Editor’s Note: Floodlines was produced as an audio series. If you are able, we encourage you to listen to the series here. Transcripts are for reference only and may contain typos. Please confirm accuracy before quoting.
Vann Newkirk II: I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about a man I don’t know much about. I don’t know what he looked like. I don’t know how old he was. I don’t know where he was born or where he died. What I do know is his name: Richard. He was enslaved, and he was on Last Island in 1856.
Last Island. Isle Dernière. Back then they spoke French in southern Louisiana, and that island was as far south as it got. Last Island was a resort. A place where everybody who was anybody went for the cool salt breeze. The wealthy of America’s slaveocracy would go there in the summer to have balls, parade down the promenade, relax. But behind their leisure was the hand of slave power that ran everything.
I know a little bit more about the man who owned Richard. Thomas Mille was a Frenchman. He ran a sugar plantation out in the bayou. Mille took his family to their mansion on Last Island that summer. On August 9, a Saturday night, they danced in a grand ball in the local hotel. But on Sunday, they looked out into the waves and felt the bracing winds approach. A storm was coming.
That night the winds grew stronger. The scions of Last Island panicked and packed themselves into a hotel. But Richard was worried. He tried to convince the master and his family to leave their mansion and take shelter in a stable. But they refused. The storm’s eye approached. Waves got higher and higher. The surge of water the storm pushed ahead of it raced to the island. It hit like a tidal wave. Through it all, Richard braved the storm in the stable. His only companion that night was an old horse.
The next morning, the only building still standing on Last Island was that stable. Richard and the old horse had made it. Many other folks weren’t so lucky. About half of the people known to be there died. Richard found his master’s 18-year-old daughter bleeding from a head wound and delivered her to safety. She was the only member of her family on Last Island to survive. As far as we know, Richard was the only person they enslaved who survived.
Everything we know about Richard comes from a newspaper interview with the daughter he saved. The story of Last Island became a sensation across America. It was sensational in part because of who died.
In the 1850s, southern Louisiana had the highest concentration of millionaires in the country. The Last Island hurricane had killed a lot of them. The idea of doomed grand balls and final pageants of the plantation aristocracy, it was all so tragic and romantic.
But I don’t really care about that part. I just can’t stop thinking about Richard.
The Last Island hurricane was a Category 4 storm when it hit. It’s been called the “first great storm” in the recorded history of Louisiana. It seems like every generation has one: 1893, 1915, 1947. Each with their stories and their myths. Each with their Richards.
The last big storm in New Orleans was Hurricane Betsy, 1965. And then, for 40 years, it was quiet.
From The Atlantic, I’m Vann Newkirk, and this is Floodlines.
Newkirk II: Part I: “Antediluvian.”
The summer of 2005 was like any other summer. People all over the city of New Orleans were doing what they do: working, going to church, sitting on porches. Kids were out of school and having fun. And maybe nobody was having more fun than Le-Ann Williams.
Le-Ann Williams: Oh, my god. I was a daredevil. A tomboy.
Newkirk II: Le-Ann was 14 that summer. She spent her days playing with her cousins on Dumaine Street in Treme, the black neighborhood known for jazz and second lines.
Williams: They’ll let us run in the street and play freely. But every time a car would come, I remember we’ll say “Car time! Car time!” That mean get out the way. A car coming. You can’t play football, freeze tag, nothing. You gotta get out the way.
Newkirk II: Second lines and parades were such a big part of life around Dumaine that it was how Le-Ann and her cousins played pretend.
Williams: We’ll have the trumpet player, the trombone player, the snare-drum player, the bass-drum player. And the tuba players would have sticks blowing [Hums.]. And my cousin’s friend, he’ll have a big wheel on his neck. And he’ll have it throwed over his shoulder, because you know a tuba is heavy. So that was pretty heavy for him to carry at that age. And we’ll sing and march on down the street.
Newkirk II: Le-Ann was also playing basketball that summer. She was the only girl on the team, and she was known for her lockdown defense.
Williams: They used to be mad. “Get her off the team. Make her go sit down. She all over me.” I’m like: That’s what you're supposed to do. Take the ball away from you. They used to be mad.
Newkirk II: Le-Ann was a basketball fanatic. But those days she had a little extra motivation.
Williams: I had this crush on this boy named Fonso Jones. And Fonso was the point guard. Lord, I had the biggest crush on him.
Newkirk II: That summer, Fonso asked her out. They were an item.
Williams: He’ll walk me home every day. We’ll cut through Dumaine Street and we get to the Claiborne bridge, and the Claiborne bridge leads to my—the project—my house. I stayed on the corner in the front. And he would walk me home every day.
Newkirk II: Le-Ann lived in the Lafitte Projects, just around the way from the Treme community center. Her mom worked on Tulane’s campus, and her stepdad was a star musician in a city full of star musicians. They had plans for Le-Ann. The last school year, she had worked hard to get good grades, and she had just gotten into a fancy high school. She was gonna be starting in August.
Williams: My dad took me school shopping, and I had my Jordans that I wanted. I had my hair in some long braids. We call them “booty braids” in New Orleans because they so long. I thought I was the stuff.
Newkirk II: The first day of school was Thursday, August 25, 2005.
Williams: Couldn’t wait for my first day. I was up at 5 o’clock. Clothes laid out; trying the clothes on the day before in the mirror, looking, trying to see how I looked for my first day of school. I was just so happy.
Newkirk II: Around the time Le-Ann got up, the 11th named tropical storm of the season was heading toward the coast of Florida. It was small then. But strengthening.
Williams: I remember my science teacher Mr. Smith telling us to track the storm. So, I only was able to track it that Thursday and Friday, because I didn’t go to school after that. We had to get prepared for Katrina.
Newkirk II: News anchors and meteorologists first started calling the storm “Katrina” on August 24. A Wednesday. That’s when it gained the 39–mile-an-hour winds needed to become a tropical storm. It came up from the south and east of Florida.
Archival (news clip): You are looking at tropical storm Katrina, and residents in South Florida are keeping a very close eye on the system. It could become a hurricane before it moves in late tomorrow or …
Newkirk II: It became a weak hurricane for a few hours. Then it made landfall just north of Miami.
Archival (news clip): The hurricane came ashore with winds of 80 miles an hour.
Newkirk II: It crossed over the southern tip of Florida Thursday night and Friday morning.
Archival (news clip): Now a Category 2 hurricane making its way across the Gulf of …
Newkirk II: It weakened over land, but entered the warm Gulf of Mexico intact.
Archival (news clip): And Katrina is getting stronger.
Archival (news clip): The storm’s gaining even more strength.
Archival (news clip): With winds of up to 115 miles per hour.
Newkirk II: It was due to strengthen on Saturday.
Archival (news clip): New Orleans, you are in the very big realm of possibility. Let’s take a look at the storm right now.
Archival (news clip): This is the big one! As the mayor put it …
Mark Schleifstein: The big one always has been a Category 5 hurricane that would put so much water over the coast that it would overtop the levees.
Newkirk II: That’s Mark Schleifstein, an environmental reporter in New Orleans.
Schleifstein: I’m known in the office as Darth Schleifstein.
Vann Newkirk: Why is that?
Schleifstein: Oh, because I’m always reporting on, you know, what kind of disaster can occur.
Newkirk II: Mark was worried. And Mark is a guy who covered the worst disasters for years. He’s not the type to get worried easy. He was worried because of a prediction he’d made three years before. In 2002, he and his reporting partner John McQuaid had written a series about “the big one” hitting New Orleans. Following the same path as Katrina.
The stuff they predicted was alarming. A hurricane would hit the city. It would send record-breaking storm surges through the lake and the river. Without wetlands to stop the surge, it would grow higher and higher. All of the drainage and shipping channels around New Orleans would funnel that surge directly into the center of the city. The levees would simply be too low to stop the water. Mark and John predicted a city uninhabitable for at least four months with up to 100,000 people dead. But even their editors were kind of skeptical about the reporting.
Schleifstein: One of my editors actually said, “Well, this is just more of Schleifstein’s disaster porn.” And I said, “Well, you know, like real pornography, disaster porn is in the eye of the beholder, and there’s a hundred thousand people who live in New Orleans who don’t know that there are no plans to get them out in advance of a major hurricane.”
Newkirk II: Did you ever feel like you were—I guess the phrase “shouting into a hurricane” is not a good one here. [Laughs.]
Schleifstein: A Cassandra? Yeah. Yeah. I did.
Newkirk II: When Mark first saw the projections for Katrina, all those visions of the city being destroyed came back to him. He was in touch with Max Mayfield, the director of the National Hurricane Center. Mark was trying to tell his editors how serious the storm was going to be. But it seemed like they just saw more of his disaster porn.
Shleifstein: So it’s 4 o’clock on Saturday in the newsroom, and I’m at my desk. And the editor and publisher are standing behind me while I am attempting to explain why it is important that we run a copy of a storm-surge modeling map on the front page. And some of those same things were coming up. “Well, you know, is this really going to happen? I mean, you know, you’re talking about the death of the city.” La la la. And the phone rings. And I pick it up, and it’s Max Mayfield. And before I had a chance to say anything he says, “Mark, how high is your building? What kind of winds can it withstand?” And I said, “Max, what are you telling me?” He said, “What do you think I’m telling you? This is the big one, and it’s coming right at you.”
Newkirk II: New Orleans was built by levees and pumps, by holding and moving water to create dry land. If you drive long enough in just about any direction, you’ll wind up in water. There’s Lake Pontchartrain to the north. The Mississippi River curves from west to east around the bottom of the city like a smile. The water is such a part of the geography of the city that people use it like directions. Lakebound. Riverbound. Upriver. Downriver. And just downriver from Treme is the Seventh Ward. That’s where Fred Johnson was that weekend. He was getting ready for a parade.
Fred Johnson: And I was oblivious because I was running around picking up different items. And I was not in tune to the weather. And every time I’m in and out the car, I’m listening to music. I’m not listening to the news.
Newkirk II: Fred’s one of those Smokey Robinson types. Smooth. Ageless. Wears lots of gold bracelets and earrings. Has no fear of the patterned shirt. Fred Johnson is a lot of things, but most of all Fred Johnson is a Seventh Ward booster.
Johnson: You had the collectiveness of a village.
Newkirk II: Once you get him started on the old days …
Johnson: We had all African American teachers.
Bar rooms and grocery stores on the corner.
Schools was right across the street.
Newkirk II: He’ll just keep going.
Johnson: They had authority and consent to bust my ass and send me home.
We standing on a corner and we smoking a cigarette.
And, you know, we just blowing smoke talking crap. And I look up, and I see Miss Melville.
Oh shit. I took off running. [Laughs.]
Newkirk II: Fred co-founded a group in the city called the Black Men of Labor. A social aid and pleasure club. They raise money for good causes. Mentor black youth. And they throw parades like you wouldn’t believe. Their second lines are famous.
