On a brutally hot August day, with temperatures in the triple digits, photographer Tyrone Turner and I went to see a group of volunteers from the community advocacy group ACORN who were working on a modest brick ranch house in New Orleans East. ACORN was gutting mold-infested houses for free, with donated tools, safety garb, and labor, to try to keep the structures from being razed by the city. The volunteers, dressed from head to toe in respirators, hard hats, safety goggles, and suffocating white Tyvec suits, had to stop every 15 minutes or so to sit in the shade and replenish their fluids to stave off heat stroke, their only reward a growing pile of black rubbish on the curb that was the flotsam and jetsam of one family's life. It was hot, heartbreaking work, and yet the volunteers were taking it in stride. They were black, white, Asian American, from all over the country. Meg Reath, of Haddonfield, New Jersey, had just graduated from college with a degree in political science. She'd bought a one-way ticket to New Orleans and wasn't sure when she was going home.
"I just thought I'd come down and see what I could do," Reath said. "The work sucks, but when you see the resolve of the communities so nearly ruined, how can you not help them?"
Jason Metcalf-Lindenburger, a seventh-grade history teacher from Clear Lake, Texas, gave up his summer to help out and was sleeping on an ACORN member's couch. "I just thought I'd come on over and give a hand instead of watching it on TV," he said. When I asked him what the best thing about the effort was, he didn't hesitate. "The people working here are just great. Like always, it's just the people."
All of which made me realize that even if Hurricane Katrina showed American bureaucracy and politics at its worse, the response to the disaster from average citizens showed the nation at its very best.
What was the trickiest part of the assignmet?
I'm not sure if I'd call it my worst experience, but by far the biggest gut-check I had during my reporting was the afternoon Tyrone and I took Dr. Bob Bea of the University of California, Berkeley, up in a helicopter last March to inspect the rebuilt hurricane protection system. Bea, an engineering professor who'd examined the levee failures caused by Katrina for the Independent Levee Investigation Team, had picked out nearly a dozen weak spots in the system that left the city vulnerable to the next major storm. The threat is out of sight, out of mind for most people on the ground in the city—much of which sits below sea level behind big earthen and concrete walls, making it hard to tell just how low it is or how close it is to water. Even flying low in a helicopter, it was hard to get the full impact. But then Tyrone asked the pilot to take us up to 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) for an overview of the city. It was a little unnerving to hover a mile (1.6 kilometers) in the air in a tiny chopper with the doors off, but when I pried my mind from that aspect and took a look around, the real threat to the city was plainly apparent. The city is already essentially an island, surrounded by Lake Pontchartrain, Lake Borgne, the encroaching Breton Sound, the Mississippi River, and just beyond the West Bank, Barataria Bay. Bea, who had never seen the city from this perspective, was equally moved. "New Orleans' future cannot be its past," his voice crackled over the intercom, implying that the city could not lapse back into its old politically tinged ways of developing its marshes or building its levees if it had any hopes of a future. And yet that seems to be exactly what the city is doing.
Did you come across anything particularly interesting?
One afternoon I went out to visit Mr. Raymond Fernandez, an oysterman I'd met in 2000 when I came down to write a story on Delacroix Island. Mr. Raymond, as he's called by most folks, lived on the road to Ycloskey, one of a half dozen or so little fishing villages that lay outside the hurricane protection levees in St. Bernard Parish. In 2000, he and his wife lived on the second floor of a small cinder-block building, above his oyster shucking operation. But it was the big mound of earth behind his place that caught my eye from the road. He told me he'd been wiped out by the 1947 hurricane that destroyed his home in Shell Beach, then wiped out by Hurricane Flossie in 1956, and again by Hurricane Betsy in 1965. He started building his hill shortly after Betsy and planned to one day build a retirement house up there that would be safe from any storm.
Today, I wanted to see if he'd finished his grand plan. Sure enough, when I pulled up next to the rubble that was once his oyster business and home, a neat white cottage stood atop the mound, the only unscathed structure for miles. Mr. Raymond tumbled out of his FEMA trailer to show me the place he designed and built pretty much himself. "This hill isn't man-made, it's handmade," he says proudly as we walk. "I put many a shovel of dirt on this hill." When Katrina hit St. Bernard with some 17 feet (5 meters) of surge and waves, the water got to the doorsill of his new home and stopped. That, in itself, was pretty amazing, but then Mr. Raymond told me why he thought it was spared. Ten days before Katrina hit, his priest at St. Pedro Catholic Church had dropped off the new crucifix for the house that Mr. Raymond had ordered. "He pointed to this hill and my home and says, 'You're going to be king of the hill.' " And so he is.