goodman, a Mardi Gras Indian chief from the 7th Ward. "It was like we was left for dead."

Full story/transcript

Greg Allen

When I arrived in New Orleans with other members of the NPR team, the day before Katrina, we knew the hurricane would be a bad one. We were all familiar with studies and reports that described a scenario very similar to the one that played out. What I hadn't expected was the lawless atmosphere and slow government response after the storm.

I saw the first signs of looting while Katrina was coming ashore. During a lull, when I ventured out, I saw a department store window shattered and goods strewn on the street. Walking into the French Quarter, I got another surprise. When I approached two people with a question, one pulled a gun and warned me away.

The day after Katrina was sunny, and at first it seemed as if New Orleans had avoided the flooding many had predicted. We'd heard reports of levee breaches and producer Muthoni Muturi and I soon saw the flooding firsthand. We went to the B.W. Cooper homes, a public housing complex. Many first-floor units were already flooded. We talked to residents making plans to get out. That's when I saw that our car, which I'd parked on a dry street, was now surrounded by water.

When people realized the floodwaters were rising, it seemed to raise the level of panic and lawlessness in the city. A few blocks away, we saw our first dead body. Covered with a plastic sheet, we saw a male gunshot victim — lying there, residents said, since the night before. Driving through the city, we saw people lined up outside a chain drug store, filing in through the shattered doors and coming out carrying goods.

I quickly found out that being a reporter in that situation can be dicey. I saw a man who, like me, was watching the activity. With microphone in hand, I asked him if he would describe what's going on. He glared at me and said, "No." When I asked why, he said, "Because I'm not a snitch."

By the time we got to the city's largest "shelter of last resort," the Louisiana Superdome, it was two days after the storm. Floodwaters surrounded the sports arena. We were able to hitch a ride in on a National Guard high-water truck. The Superdome was truly a miserable place. Inside, with no air conditioning or ventilation, it was stifling and the smell was terrible. Outside, people lay on sheets of cardboard on walkways usually populated by sports fans on their way to Saints games. When it was time to leave, we found ourselves wading through waist-deep water.

Just as surprising as the lawless atmosphere was the slow government response. Many at the Superdome had been waiting for days on buses they'd been promised would take them to shelters in Baton Rouge and other cities. Four days after the storm, I was aboard the Algiers ferry, which was picking up people from the flooded communities of Arabi and Chalmette. Many said they'd been waiting for help since the storm.

I've been back to New Orleans many times since then and reported on the city's progress. The mountains of debris eventually disappeared; many neighborhoods were rebuilt. Some business districts, such as those in Central City and the Freret neighborhood, are more vital than before the storm. Ten years out, you see few of the telltale marks of Katrina anymore — the discolored flood lines and spray-painted X's left by rescue teams that searched houses after the storm.

Some neighborhoods may not be fully repopulated for decades. In the Lower 9th Ward, only about a third of the households came back. Some longtime residents told me they feel now they made a mistake returning and rebuilding their homes in the still-desolate neighborhood.

New Orleans today has 110,000 fewer people than before Katrina. But something important is happening there. Rebuilding and recovery brought new people, new businesses, even new industries to the city. For years before Katrina, the city's population was steadily shrinking. Now, it's growing.

Full story/transcript

Kathy Lohr

Katrina's nearly 30-foot storm surge and the tornadoes that came in with the hurricane flattened or damaged nearly every home, building and business along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The live oaks that lined this once-picturesque area were cracked open and uprooted.

And there was so much debris — piles and piles of splintered wood, sagging insulation, shattered glass and the unrecognizable tiny pieces of tens of thousands of lives.

Trailers full of raw chicken washed up and were wrenched open in the storm. The meat started rotting almost immediately in the thick August heat. The stench was overwhelming — the rotting chicken, the sour slimy mess of debris that washed ashore, combined with natural gas leaks that smelled like rotten eggs.

There was no electricity and no water and almost no way to communicate with people, unless you found them in a shelter or near the remains of their home.

Much of the national attention was focused on the levee disaster in New Orleans, but people were facing catastrophic conditions in Mississippi, too.

Those who first emerged after the storm were in a deep shock. You could see the disbelief and the worry. Some said they've been afraid for years. Every time the next named storm is brewing offshore, it sends shivers to this area.

Some were not able to rebuild their homes for years. Others may never move back. In some neighborhoods, the shells of houses or just the foundations of homes remain.

It's the struggle to find a way to rebuild that defines these Mississippi communities. For many, this is not yet a time to celebrate, but rather another milepost along the journey.

Full story/transcript
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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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.