Johnson: So late that evening when we said, “Okay that’s all we can do for the day,” when we come out, the guy said, “Hey, man. We got to evacuate.” I’m saying, “What you talking about?” They said, “Yeah, man. They got a storm coming, and they calling for an evacuation.” And I’m like, “Oh, shit. I’m not evacuating. I’m tired. I’m not getting on the road.”
Newkirk II: Fred wasn’t listening to the news, but the people who were listening had heard nothing but confusion. Mayor Ray Nagin dragged his feet on evacuation orders, and then finally made the call just a day before the storm came. Authorities failed to get buses to people, leaving lots of poor people stranded. Nagin declared the Superdome the shelter of last resort. Hospitals and nursing homes couldn’t get patients out. Even with that, about 80 percent of the population managed to evacuate. Which has never happened before. But still, about 100,000 people were left in the city.
Alice Craft-Kerney: So what I did was I stayed—I had worked, I guess, like 12 hours. I was so tired. I was seeing double.
Newkirk II: Alice Craft-Kerney was working as a nurse at Charity Hospital on Saturday. She worked the night shift and didn’t get off until Sunday morning. Lots of hospital employees had already evacuated, so they were understaffed.
Craft-Kerney: I was just literally exhausted because so many people had called off. They said, “I’m not coming to work. I’m not coming to work.” So, you know, we had more patients. And I mean, I was—I never stopped running.
Newkirk II: Charity served lots of poor folks without insurance. Alice had worked there for almost 20 years.
Craft-Kerney: I just fell in love with it because the people look like me who I served. And they had so many needs.
Newkirk II: Now there are a lot of things that Alice will not say directly. But she has a tell when she wants to say something that might be a little controversial. She’ll tell you what she will say.
Craft-Kerney: Now, what I will say is when I was there my mission was to make sure they treated my people well. Okay. I’ve made sure that when the doctors seemed like they were a little callous, I said, “Look. This person needs this, this, and this.” And I was their advocate, but I had great nurses before me who taught me.
Newkirk II: After her Saturday night shift, the idea of evacuating at the last minute just didn’t look great.
Craft-Kerney: And so, as I was driving here the lines to get out of the city were crazy. So, I went to my brother’s home in the Lower Ninth Ward. His house was elevated. He has a three-story historic home in the Lower Ninth Ward. So that’s where I went.
Newkirk II: The Lower Ninth Ward is on the east side of the Industrial Canal, separated from the main area of New Orleans. Way back in the day, the neighborhood was swampland. There’s old stories of escaped enslaved folks hiding out there. But by the time Alice’s folks were looking for a place, it was a thriving neighborhood.
Craft-Kerney: The Lower Ninth Ward was like, I guess you could say, Mayberry for me.
Newkirk II: Her mother, Miss Hattie, still lived in the pink house where she’d raised Alice and her six siblings. Growing up, all of Alice’s friends used to stop by for Miss Hattie’s cooking.
Craft-Kerney: They would come and say, “Miss Hattie, what you frying?” And so she said, “Oh, I’m just frying some cornbread. You want some?” So they would have cornbread and syrup. And you just see them lined up.
Newkirk II: The pink house had flooded before during Hurricane Betsy, back when Alice was a kid. Alice’s own house was out in the east, which often flooded. So that Sunday before Katrina, her brother’s three-story house seemed like the safest place.
Craft-Kerney: The highest part of New Orleans is near the river. My brother lives near the river. He lives in an area called Holy Cross. So he has some of the highest land, as far as elevation, in the city.
Newkirk II: One fascinating thing about New Orleans is that the Mississippi built its own levees. All the dirt piles up beside the river over time. That means it’s actually safest right beside the river, because much of the rest of town actually sits below water. People call all that high ground the sliver by the river.
Sandy Rosenthal: Sliver by the river. That is the region of the city that’s six feet or more above sea level—at least six feet above sea level.
Newkirk II: Sandy Rosenthal moved to New Orleans 40 years ago.
Rosenthal: I am originally from the Boston area of Massachusetts. I still know how to park the car.
Newkirk II: Sandy married a local. They lived upriver from the French Quarter in a neighborhood that’s wealthier and whiter than the rest of the city: Uptown.
Rosenthal: I taught fitness because I enjoyed it, not because I needed the money. I played a lot of tennis. I was seeing girlfriends a lot for lunch. I would say that’s the typical Uptown housewife girl that I was.
Newkirk II: In New Orleans, you’re always dealing with “nuisance” floods. Water-up-to-your-car-tires kind of stuff. But Sandy wasn’t too worried about flooding Uptown.
Rosenthal: There had not been a major hurricane in 40 years. We knew we had levees. Most people paid absolutely no attention to them. If anything, the levees were hills that were sometimes fun to roll on. We just assumed they would work.
Newkirk II: When Sandy and her family heard Katrina was coming, they moved all their stuff upstairs to the second floor of the house and joined the long line of cars driving north. The plan was to get out of the city for a little bit and wait in a hotel somewhere for it to blow over. It’d be like a vacation.
Le-Ann Williams: We didn’t have any transportation. So my mom was pretty scared, but we didn’t have a car or anything to leave. And she didn’t want us to go to the Superdome. That was out.
Newkirk II: Le-Ann Williams and her family didn’t really have a way out of the city. So they decided to do what they thought was the next best thing: take shelter in her mom’s apartment in the Lafitte Projects.
Williams: We in the project. The bricks not gonna move. They not moving for a hurricane. So they all came by us.
Newkirk II: Sunday afternoon, Le-Ann and her cousin Aralle were making the most of their time before the storm started. They rode around the neighborhood on bikes and stopped by the wing spot on the corner.
Williams: They was giving out free chicken—just frying chicken and giving out free chicken. And we went got us some free chicken, my mama free chicken, and everything. I guess they were trying to get rid of the food, you know, before the power goes out. We rode up Dumaine. We rode up Villere. We rode up Treme. And the rain was coming down on us, and we getting soaking wet. We were laughing, having fun. Teenage girls having fun. Riding the bikes.
Archival (radio clip): It’s United Radio Broadcasters of New Orleans. A service of WWL-AM …
Newkirk II: While everyone in the city waited for Katrina to pass, a lot of them tuned in to the local radio station WWL.
Archival (radio clip): Keep your radio locked for continuously updated official information. On the AM dial, the Big 870 WWL.
Newkirk II: If they were tuned in that weekend, they would’ve heard the voice of Garland Robinette. Garland had been on the air for decades in New Orleans, mostly as an anchor on TV news. He’d retired, though, years before. But that Saturday before Katrina hit, he was filling in for his sick friend. From the beginning, he had a bad feeling about the storm.
Garland Robinette: I came out of a coffee shop and there was a big palm tree. And in the middle of it was green parrots. Somebody let a pet out, and it propagated like hundreds of them. And every time you’d come out of the coffee shop, it’d be like you couldn’t hear yourself think. I walked out, I looked up, no parrots. Walked to the end of the street, looked around. No dogs, no cats, no birds.
Newkirk II: On the radio, he found that the callers were just as nervous as he was.
Robinette: And people start calling in, you know. “We’re on the way out. Don’t see any birds. Don’t see anything.”
Newkirk II: On Sunday night, Katrina got closer and closer to New Orleans. Garland and his team were broadcasting from a high-rise building not too far from the Superdome.
Robinette: I think we were on the eighth or ninth floor. We had a gigantic window behind me overlooking the Superdome.
Newkirk II: Just around the corner at the Hyatt hotel, Fred Johnson and a bunch of his friends had decided to wait out the storm, too. It’s something people always did in the city when hurricanes came. If you couldn’t get out, you went up.
Johnson: So we end up on the—some 10th, 12th floor, or whatever the case is. They having a hurricane party. I mean, they drinking their asses off. I’m like, “No. No. Give me an O’Doul’s.”
Newkirk II: The rain picked up late Sunday and never stopped. And in those high-rise buildings in downtown New Orleans, the winds started getting dangerous.
Robinette: The wind started hitting, and it started howling a little bit.
Newkirk II: That giant window behind Garland started rattling.
Robinette: It sounded like whoop, whoop, whoop. Pop. Just exploded. And engineers came in, got me out real quick. Took me down a hallway. The station on the inside was just destroyed. Glass everywhere, furniture all—and they took me down to a closet. I broadcast all night from the closet.
Johnson: About 10 o’clock that night, they made a call on the PA system, because now they realize that the windows would not withstand the velocity of the wind. And if the wind pushed the window in, you could get sucked out. So they said, “Take your bed spread and bring your toiletries and come down to the third-floor ballroom.” So when I get to the third-floor ballroom, there is people all over the place. So I made a pallet on the floor, and I had on a khaki shirt and the khaki pants and a pair of little summer shoes. And I think I had on a little khaki Kangol cap, and I just pulled the cap over my eyes, because the level of fear that was in the room, I was trying to not to visualize it.
Le-Ann Williams: I could just remember this loud whistling sound. Katrina had a pack on her. I'm telling you. She did.
Newkirk II: Katrina moved in slowly. The rain and winds got stronger and stronger all night. Across the city, all of the defiance in the face of the storm settled into a kind of tension. Le-Ann and her family kept an eye on the TV news, watching things go from bad to worse. Finally, there was one weatherman who broke:
Williams: He had fear in his face. You could tell he was scared. He was like, “May God be with you.” And when he said that, the power went woo. It went out. That was the last thing of having any kind of communication to outside. That was it.
Archival (news clip): From ABC News, this is World News Tonight. Reporting from ABC News headquarters, Charles Gibson. Good evening. Katrina was bad. Very bad. But Katrina did jog slightly east just before hitting land, and that spared New Orleans—a city actually below sea level—the kind of direct hit that residents have worried about and feared for years.
Newkirk II: Katrina, it turned out, wasn’t the “big one.” At least not in New Orleans. Around 10 p.m. on Sunday night, forecasters knew the storm had weakened. It made a turn to the east. But as it hit the Gulf Coast, the hurricane did massive damage and caused hundreds of deaths in parts of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama.
Archival (news clip): In the area around Gulfport and Biloxi, it is a very dire situation …
Archival (news clip): State authorities are gonna be in rescue mode long into this night. This is the worst storm to hit Mississippi in over 35 years …
Newkirk II: In New Orleans, though, compared to the doomsday scenario, it was a little less extreme. Houses were flooded. Roofs had been blown off. Windows were shattered. It was bad, but not apocalyptic-bad. The people who evacuated could come back soon. And the people who stayed had hopes things would get right back to normal.
Le-Ann and her cousin Aralle were in a quiet, pitch-black New Orleans for the first time in their lives. They went outside to take it all in.
Williams: I just couldn’t believe how many stars was in the sky. And we just sit and talked about us, and when we get back to school. We can’t wait till this over with, and they drain the water out the city. I can’t wait to go back to Treme Center, so Fonso could walk me home. The city was black. No streetlights, no nothing. You were able to see the sky. It was, it was beautiful.
Newkirk II: Le-Ann couldn’t have known it then, but the city was already on borrowed time. Levees across New Orleans had already been breached, and at that very moment, millions of gallons of water were pouring into the city. That water would not stop for days until the entire city had been filled.
The country would watch while the city’s people were betrayed. Everything was about to change.
Because in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina was not the disaster. The disaster was what happened after.
Editor’s Note: Floodlines was produced as an audio series. If you are able, we encourage you to listen to the series here. Transcripts are for reference only and may contain typos. Please confirm accuracy before quoting.
Vann Newkirk II: Fred Johnson slept through Katrina on the floor of the grand ballroom of the Hyatt hotel. He and hundreds of people were camped out there. They shared blue and gold hotel sheets just waiting in the darkness for it all to pass.
Fred Johnson: So we wake up the next morning, and one thing leads to another. Said, “Well, let’s go see if we can get out.”
Newkirk II: Fred had been through hurricanes before. He wasn’t too worried. The place was still standing. But the ballroom didn’t have windows, so he went to take a look outside.
Johnson: It’s sunny. It’s warm. And it’s, it’s calm. It’s calm as shit! Right. So we like, “Okay. Maybe I was right. This thing done came in and went out. We gonna be all right.”
Newkirk II: As far as Fred was concerned, he still had a job to do. Every year, he and the Black Men of Labor threw their parade on the Sunday before Labor Day. It was supposed to be in six days. And the second line on Sunday is sacred to Fred. He wasn’t gonna let a little hurricane get in the way.
Johnson: The second line has to do with slavery. New Orleans, hands down, is probably one of the most African American cities in America. And as you get to delving, you will understand the level of slave trade that took place here.
Newkirk II: All the things Fred loves about it—jazz, Mardi Gras, gumbo—trace back to his ancestors. The enslaved people who built the city. Back when the French controlled New Orleans, it was Catholic. Even the enslaved people had to take the holy day off. So on Sundays, they would get together.
Johnson: So the slaves came from all up and down the river, and they made their way to what became Congo Square. And in Congo Square, they had a chance to revisit, to sing, dance, cry, laugh, talk, exchange foods—because that was the closest thing that brought them back to where they had been taken from. So Sunday became a big deal.
Newkirk II: New Orleans culture grew out of moments like those, and Fred loved all the pieces of it. He’d masked Indian, had been to Mardi Gras balls, and helped found a social aid and pleasure club. But for him, the Sunday parade is where it all comes together.
Johnson: You could just come out your door and get behind this band and go with them from bar to bar and forget about all of the harsh treatment that white people had inflicted on you, all the ugly names that they had called you. There was something in these African American people that you could not kill and you could not take from them. And it was their soul. Most of your parades are Sundays, right? Mahalia Jackson and Duke Ellington—
Newkirk II: Old Sunday?
Johnson: Come Sunday. Right. So Monday when I go to work, no matter how ill I was treated, I know that Sunday was coming. And somebody was going to have a parade.
Newkirk II: That morning after Katrina, even thinking about throwing a parade might have seemed ridiculous. The parts of Louisiana and Mississippi that were hit directly had been flattened. New Orleans had supposedly dodged a bullet, but the city was still pretty beat up. Fred wanted to go see for himself. He and a friend walked across the street to try and find a ride.
Johnson: And there was a lady, a white woman who was driving a cab. Said, “Miss, you working?” She said yeah. So we got in the cab. And we go Basin to Conti.
Newkirk II: Fred directed the cab east from downtown toward the Seventh Ward. They passed Congo Square. They headed toward the headquarters of the Black Men of Labor: a bar called Sweet Lorraine’s.
Johnson: But as we go closer to Sweet Lorraine’s, we begin to see some water—not a lot. And we going lake-bound. But as I could see in the distance, there was something that wasn’t moving, but it was red. And I’m like, “What is that back there?” The closer she got from Roman to Johnson Street, I said, “Oh, no. Turn around.” Because now I realize it was the fire truck, and it was stuck in water. And you could just see the top of it. So as you get closer to Galvez and Miro, the water was getting deeper and deeper and deeper. And if I didn’t talk to this woman, she was gonna drive us into this water. I said, “Oh, no. No. No. No. Turn around. Turn around. Turn around. Turn around now.”
Newkirk II: Up until then, Fred was determined. Black New Orleanians had paraded through slavery, through Jim Crow, and definitely some bad weather. But water that high—high enough to cover a fire truck—Fred figured immediately:
Johnson: We got some breaches.
Newkirk II: He didn’t know how many levees had breached—how bad it was for the rest of the city. But he did know one thing.
Johnson: The first thing that’s in my mind is, Damn we ain’t never gonna get the parade on the street now.
Newkirk II: Part II: “Come Sunday.”
There were over 50 levee breaches in the New Orleans area after Katrina. Putting together the exact reasons the city flooded when and where it did is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle of geography, water, channels, bayous, and canals. It took a long time for even the people who lived there to understand exactly what happened. I’ll do my best here. Okay. So, first thing: Louisiana is shaped like a boot. The toe dips into the Gulf of Mexico. New Orleans is right above it. So not on the Gulf, but pretty close.
Second thing: Lots of the city is below sea level. The lake to the north and the river to the south are both higher than most of the city. People look up to see ships floating by.
Third thing: There were two big shipping channels around New Orleans. One runs north to south, from the lake to the river. Splits off the Lower Ninth Ward from the rest of the city. It’s called the Industrial Canal. The other one ran to the southeast from the city. It connects the Industrial Canal to the Gulf. Locals called it the “Mr. Go” (MRGO).
And the last thing—I promise—is about how hurricanes work. Lots of the danger from a hurricane doesn’t come from the rain or the wind itself, but from a wall of water the wind pushes out in front of it. It’s called a storm surge.
So here’s what happened. Katrina made landfall southeast of the city, near where the MRGO connected to the Gulf. It pushed a wall of water ahead of it. That storm surge was funneled through shipping channels toward the city. There was so much water that the levees along the MRGO started to fail. Flooding started out in St. Bernard, a suburban parish southeast of the city.
The surge then pushed up toward where the MRGO intersects with the Industrial Canal. When the surge got close to the Lower Ninth Ward, levees failed on the neighborhood’s north side. The water started creeping up.
Alice Craft-Kerney: Everybody’s vehicles were sitting in my brother’s yard. And first of all, it was coming up to the tires. And I’m like, Okay. Then it got on the door, and I’m like, Okay!
Newkirk II: Alice Craft-Kerney had been too tired from her nursing shift at Charity Hospital to evacuate. She was with her family in her brother’s house in the Lower Ninth Ward. Around 8 a.m., on the west side of the neighborhood, the Industrial Canal levee gave way, too. And 18 feet of water went through.
Craft-Kerney: Then, our cars were submerged. That’s when we knew the levees had breached.
Newkirk II: Close to the Industrial Canal breach, things were catastrophic. The water destroyed lots of houses. It knocked others off their foundations; some floated blocks away. Dozens of people drowned. Survivors were trapped in attics or on roofs for days.
Archival (news clip): I think the biggest concern they have is the survivability of these people that are still trapped …
Archival (news clip): Thousands upon thousands of homes were flooded completely up to the roofline. It was absolutely an amazing sight …
Archival (news clip): You can hear people yelling for help. You can hear the dogs yelping, all of them stranded, all of them hoping someone will come.
Newkirk II: Alice was near the river on some of the highest ground in the city. She would say she was blessed in all this. The water stopped rising before it got into her brother’s house. But her own house was out in the east. She knew it was probably underwater already.
Craft-Kerney: I’m thinking I’ve lost everything. I’ve lost everything.
Newkirk II: Because the Lower Ninth Ward is cut off from the rest of the city by the Industrial Canal, the flooding there would be contained. Everyone knew that neighborhood was vulnerable to floods after hurricanes. In 1965, Hurricane Betsy had overtopped and broken the levees and drowned the neighborhood. But no living person had ever seen Uptown underwater. The levees on the river and the lake were supposed to be safe. But around 11 that morning, Times Picayune reporter Mark Schleifstein got a disturbing call.
Mark Schleifstein: It must have been somebody in the emergency management office. Told me that, you know, “Hey, we had some firefighters who were up on the top floor of an apartment building. It’s an apartment building that’s right on the lake.”
Newkirk II: The firefighters were on the west side of the city, in the well-off Lakeview neighborhood. That’s where Mark lived. Lakeview was right next to the 17th Street drainage canal. The canal was designed to drain water out of the city and pump it up to the lake.
Schleifstein: And they looked down, and they saw that a piece of the wall had failed and that Lakeview was flooding with water running in continuously from the lake. I mean, I knew that was completely unprecedented. At that point, it was extremely clear to me that my house was going to flood very soon if it wasn’t already underwater.
Newkirk II: If Lakeview was flooding, that was a big deal. It meant that most of the city was going underwater. It wouldn’t just be black neighborhoods. Not just poor ones either. It would be white neighborhoods, wealthy ones, city buildings, fancy condos. There’d be no stopping it.
Archival (press conference): How fast is it rising? Is it rising very fast in the most seriously flooded areas of New Orleans?
Well, it’s rising in the downtown area. It’s rising in the downtown area, but I would describe it as slowly rising. But again …
Newkirk II: This is from a press conference on Tuesday with Governor Kathleen Blanco and Louisiana’s two senators Mary Landrieu and David Vitter. A full day after the 17th Street levees had breached. They’re talking about the progress of rescue efforts in New Orleans.
Archival (press conference): In the huge majority of areas, it’s not rising at all. It’s the same, or it may be lowering slightly. In some parts of New Orleans, because of the 17th Street breach, it may be rising. And that seemed to be the case in parts of downtown. But I don’t want to alarm everybody that, you know, New Orleans is filling up like a bowl. That’s just not happening.
Newkirk II: Actually, that’s exactly what was happening. Thousands of lives were in the balance. But it wasn’t clear that the people in charge even knew.
Archival (news interview): If I had five rescuers, there seems to be 50,000 people that need rescuing.
Newkirk II: At the time of that press conference, many streets were only passable by boat. The agencies that got out there first were the ones that had them. The Coast Guard and Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries were in the water within hours of landfall. But a lot of people just grabbed anything that would float and saved each other, too.
Archival (news clip): Rescue boats zigzag through flooded streets, which had become canals …
Archival (news clip): An armada of rescue craft manned by volunteers across the region is unloading victims …
Archival (news clip): Even today, hundreds and hundreds of people rescued from their rooftops after spending more than 24 hours on rooftops waiting to be evacuated …
Newkirk II: In Treme, Le-Ann Williams and her family were also waiting to be rescued. They didn’t have power. They went out to try to find supplies. Somebody had broken into the local corner store.
Le-Ann Williams: My mom was scared. “No, don’t go in there! Don’t go in there!” I’m like, “Mom, we have to get food and stuff.”
Newkirk II: Whoever broke in used a post to wedge the door open. Le-Ann waited inside.
Williams: It was dark and full of water. They had chips floating everywhere and everything. And I just looked in there, walking down the aisles in water. And I’m just stuffing the bag with food and drinks for us so we could have to eat.
Newkirk II: Before she went home, Le-Ann went across to the liquor store and grabbed something else. A novelty pen radio. One of those cheap gifts for kids that writes and plays music. When she got back to Lafitte, the family turned it on.
Williams: We was trying to listen and get a connection on the outside because we didn’t have any power.
Archival (radio clip): Gimme line five. Freddie in Lakefront. Freddie, you’re on WWL.
Newkirk II: On Monday evening, one of the people broadcasting was Garland Robinette, the fill-in radio host for the talk show on WWL. After that first night in the closet, the team had made a frantic escape through floodwaters and drove up to Baton Rouge. They kept broadcasting and took calls from people still in New Orleans.
Archival (radio interview): We’re very frightened. We’re just trying to get out of here. We have—we opened the attic. We punched a hole in the attic. Umm, we have candles, and we a little lantern that we keep on raising up. We have flashlights, but they still not saving us.
All right. They’re monitoring this. All I can tell you is to do everything you can to signal them …
Newkirk II: The calls in the first two days were basically like emergency dispatches. People called asking for help or looking for lost relatives.
Garland Robinette: Probably the most joyful moments was how many times we reunited people.
Newkirk II: Lots of people had evacuated without even knowing where their families were going.
Robinette: And somebody [would] call in and say, “I haven’t seen my daughter.” We’d put it out, get a call back. “Tell Dad I’m here.” It was great.
Newkirk II: But lots of the callers were terrified, and there was only so much Garland could do.
Archival (radio interview): We in the senior citizens’ home. It’s like 50–60 of us. And my baby—and he’s four months—he’s hot and he’s soaking wet and he’s running out of food. And the helicopters, they’ll pass over us, but they won’t stop.
Robinette: They would say “I’m drowning,” you know, that “the waters are coming. I’m here with my baby; nobody’s coming.” And the wonderful firefighters, boat rescue, everything—we’d hear it, and everybody would head for it.
Newkirk II: Le-Ann spent the day listening to the news unfold on the pen radio. The apartment was dry, but the streets around it were filling up with water.
Williams: And we heard it on the radio. And a man was like—he was in a panic. “I repeat. Get to safety. Get to the Superdome. I repeat. The Ninth Ward’s under water. The water is rising. Get to safety.”
Newkirk II: When Le-Ann’s mother heard that, she panicked. Her sisters, Le-Ann’s aunts, were staying in the Florida housing projects in the Ninth Ward. None of them or their children could swim, and nobody could get in touch with them. With the water steadily creeping up, Le-Ann’s mom thought they might be next.
She realized they couldn’t wait around for rescue. They were going to have to save themselves.
Newkirk II: In the Lafitte Projects, Le-Ann’s mom was getting anxious. She told Le-Ann and her cousin Aralle to put their shoes on.
Williams: My mom was like, “We’re getting out of here.” But my stepdad didn’t want to leave.
Newkirk II: So the three of them left her stepdad behind and went out on a scouting expedition to see if they could find help. The only way to dry land was to walk up the ramp to the raised interstate.
Williams: So we walked out the back door of our house. And there was water everywhere back there. We walking to the interstate, and we just see people everywhere. They had a lady—she was, like, in her 80s or 90s—they had her on a blow-up bed, and she was at the foot of the interstate. And she, like, she just hot and worn out. And she just had her hand on top of her head. And we passed all that up.
Newkirk II: On the interstate, Le-Ann could see the entire city for the first time in days.
Williams: I just couldn’t believe it. It was water everywhere. Long as I been there, been having hurricanes. I ain’t never seen no water on Canal Street and so close to the French Quarters like that. That was crazy. And we just walking down the interstate. And as we walking down the interstate, they had a dead body right there. A dead man. So my mom just telling us to close our eyes, just to keep going. Just keep walking. Keep walking. Close our eyes.
Newkirk II: They saw people everywhere who needed help with no help to be found. So her mom figured the only way to survive was for everyone to get out. That meant convincing her stepdad that it was time to go.
Williams: Then when we made it back from my walk home and she went had a talk with him, he was ready to go. She didn’t play.
Archival (news clip): For those trapped in New Orleans, 10 shelters have been opened, including the steel and concrete massive Superdome …
Archival (news clip): Twenty to twenty-five thousand people it’s estimated have gone to the Superdome …
Archival (news clip): We’re expecting upwards of 20,000–30,000 people inside the Superdome here …
Archival (news clip): They told us go to the Superdome. If you wanna be rescued, go to the Superdome.
Newkirk II: The Superdome was the official refuge of last resort for all the families left behind. For most people, the only way to get there after the storm was walking on the raised interstate above the floodwater. Le-Ann’s family joined hundreds of others who were making the same journey.
Williams: I think I took my shoes off because they were soaking wet, and I remember me stepping on something.
Newkirk II: She stepped on something sharp with her bare foot.
Williams: And it cut my feet bad. So everybody had to stop, because I had blood everywhere. And it was hot, and everybody had to stop because my feet was cut open so bad.
Newkirk II: Le-Ann was limping now. She’d waded through rat-infested waters, past a dead body, up and over the city and all its devastation. It was hot. Over 90 degrees and humid. But her family kept going. Eventually they ran into a guy who was pushing a cooler.
Williams: He saying, “Ice cream! Ice cream! It’s hot. I got ice cream, cold drinks, and water! Come on, baby. Get y’all something to drink,” and, “I know y’all, you know, thirsty and stuff.”
Newkirk II: And so the family stood in the sun. On the interstate, they looked out over the flooded city. At that moment, there were still hundreds of people trapped in buildings all across New Orleans. Thousands trying to make their way out. Le-Ann and her cousins stopped for a minute and had some ice cream.
Williams: A strawberry shortcake. You know? You ever had one of those? Yeah. It’s good. I got one of them.
Newkirk II: There were lots of moments like those on the interstate. People shared water. They brought grills and ate hot dogs together. They did what they needed to do to help each other make it down the road.
It was something sweet, something kind, on a day full of destruction. But in a way, it made sense. It made sense in a city where you dance at funerals. It made sense in a city where no matter what happened on Monday, Sunday was always coming.
Le-Ann’s mom thought they were heading somewhere safe. Somewhere the government might be able to help them. They’d seen terrible things, but they must have trusted that salvation was just around the corner. This was just four years after 9/11. We’d been telling ourselves a story that America comes together in the face of hard times. That it doesn’t leave its own people behind.
But in New Orleans, the next week wouldn’t quite work out that way. Not for Le-Ann’s family, and not for the thousands of other people trapped in the city. This time, the cavalry was not coming.
Vann Newkirk II: Most of the Lower Ninth Ward was already underwater. Lots of people were missing. Lots of people were gone. Alice Craft-Kearney was trapped there. In her brother’s three-story house on the high ground. After Katrina, it was basically an island in the darkness.
Alice Craft-Kearney: At night it was pitch black except for the fires that had erupted because of gas. You could see that lighting up the sky.
Newkirk II: More than 30 people were stuffed into the house. Family. Friends. Neighbors they’d saved.
Craft-Kearney: But the eeriest thing was to hear voices of people at night crying. “Help. Help.” And you, you heard them, but you couldn’t help them.
Newkirk II: Alice and her family were relatively lucky. There was no running water, but they had food and a generator. They just waited.
Craft-Kearney: We heard the helicopters passing all the time, but they never stopped for us.
Newkirk II: Coast Guard and National Guard helicopters were flying low, searching for survivors. But since they were in a decent shelter already, Alice’s family and friends figured they weren’t a priority yet.
Craft-Kearney: I understood it. My brother’s—my brother’s military, so he understood it. You have your mission. You have to go where they send you. But we were—The question was, When are we going to get rescued?
Newkirk II: There was no way to know. Most cell towers were down in the city. At this point, New Orleans was almost a dead zone.
Craft-Kearney: I had to go all the way up to the roof to get that signal. I had a Verizon at that time. “Can you hear me now?” [Laughs.] I’ve got to give them that shout out—Verizon was …
Newkirk II: Alice and her family had one other line to the outside: a working TV.
Archival (news clip): Most of New Orleans is underwater tonight …
Newkirk II: They would get together and watch one channel: channel four.
Archival (news clip): Good evening. I’m Bob Schieffer. For the people along the Gulf Coast, it is a catastrophe.
Newkirk II: They’d tune in and watch the catastrophe unfold on TV—the catastrophe they were experiencing.
Archival (news clip): Billions in damage and a death toll that cannot yet be calculated.
Newkirk II: They would see reports about all the people who hadn’t been saved yet, while they were waiting to be saved.
Archival (news clip): And we have been touring the flooded streets of New Orleans today. We’ll have full coverage throughout the hurricane zone tonight … what FEMA calls the most significant natural disaster to ever hit the United States.
Newkirk II: It was surreal. Strictly speaking, some of it wasn’t real at all. Misinformation is common after any disaster. In fact, it’s so common, it has a name. Disaster myth. But the mythmaking after Katrina was extreme. So extreme that in the days after the storm, it was like New Orleans existed in two parallel universes. One was the universe that Alice lived in, stuck in that house in the Lower Ninth Ward. The other was the one she was watching on TV. In the real universe, people like Alice were doing their best to keep each other alive with no help from the outside.
Archival (news clip): Hurricane Katrina, now a mere tropical depression over the state of Tennessee …
Newkirk II: In the media universe, everything was distorted.
Archival (news clip): The disaster it left behind grows by the hour. And it is not simply a natural disaster tonight. It is becoming this sort of disaster humans cause. There is looting and lawlessness …
Newkirk II: In the eyes of the media, it was often the victims themselves who were to blame.
Archival (news clip): Well, Aaron, you mentioned the danger from Mother Nature, from the flooding like that. There’s another danger here in New Orleans tonight. And it’s from some of the people who are still here …
Archival (news clip): The worst in Mother Nature may have passed; the worst in men is still a problem.
Newkirk II: Part III: “Through the Looking Glass.”
Katrina happened during a weird technological moment. It was the era of the 24-hour cable news broadcast, but before everybody had smartphones and social media. National audiences expected around-the-clock coverage about the disaster, but the national media didn’t have around-the-clock information.
Archival (news clip): A major breach in a levee overnight sent more water pouring into an already-flooded city. Efforts to fix it have failed, and the water is expected to begin rising rapidly yet again.
Newkirk II: The city was mostly blacked out by the storm, and the media relied on partial and often secondhand reports. And they were behind. On Tuesday, the national news finally caught up to local reporting about the levee breaches. And a particular narrative began to emerge: chaos.
Archival (news clip): Gangs of thieves who armed themselves from local stores now roam the streets, looting even the hospitals. It’s forced state officials to divert scarce resources to neighborhood patrols, hoping that a show of force will keep the looting in check.
Newkirk II: Looting became a fixation. Sometimes, reporters would make attempts at empathy.
Archival (news clip): Looting continued throughout the downtown area. It isn’t a game for many of these people. It’s a matter of survival.
Newkirk II: Lots of other times, they were just snitching.
Archival (news clip): You think it’s okay to take that? You stole it.
Archival (news clip): You’re not supposed to do that.
I know we don’t, but if we’re barefoot and we’re walking in the water, our feets is gonna get cut.
Archival (news clip): Looting is widespread. Police stop them when they can, but most of it is going undeterred in broad daylight.
Newkirk II: Reporters seemed especially interested in images of people taking TVs or Jordans. You would see the same reels of the same black people going into the same stores, over and over.
Archival (news clip): I mean, first of all, is there anything left to loot? And are people still looting? And is there nothing that can be done about it?
The things that I witnessed today, Ted, I will never forget. Looting on a scale that was just so staggering, so overwhelming. It was open season. The city has been ravaged by the hurricane, and now it’s being ravaged by some of its citizens.
Archival (news clip): But do you have any sense of people who are breaking into stores because they have no food, they have no water, and they need both, and how many people are stealing guns and beer and sneakers and what have you?
I think you have more of that going on than people looking for food.
Newkirk II: There were a lot of reporters trying to make a distinction between good looters and bad looters. But the fixation on looting in the first place was a distraction.
Archival (news clip): This is the center of one of the great centers of America, New Orleans. Here we have a virtual refugee camp with thousands of people waiting for some sort of help—medical, food, water, you name it. And then over there, the police. Scores of police officers are concerned about one looter who’s in that supermarket.
Newkirk II: It was like all the suffering was invisible to some people. All they could see was crime.
Archival (news clip): (Montage of talk about looting.)
Archival (news clip): One tourist inside the city who snapped pictures of looting in the French Quarter called the scene insane, that tourists likened it to downtown Baghdad.
Newkirk II: I mean, Baghdad? Really? A lot of the reporting was like this—dramatic to the point of absurdity. They’d pick up on a scary sounding detail …
Archival (news clip): We’ve just gotten a very disturbing report from inside the city of New Orleans from our own correspondent in there, Jeff Goldblatt, who says he’s just witnessed citizens of New Orleans walking around with AK-47s on the streets.
Newkirk II: And then that detail would get warped and sensationalized.
Archival (news clip): Two guys, he told me with AK-47s just shooting at police officers. No one was hurt. The guys fled into the French Quarter. They got away.
Newkirk II: We do know that some folks did carry assault rifles. Lots of them were themselves police officers or security. But these reports made it seem like the city was being taken over by murderers. There was a rumor that the Superdome was a hot spot for killings, that a National Guardsman had found dozens of dead bodies in a freezer, including a 7-year-old with her throat cut. It wasn’t true. Reporting like this had real-life consequences: If you think you’re in a war zone, then every person looks like a combatant.
Archival (news clip): We’re told someone opened fire on a military chopper here to help out with rescue efforts.
Archival (news clip): Ambulances halted their evacuation of people from the Superdome this morning when gunshots were fired. Rescue helicopters have come under fire too. The largest ambulance service says it will have to severely cut back its ambulance services if security doesn’t improve …
Newkirk II: In the final telling, there were no helicopters with bullet holes. No ambulances either. But that didn’t matter. The rumors slowed down the response anyway.
Archival (news clip): Police in the city of New Orleans, 1,500 of them, have now been called off their rescue work simply to deal with the lawlessness in the city.
Archival (news clip): One state senator summed up the danger: You can’t rescue people when you’re being shot at.
Right now the plan is to restore order, because you can’t even get the emergency-response personnel into the city for the evacuation …
Newkirk II: The Pentagon was considering an armed military response. A FEMA official said that some doctors were required to get armed escorts just to walk across the street. The hysteria got so bad that the Red Cross waited a month to get to New Orleans. The CEO said they had to wait until the city was safe.
Archival (news clip): The criminal element had taken advantage of the opportunity when there’s no light, no electricity, no one around to burglarize and loot.
Archival (news clip): It is a war zone, an absolute war zone. People are getting killed and raped.
Archival (news clip): Women left alone and looters left to roam free.
Newkirk II: There were lots of reports to aid workers about assaults in shelters, especially after the evacuation. But many of the most sensational stories that circulated on TV that week were never substantiated. Stories of rapes of children and murders of rape victims. The police chief even repeated a lot of them.
Archival (news clip): Groups of young men have been roaming the city shooting at people attempting to rape young women …
Archival (news clip): A sniper or snipers reportedly picking off people as they try to leave …
Archival (news clip): The men who are left on the street with these guns are the hardest of the hard …
Archival (news clip): Sergeant, when you hear them, are you hearing the same stuff we’re hearing coming out in New Orleans? You hear about the state of anarchy. You hear about people getting killed, people getting shot at, helicopters getting shot at. What do you make of all this?
Newkirk II: We actually know what people made of all this. In a Gallup poll released weeks after Katrina, most Americans said they thought the residents of New Orleans handled things poorly right after the storm. A quarter of all Americans blamed the residents themselves for the disaster. Almost half said the looters they saw on TV were quote-unquote “criminals.” The vast majority of people in the poll thought the media was pretty much on the level. That they acted responsibly. Nothing to see here. But people who were actually there—better yet, the people like Alice who were actually there and were watching the whole mess on TV—they saw things differently.
Craft-Kearney: It was, it was the way everything was framed. It was like, if it’s a certain group of people they’re commandeering. Where if it’s another group of people, they’re looting. We’re, we’re, we’re trying to survive. We’re trying to do the very same thing in a bad situation. But it was the way that everything was framed with us. It’s painful to think about.
Newkirk II: The house in Holy Cross was hot. There was no running water. Alice was both bored and afraid. She saw her own people become targets, and she was furious. But she would be the first to tell you she was lucky in all this. She watched the worst of it from afar. Up close, for the people in the crosshairs, it wasn’t just infuriating. It was dangerous.
Newkirk II: The Ernest Morial Convention Center is a landmark. It’s absolutely huge. Takes up about 10 city blocks in downtown New Orleans. If you’re driving toward the river, you can see it on the horizon. Like a stadium or an airport, it’s one of those places that you think is gonna be around forever. That’s why, even though it was never an official shelter during Katrina, you can understand why people decided to go there.
Le-Ann Williams and her family had heard horror stories about the violence and conditions in the Superdome. The rumors got to them too. So they decided to head for the convention center instead.
Le-Ann Williams: We got off on the Tchoupitoulas exit, and we were sitting under the bridge. And me and my cousins Aralle, Archenekia, Jesse, and Jessica, we was playing Pitty Pat. And the cards was worn down because they been through water and everything in my backpack.
Newkirk II: The kids entertained themselves playing cards. They’d had a rough couple days. If they were looking for some relief as they entered the convention center, they didn’t find it.
Williams: I just remember it being hot, smelly. Just was a smell, like, people ain’t take a bath in days, and people crammed up in the heat. It was stink. And then the bathrooms were overflowed. When my little brother tried to use the bathroom, and we went in there with my mom, the toilets was filled with urine and poo. And it was all in the sink and on the—he just had to use the bathroom on the floor, because he couldn’t go into the bathroom stall. They had it everywhere.
Newkirk II: Mayor Nagin had made the Superdome the official refuge of last resort. The government had brought troops, medicine, food, and water there. But none of that stuff was at the convention center.
Williams: When we made it there, my stepdad and Jumping Jack left to go find food. And I remember them coming back with pork skins and like three cans of beans. So we just was sitting there, just sitting there, sitting there. Nighttime coming. I remember we went to sleep. We went to sleep on the floor. All us.
Newkirk II: There wasn’t much reporting about what was going on at the convention center. At least not at that point. But what did come out described the place as a war zone.
Archival (news clip): They were told to come here. Local authorities said it would be a safe place, but there’s no electricity, no food, no water. Police say there have been rapes and beatings …
Archival (news clip): We saw dead bodies. People are dying there at the convention center.
Archival (news clip): With a dangerous cocktail of anger, fear, and desperation brewing, 88 police officers were sent to deal with matters there. A mob beat them back according to the chief of police.
Archival (news clip): Fifteen thousand people in the city’s convention center alone, and we should warn you already some of the scenes we saw there are some of the gruesome pictures so far in this crisis. There is looting. There is shooting. In the words of the mayor of New Orleans …
Archival (news clip): We saw, Chris, a report that there are something like 100 armed men inside the convention center sort of holding the center, if you will, away from police. Do you know anything about that? Have police told you anything about that? Why can’t the police go in there and take back that building?
Newkirk II: The fact that so many people were willing to take this story at face value is evidence of how intense the paranoia was. In the end, it turns out one person total was shot in the convention center. But the picture from the mayor and the police chief was of a place that was too dangerous to save. The only authorities that Le-Ann encountered were a small detachment of National Guardsmen who were holed up there before the storm. They were there to fix levee breaches. Le-Ann could see them huddled together when she looked up at the floors above her.
Williams: And they just sitting up there, like, with the rifles on them. And they’re not telling us nothing. They just watching us.
Newkirk II: The National Guardsmen set up their staging ground in an exhibit hall. But they weren’t actually equipped to help the people around them. They were stranded too. Leadership told those guardsmen not to enter the crowd, because it might get out of control. But Le-Ann didn’t know all that. All she saw was military personnel with their guns trained on her.
Williams: Like, not interacting with us, telling us what’s going on. Just sitting in the ceiling with rifles on them. Like in a position ready to shoot. So I didn’t understand why they was doing that instead of being down here helping us or bringing food and water. Like, why are we being treated like dogs?
The way I felt was like, Well, damn, they left us here to die. Like, they really don’t care. Who cares about a poor, black 14-year-old girl? Who worrying about me? Who wants to come save us? They showing us not nobody.
Newkirk II: Le-Ann’s aunt heard that somebody was going to send buses to come pick everyone up. But, at this point, Le-Ann hadn’t seen any authorities willing to help. She’d had to find her own food. Her family had to walk to the convention center on their own. When they got there, the only soldiers they could find pointed their guns at them. If she had any hope that somebody might view her as worthy of rescue, that hope was long gone now.
Williams: I’m like, “They lying. We still here.” I’m hearing all this, so now I’m starting to see that nobody’s coming for us. So I told my mom, I said—I just yanked on my mom. I remember, and she turned to me, and I just cried. I said, “Mom, just tell me the truth. We gon’ die.” And she was like, “What?” I said, “Nobody’s not coming to save us.” I said, “They don’t care about us.” I said, “The president, nobody is coming.” I said, “We still here. No food, no water.” I said, “I’m not my brother and my sister. I’m older. I understand.” I said, “Just tell me the truth.”
Archival (Robert Siegel): Let me ask you about images that many Americans are seeing today and hearing about. They are from the convention center in New Orleans …
Newkirk II: There were moments when journalists got things right. When they pushed against government officials and cut through all the bullshit. On Thursday afternoon, NPR’s Robert Siegel interviewed Michael Chertoff, the secretary of homeland security, which oversees FEMA. In its coverage, NPR still focused on a lot of stuff, like the Superdome and looting, which was standard reporting at that point. But then Siegel started asking about the convention center.
Archival (Siegel): How many days before your operation finds these people, brings them at least food, water, medical supplies, if not gets them out of there?
Archival (Michael Chertoff): Well, first, let me tell you there have been deliveries of food, water, and medical supplies to the Superdome. And that’s happened almost from the very beginning.
Archival (Siegel): But this is the convention center. These are people who are not allowed inside the Superdome.
Archival (Chertoff): Well, people …
Newkirk II: Chertoff just ignores the question. Siegel tries again.
Archival (Siegel): We are hearing from our reporter—and he’s on another line right now—thousands of people at the convention center in New Orleans with no food. Zero.
Archival (Chertoff): As I say, I’m telling you that we are getting food and water to areas where people are staging. And, you know, the one thing about an episode like this is if you talk to someone and you get a rumor or you get someone’s anecdotal version of something, I think it’s dangerous to extrapolate it all over the place.
Newkirk II: This is a week where a story about all kinds of violence were taken seriously. A week where snipers were believed to be shooting helicopters. But somehow the eminently verifiable fact of thousands of people sitting in a giant building in the middle of town was too much rumor for FEMA.
Archival (Siegel): But, Mr. Secretary, when you say that there—that we shouldn’t listen to rumors—these are things coming from reporters who have not only covered many, many other hurricanes; they’ve covered wars and refugee camps. These aren’t rumors. They’re seeing thousands of people there.
Archival (Chertoff): Well, I would be—I say, I have not heard a report of thousands of people in the convention center who don’t have food and water.
Newkirk II: The director of FEMA, Michael Brown, also denied knowing about the convention center in multiple interviews that day. In the next segment, NPR interviewed reporter John Burnett, who was at the convention center and saw everything.
Archival (John Burnett): Let me clarify for the secretary and for everyone else what myself and [audio loss] Hawk just drove away from three blocks from here in the Ernest Morial Convention Center. There are, 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. There’s no medical treatment. There’s no police and no security.
Newkirk II: Just after that, Chertoff’s folks called back.
Archival (Siegel): Secretary Chertoff’s spokeswoman called to say that after our interview with the secretary of homeland security, he received a report confirming the situation at the convention center. And he says the department is working tirelessly to get food and supplies to those in need and also to save lives.
Newkirk II: For his part, the president still hadn’t been to New Orleans. But he came close.
Archival (news clip): People still in New Orleans, if they looked to the skies this morning, saw Air Force One. The president flying over for a personal look at the devastation.
Newkirk II: You know, it’s kind of an absurd moment when you think about it. The president had cut his vacation in Texas short to respond. He had to do something, and the White House settled on flying Air Force One really low over the Gulf Coast, taking a couple of photos of him looking pensive out the window, and then putting on a press conference back in D.C.
Archival (George W. Bush): As we flew here today, I also asked the pilot to fly over the Gulf Coast region, so I could see firsthand the scope and magnitude of the devastation.
Newkirk II: Bush’s flyover wasn’t exactly good PR. And then it got worse. On Friday, Bush flew to Mobile, Alabama, and this time, he got out of the plane. He held a press conference on the state of the response. And he turned to the guy standing next to him, FEMA chief Michael Brown.
Archival (Bush): Again, I want to thank you all. And Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.
Newkirk II: That was bad. And all this together—the slow government response, the media coverage, Bush’s seeming indifference—it all added up. Alice Craft-Kearney will put it like this.
Craft-Kearney: I’ll put it like this. As a person of color, you always have it in the back of your mind that the government really doesn’t care about you. Katrina validated that. It cemented it. For me. I felt like, You talk a good game about “Oh, we love our people. We don’t treat you any different.” But I don’t think that anybody would have wanted to trade places with me that day. To say, “Oh, we don’t treat anybody any different.” Yes, you do. And we saw it loud and clear. It was played out that day. Some days I don’t like to think about it ’cause I just get choked up.
Newkirk II: The flyover, the rumors, the stereotypes about black folks. For people who knew the history of being treated like second-class citizens, it was easy to find patterns.
Archival (Kanye West): I hate the way they portray us in the media. If you see a black family, it says, “They’re looting.” You see a white family, it says, “They’re looking for food.” And, you know, it’s been five days [waiting for federal help], because most of the people are black …
Newkirk II: Yeah, Kanye West. The old Kanye. An NBC benefit telethon for Katrina held on Friday night. A frightened-looking Mike Meyers is standing next to him as Kanye is clearly going off script. The end of this quote is a meme now, but really, if you listen to how he’s describing what he’s seeing, it’s chilling.
Archival (West): With the setup the way America is setup to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off as slow as possible. I mean, this is—Red Cross is doing everything they can. We already realize a lot of the people that could help are at war right now, fighting another way. And they’ve given them permission to go down and shoot us!
Archival (Mike Meyers): And subtle but in even many ways …
Newkirk II: It all might sound conspiratorial. But it was logical for lots of New Orleanians like Alice. Lots of black Americans. Folks who had seen Jim Crow or heard the stories. Tuskegee. Tulsa. Wilmington. If you know all of that, if you’ve seen all that, maybe a conspiracy is the most logical conclusion.
Archival (Meyers): The destruction of the people of southern Louisiana and Mississippi may end up being the most tragic loss of all.
Archival (West): George Bush doesn’t care about black people.
Newkirk II: In the end, a lot of what Kanye said would be vindicated. Even as he was speaking, all of the rumor and fear had started turning victims into targets. The parallel universe had become real. It would manifest in a series of violent tragedies in a race to bury them under the floodwaters.
Editor’s Note: Floodlines was produced as an audio series. If you are able, we encourage you to listen to the series here. Transcripts are for reference only and may contain typos. Please confirm accuracy before quoting.
Vann Newkirk II: Fred Johnson had left the Hyatt hotel the morning after Katrina in a cab. He had thought he’d get right back home to keep planning his annual Labor Day parade. But he didn’t get that far. The streets were flooded.
Newkirk II: What are you thinking then?
Fred Johnson: I don’t know. I mean, I, I don’t know. I really don’t know.
Newkirk II: Fred knew the parade was off, but he didn’t know what was gonna happen next. So he headed back to the hotel. Turns out, he was heading right into the heart of the action. The Hyatt became the operating base for the whole city government and response. Fire and police. The National Guard. FEMA. The Army Corps. The hotel manager even turned over his living quarters for the mayor to use.
Johnson: So when we get back in the hotel, we sitting in the lobby, and the police chief run in.
Newkirk II: Eddie Compass was the chief of police of the New Orleans Police Department. He knew Fred from around the community.
Johnson: He said, “Fred! Fred! Come here, man! Come here. Come here. I need your help. I need your help. I know how you work in the community. I need your help. I need your help.” So he’s shaking me. He’s got me by my two shoulders and he’s talking to me, and he’s shaking the shit out of me.
Newkirk II: Compass was worried. The Hyatt had supplies. He told Fred that he thought that looters were coming to break in.
Johnson: I don’t know. Something happened where they saying that there’s a group of men that’s coming, [that] the word on the street is that the Hyatt has everything you want. Let’s go loot the Hyatt. He said, “Listen, they coming. They coming. I need you to go get all the men you could get.”
Newkirk II: It was a strange moment—a time when the normal rules were in flux. A time when Fred Johnson, a man wearing summer shoes and a khaki Kangol and possessing no actual policing experience, could reasonably be asked to protect a 27-story hotel from looters. He didn’t get a badge or a uniform or anything like that, but Fred was officially deputized.
Johnson: I got deputized because he shook the shit out of me. That’s how I got deputized. Yeah. After he shook the shit out of me. There ain’t no “Hold up your hand and put your hand on the Bible” and all that. Man, if that’s what you call deputized. He shook the shit out of me. I said, “Eddie, I got you, bruh. I got—I’m with you. Stop shaking me.”
Newkirk II: There were hundreds of people still taking refuge in the third-floor ballroom. The thought of armed looters storming the place would have been terrifying. Fred gathered his buddies from the Black Men of Labor, and then recruited all the men from the ballroom. Had them silently tap each other on the shoulder and discreetly leave the room so people wouldn’t be alarmed. They didn’t have weapons or any real idea of what they’d do if anyone showed up. It was a bluff. But a bluff was all they had.
Johnson: I say, “Listen, bruh. We need you to just stand by the door so that the looters, if they should come this way, they see cats standing at the door. They don’t know whether you’re armed or not.” Right? Because you didn’t have many police officers at that point.
Newkirk II: Over 200 officers were off the job. Some had evacuated, and they weren’t coming back. Even lots of the ones who stayed had lost homes or loved ones in the flooding. Cops had lost service weapons and cars, and resorted to carrying their own shotguns and assault rifles, and driving commandeered vehicles. Some got caught looting stores themselves. Before the storm, the force was notorious for brutality and corruption. After the storm, it seemed like it was disintegrating entirely.
Eddie Compass: This is something that no one had ever handled before.
Newkirk II: Chief Eddie Compass had been a street cop who rose up the ranks. He became chief at 43—one of the youngest in the country. When the storm hit, he sent his pregnant wife and toddler away. He was stressed. Some of his own family members were trapped in the floodwaters. And he had no way to communicate with his officers.
Compass: Just imagine the whole radio system’s gone down. So you can’t communicate by radio. The phone system’s gone down. You can’t communicate by phone. I was literally in a military vehicle driving through the water, going from district to district, checking on the troops. It was very difficult. You know, it really was.
Newkirk II: Without communications, all information was credible information. More and more, news reports painted the people left behind as violent and dangerous, and turned them into monsters in the eyes of people in charge. Even the police chief and the mayor started to repeat misinformation. It all became a feedback loop. If the media was reporting that mobs of armed looters were roving the streets, if the police chief was saying it too, people thought it was real.
Johnson: It wasn’t for me to second-guess it. What I know was there were a lot of women and children and old people in that building. And whether [the looters] were real or whether they were not, I didn’t have the luxury to take that position.
Newkirk II: Fred says looters never did show up that day. He spent the next couple weeks running what he called missions for authorities in the city. Rescues, supply runs. And Chief Compass did what he could to keep things together. But he was struggling to keep himself together.
Compass: People had no idea the challenges we had. I mean, we were actually disseminating food in the Superdome. We were disseminating food in the convention center. We were rendering first aid to people who were in need of medical attention. I mean, these were police officers doing this.
Newkirk II: But as the days went on, some of the danger came from the police officers themselves.
Compass: And, you know. The few bad things that happened, which were horrific, just overshadowed all the good things that went down. And that’s unfortunate. It really is.
Newkirk II: Part IV: “The Bridge.”
Jarvis DeBerry was a columnist for The Times-Picayune during Katrina. He wrote about policing and crime before the storm. The day after the storm, he wrote columns for The Times-Picayune. The day after the storm, he was one of the first to confirm the city was flooding. He’d gone out with a photographer down the interstate. Drove until they hit water.
Jarvis DeBerry: So we went as far as we could go. That was the high rise. The bridge that takes you over the Industrial Canal. And there were police officers there, and they were helping people through the water there—people who were being rescued from their homes.
Newkirk II: They went back to the newspaper office, but soon that was flooding, too. He and other reporters evacuated in the back of delivery trucks. In Baton Rouge, they set up a newsroom in exile. But Jarvis was mostly just getting bits and pieces of information.
DeBerry: I didn’t know what to believe about what was happening in New Orleans at that point. There were so many tall tales being told about New Orleans, some of them from official sources, that you had to be skeptical about everything.
Newkirk II: Mayor Nagin was still up in the Hyatt hotel, out of sight for a lot of the week. Which meant Chief Compass became one of the city’s main spokesmen. And the stories he told were a little wild.
DeBerry: You know, there’s just, like, unchecked violence in the Superdome and unchecked violence in the convention center. And our police chief then, Eddie Compass, was telling a story about how the convention center, his officers were engaged in a firefight inside the convention center, and they didn’t know where the bad guys were. And the only way they could trace them down was by the muzzle flashes of their guns.
Archival (news clip): With a dangerous cocktail of anger, fear, and desperation brewing, a mob beat them back according to the chief of police.
Archival (news clip): The police chief says 15,000 are trapped in the convention center, and some are being raped and beaten …
DeBerry: You know, that was what was frustrating, that people allowed themselves to believe that black people were capable of just pure, unadulterated savagery; that as soon as the lights go out, we would just turn to raping babies for sport.
Newkirk II: The NOPD had been on edge since the day after the storm. That day, a New Orleans police officer and his partner saw some guys breaking into a convenience store in Algiers. The officers approached the men. And one of them shot one of the officers.
Archival (news clip): There is late word tonight from Louisiana State Police that a New Orleans police officer was shot by a looter. The police officer’s condition is not known.
Newkirk II: That shooting supercharged all the rumors about looting. Basically made every description of violence sound plausible to some folks, including leadership in the department itself. Police and media were describing the city as being “under siege.”
Archival (news clip): There is little or no safety in the city of New Orleans tonight. We just heard our colleague talk about being at a police station on the roof of the police station down below. The police that have shown up for work say they will defend the station. That’s the point. Simply defending the station.
Newkirk II: The mayor wanted somebody to demand martial law. Some police thought they had it. ProPublica reported that a police commander told his officers that they had authority to shoot looters. The governor of Louisiana said the National Guard would do the same. It was the NOPD versus the world.
DeBerry: What was interesting, though, was that the real savagery that we heard about came from the police department.
Newkirk II: On Thursday, an officer shot a man named Henry Glover in the back at a strip mall in Algiers. Glover was found bleeding outside and was brought to a makeshift NOPD headquarters nearby. There, another officer took the car with Glover’s body inside.
DeBerry: And his car is eventually found incinerated on the Mississippi River levee in Algiers, and Henry Glover’s body is in the back of it.
Newkirk II: The next night, New Orleans police officers pulled up outside the convention center. A 45-year-old grandfather named Danny Brumfield walked up to the police car.
DeBerry: The police say he jumped on the hood of their car. Other people say he was just trying to get the cop’s attention.
Newkirk II: An officer shot and killed Brumfield. He said that Brumfield had lunged at him with a shiny object. That he shot him in self-defense. An autopsy revealed that Brumfield was shot in the back.
Two days later, there was another tragedy on the Danziger Bridge.
DeBerry: Danziger Bridge. So it’s a bridge that goes over the Industrial Canal in the eastern part of the city. For all the people who left New Orleans, there are a lot of people who didn’t leave for whatever reason.
Newkirk II: Near the west side of the bridge, two brothers had been holed up for days. Lance and Ronald Madison. For years, Lance had been a caretaker and protector for Ronald, who had an intellectual disability.
They’d waited out the storm in their brother’s dental practice. After a week passed, they decided to walk back to their home in the east. But they ran into the floodwaters. So they decided to walk back.
DeBerry: That Sunday morning, they’re walking across Danziger Bridge to his brother’s dentistry practice, which is on the other side of the bridge. There is another family, the Bartholomew family, and they have a nephew with them: Jose Holmes and James Brissette, who is a friend of the family. They’re all walking across Danziger Bridge.
Newkirk II: Around the time the two families crossed paths, police nearby got a call. An officer was under fire on the bridge. The actual events that led up to the call are murky. But, as it later turned out, the man who first reported the shots wasn’t even a cop and might not have actually seen or heard gunshots at all. It was just another rumor.
DeBerry: A group of officers on the back of a, not a police vehicle but a moving van, they come to Danziger Bridge believing that an officer has been shot down. And from all reports, they jump out of the truck firing.
Newkirk II: The officer who was driving fired warning shots. The officers in the back jumped out and began shooting at the two families running for cover. They didn’t wear uniforms. There were no sirens, no police cars. They never indicated they were police. And two officers carried AK-47s. The families believed they were being ambushed by a group of murderers for no reason.
DeBerry: It’s complete mayhem on the bridge. The Madisons are running. The Bartholomews are running. Brissette is running.
Newkirk II: Officers fired dozens of shots at them. J.J. Brissette was shot in the neck, and Jose Holmes was shot in the face at close range. Then, an officer chased Ronald down too.
DeBerry: Ronald is basically chased down and hunted and shot dead. J.J. Brissette is shot dead. Jose Holmes needs a colostomy bag. Susan Bartholomew has her right arm blown off. None of these people are armed.
Newkirk II: The Danziger Bridge cover-up began almost immediately. They arrested Lance Madison and put him in jail on bogus charges of attempted murder of police officers. They accused Jose Holmes, too. They planted a gun in evidence. And, to add to the confusion in the media, they spun the story. They told the press that the people they’d killed had shot at police officers and contractors.
Archival (news clip): And we’re learning more about a shooting on a New Orleans bridge.
Archival (news clip): Word that local police have been involved in what appears to be a tragic case of mistaken identity.
Archival (news clip): According to a police report, officers shot and killed five men today after the men fired on contractors.
Archival (news clip): As you can imagine, the nature of the devastation and the lack of communications here has led to a lot of misinformation. We have straightened that out. Apparently, a group of Army Corps of Engineers contractors were on a bridge. They were shot at by a gunman. Police killed that gunman. But the Army Corps of Engineers are just fine. The rescue and recovery efforts here in New Orleans …
Newkirk II: Compass was not implicated in or investigated for any of the killings or cover-ups that happened under his watch. But the stories he, other officials, and the media helped spread created an overreaction. They made things more dangerous all over the city. Business owners guarded their stores with guns. People hired private security to protect their homes. In a neighborhood called Algiers Point, a group of white vigilantes put up barricades; they patrolled the street with guns. Witnesses told ProPublica that over the course of the week, the [vigilantes] shot at least 11 people. The witnesses weren’t sure what happened to all of them. A family member said the men were trying to spark a race war.
A month after the storm, Compass says Nagin forced him to resign.
Compass: It was difficult. You know, and like I said, in hindsight, I made some mistakes. If I had to do it all over again, I would have vetted the information more. But I was so afraid of being involved in a cover-up. Suppose some of those things were true, like the rapes were true, and I never would’ve reported them. What would this interview be now? “Why did you cover it up, chief? They gave you the information. Why didn’t you report it?” Yes or no? You know, I was the chief that will probably go down in history and a lotta people will try to vilify me for not making all the right decisions. Well, I can’t really care what people think about me. All I know is I gave my heart and soul to this police department. I made serious personal sacrifices. I allowed people who are very close to me to suffer hardship to do my job. And I did my job until I was actually forced out of my job. And that’s the bottom line.
Newkirk II: Jarvis DeBerry watched Compass that week from Baton Rouge. He of all people could understand how difficult it was. To do a tough job in the middle of a crisis. To do your job when you were sleeping on the floor, not showering for days, not knowing if your house was underwater or not. But he didn’t think that stress or exhaustion could explain what happened that week.
DeBerry: It just took that little bit of deprivation for people to see people who live in this city as enemies. And I think that, I think it’s probably fair to say all of those rumors contributed to that shooting. The rumor going around was that people were just savages. And when you are fed that information, and you’re being told that people are raping babies and slitting young girls’ throats in the convention center, and doing all kinds of stuff that human beings don’t do, then, I think it becomes a lot more difficult to see people as human beings. It makes me afraid, knowing just the kind of really thin line that exists between civility and outright fatal chaos.
Newkirk II: On Friday, not long before police killed a man outside the convention center, Le-Ann Williams was inside. She was watching National Guardsmen look down on her. She was afraid. And her family had a decision to make.
Newkirk II: Le-Ann Williams and her family had been stranded at the convention center, eating cans of beans, trying and failing to hot-wire cars so they could escape. As far as they’d seen, there were no buses. No helicopters or trucks full of food. Le-Ann started to think they were all going to die there.
Le-Ann Williams: So my mom went to talking to my stepdad [and] was like, “You got to do something. We got to go. My child thinks we’re gonna die here. We gotta go.” So I remember us packing the stuff we had—like, our purses, you know, book bags and stuff we had. And I just remember us, we started walking up Convention Center Boulevard. And it started raining.
Newkirk II: They walked toward the Crescent City Connection bridge. It connected New Orleans to a town called Gretna. Just the day before, a group of evacuees had tried to walk over the bridge, and Gretna police officers blocked the way. They allegedly fired gunshots over their heads.
Williams: They had the National Guards up there with the rifles. If you walk up there, they was sending you back down. You could see them actually from the convention center, because you could see the GNO bridge. So you could actually—when you look up—you could see them. All of them lined up just looking down. And we just walking, just to take our chances to see if they was gonna let us cross.
Newkirk II: In the week after Katrina, bridges were some of the only lifelines in and out of a city surrounded by water. People crossed them on foot, by truck, by bus. Journalists like Jarvis, paranoid police officers, and people just trying to make their way out of a city in chaos. The crossings were unpredictable. Nothing was certain, really. Not even safety. But Le-Ann’s family, they got lucky.
Williams: We was walking, and this lady swung with this RTA bus.
Newkirk II: A woman who drove city buses had taken one and decided to try and rescue people on her way out. She made one last swoop on that side of the bridge.
Williams: I’m pretty sure it was my dad saw the bus, and we was hollering. “Help! Help!” And just, “Hey!” All of us just waving our hands up. And she happened to see us. And she opened the door. And my dad was like, “Where you going? Can you please just take me and my family? Can you?” And she was like, “Sure. Come on.” And we really yelling to her because she’s far away. And she was like, “Yeah. Come on! Come on! You and your family come on.” And we just went running. You know how you running and it’s like you just running in slow motion, and you just trying to get there? That’s how it felt.
Newkirk II: So like a movie?
Williams: Yes. Seemed like it was far away. I’m just trying to get on the bus because it’s our chance to get out of New Orleans.
Newkirk II: The woman stopped and let them on the bus.
Williams: We were just so happy—my whole family. We just was laughing. And everybody like, “We on the bus! We on the bus!” We didn’t know where we were going. We just was happy that we was out of the convention center.
Newkirk II: The Gretna police were letting vehicles across the bridge. The bus went through. They decided to go to Baton Rouge, but many of the roads were either flooded or closed off. Authorities stood watch in some places. The bus pulled up to one of those on a back road. A National Guard soldier stopped it.
Williams: And he was like—he stopped the bus. We thought we was gonna be—well, I thought that we was gonna be in trouble. He was gonna make us give the bus up, and we was going to have to go back to the convention center, so I was scared.
Newkirk II: But something was off. Le-Ann noticed the soldier was standing there with a woman and a baby.
Williams: Well, he was like, “Can y’all please put them on a bus for me? They’ve been walking for days.” And the lady, she opened the bus. She was like, “Sure. Sure. Yeah. They can get on the bus.” And he was like, “Good luck, y’all. Just keep going. Get out of here. Get out of here.” He said, “Just keep going and get out of here.”
Newkirk II: They were on the road. They’d made it out safely. And right after they left New Orleans—four long days after the storm—the cavalry finally did arrive.
Archival (Garland Robinette): A lot of you on the phones trying to help me out here to help the people out there. Stay with us. We’re your lighthouse, gang, in this moment of darkness.
Vann Newkirk II: Radio host Garland Robinette was on the air more or less constantly after Katrina, broadcasting from a studio the size of a broom closet in Baton Rouge. Being on the air so much meant Garland got more than his fair share of call-ins. Calls from victims of the flood, from evacuees looking for family members, even the occasional foreigner hoping for updates. It was all pretty bizarre for an evening talk show. And then, on Thursday, a few days after the storm, things got even more bizarre.
Archival (Ray Nagin): My answer to that today is B.S. Where is the beef?
Newkirk II: Garland got a call from the mayor, Ray Nagin.
Archival (Nagin): These goddamn ships that are coming, I don’t see them.
Archival (Robinette): What did you say to the president of the United States? And what did he say to you?
Archival (Nagin): I basically told him we had an incredible crisis here, and that his flying over in Air Force One does not do it justice.
Newkirk II: The call was all over the place. Sometimes, Nagin seemed furious.
Archival (Nagin): And they don’t have a clue of what’s going on down there. They flew down here one time, two days after the doggone event was over, with TV cameras, AP reporters, all kind of goddamn—excuse my French—everybody in America. But I am pissed.
Newkirk II: At other points in the call, he was on the brink of tears.
Archival (Nagin): I have no idea what they’re doing, but I will tell you this: You know, God is looking down on all this, and if they are not doing everything in their power to save people, they are going to pay the price.
Newkirk II: Nagin was under a lot of pressure. He hadn’t slept. He also hadn’t come down much from the 27th floor of the Hyatt. The police department was crumbling. The police chief and media were spreading stories of depravity. Even the mayor believed some truly wild shit.
Archival (Nagin): People don’t wanna talk about this, but I’mma talk about it. You have drug addicts that are now walking around this city looking for a fix. And that’s the reason why they were breaking in hospitals and drugstores.
Newkirk II: The picture Nagin painted was grim.
Archival (Nagin): And they probably found guns.
Newkirk II: It almost didn’t matter what was true or not.
Archival (Nagin): Drug addicts that are wreaking havoc, and we don’t have the manpower to adequately deal with it. We can only target certain sections of the city and form a perimeter around them and hope to God that we’re not overrun.
Newkirk II: The mayor and other officials were desperate for somebody to take charge. Somebody to get the chaos under control. A hero to save the day. And on Thursday, Nagin finally got what he asked for.
Archival (Nagin): Now I will tell you this, and I give the president some credit on this. He sent one John Wayne dude down here that can get some stuff done. And his name is General Honoré. And he came off the doggone chopper, and he start cussin’ and people start moving.
Newkirk II: For a week, the city was described as under siege. Baghdad in America, more or less. Officials were calling for a military response. They got one. Just not quite the one they expected.
Lieutenant General Russel Honoré: I love fucking problems like this. I thrive on shit like this.
Newkirk II: Part V: “Exodus.”
There’s a really tempting superhero-origin way to start the story of Lieutenant General Russel Honoré. He was raised on a farm in Lakeland, Louisiana. He grew up near the levees on the mighty Mississippi River. And as fate would have it, he was born just before a hurricane.
Honoré: I don’t think that got jack to do with nothing. But I grew up listening to my grandfather and old men sitting on the porch, before we had TV, telling stories. And they would get emotional about stories about the flood of 1912. And 1927. And 1936. Because our people were treated very bad during those floods.
Newkirk II: The history of floods in Louisiana is the history of the Honorés. They’d been through the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. During that one, water rose all up and down the river. A lot of black farmers were flooded off their land. White people used the opportunity to take it.
In New Orleans, the business community worried that the French Quarter was going to flood. So they agreed on a plan to divert the water. Just downriver from the city, they blew up a levee. They flooded thousands of poor folks out of their homes. The French Quarter stayed high and dry.
The Honorés lost their land too. The government took it to create a spillway to stop future floods.
Honoré: So we went from land owners to renters. And we did not survive Jim Crow well, not being landowners. But we survived.
Newkirk II: Honoré went to segregated schools. He raised cows for segregated 4-H shows. His church—that was segregated too. The first time he experienced any kind of real racial integration in his life was when he joined the ROTC.
Honoré: It really appeared that people didn’t matter what color you were. It’s: Can you run as fast as and long as the Army wanted you to? Could you shoot? Could you participate as a part of a team? Were you appreciative of other people’s contributions? And that was a true learning experience, and it made me reflect on, Yeah. I definitely want to be in the Army.
Newkirk II: He did join the Army. He rose up the ranks for 35 years.
Honoré: I was a lieutenant general, three-star general promoted to that position to command First United States Army. And I was the 33rd commander of the First Army in Atlanta when Katrina hit.
Newkirk II: The Tuesday after Katrina, Honoré and his staff had to drive to Camp Shelby [in] Mississippi to start relief efforts. His predecessor, the 32nd commander of the First Army used to ride around in a green Dodge van. But Honoré had upgraded the fleet to Chevy Suburbans. Stretch models. They were packed with TVs and satellite radios.
Honoré: In events, if shit happen, I’m not going to show up in a soccer-mom car. I’m not riding in that shit.
Newkirk II: Optics are kind of a big thing for Honoré. He thinks an Army general should look the part, and he still does. He still wears his Army baseball caps and chugs black coffee. He smoked like four whole cigars in one interview alone. And he still drives a giant SUV.
Honoré: You ever see Robert E. Lee on a piss-looking horse? Or Longstreet? You know what I mean? Or George Patton on a piss-looking horse. I ain’t riding in that shit. You’ve got to somehow look the part.
Newkirk II: So after Katrina, he and his team drove those manly SUVs right into the path of devastation.
Honoré: The lights were out. No lights. We drove from Birmingham to Jackson—no lights. We found one gas station that we were going to in Birmingham. We stopped to fill up with fuel. No. 1 rule in the Army: Fill up every time you can. Don’t go below half a tank.
Newkirk II: Shortly after he got to Camp Shelby, he got word from his superiors. The White House had created Joint Task Force Katrina and put him in charge of units in Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Louisiana. New Orleans was his responsibility now. He got in a helicopter and flew straight to the Superdome from Mississippi.
Honoré: And we do a whip around the Superdome. And I’ve never come in on such a fast landing, but they’re trained to land on ships in small spaces. And as they brought that Black Hawk down, I mean, they dropped that son of a bitch.
Newkirk II: There was a lot of work to do. Many people were still stranded in flooded buildings across the city. Thousands of people had been in the Superdome for days. Thousands were in the convention center with no help. Buses FEMA had promised to evacuate people hadn’t arrived. Elderly and sick people needed airlifts to hospitals.
Honoré: And when I asked the mayor what’s the priority, he said, “General, we got to evacuate the city.” So we had that meeting. I said, “Okay. We need buses. FEMA guy, where is the buses?” “We don’t know. We—they on contract. We think they’re on the way.” But the people in New Orleans could not talk to people in Baton Rouge. 72 miles away. So I gave the mayor a satellite phone.
Newkirk II: So wait, they didn’t have sat phones until you got there?
Honoré: No. He didn’t have one. There was one at the Superdome. But I think a lot of people around there didn’t even know that was there.
Newkirk II: After checking in with the mayor, Honoré loaded into his helicopter and whipped out to Baton Rouge. The governor was there, and so was Michael Brown, the FEMA director.
Honoré: So Michael Brown had found out I was there, and he sent word for me to come over and see him. So I walked in. He said, “This is your desk right next to me.” I said, “Sir, you will never see me sit in that fucking desk.” He said, “No, I need you right next to me, so we coordinate this.” I said, “Yeah, but the people in the water in New Orleans. I’m headed back to New Orleans.”
Archival (news clip): As a National Guard general put it today, the cavalry has arrived. It is the federal assistance that New Orleans has literally been begging for.
Newkirk II: When he got back to New Orleans, he had his hands full with logistics. Making sure food and water got delivered. Finding buses. Finding fuel for airplanes. And he had another big problem. The chief of police, Eddie Compass.
Honoré: I get a call. It’s right before dark. The police chief had gone on television and said there were snipers. The White House chief of staff call my phone number. Said, “Hey, the boss want to know are there snipers in New Orleans, because if snipers are there, we’re gonna send federal troops in tonight.”
Newkirk II: Honoré realized he had to get in front of this. He had a little talk with Compass.
Honoré: I said, “That’s a significant word to say, snipers.” I say, “Oh, by the way, did they hit you?” “Well, no.” “Did they hit the helicopter?” “No.” “Well, they probably weren’t fucking snipers, were they?”
Newkirk II: Honoré had a simpler explanation for why people might be shooting off guns.
Honoré: I said, “A lot of cases, people, they’ve watched too much television. And they think if they shoot in the air, the helicopter will hear them and come get them or mark their position.” And out of all the stories, and I mean, I’ve had helicopter pilots, you run into them all over the place. “They was shooting at us.” We have yet to have one helicopter with a bullet hole in it.
Newkirk II: He tried to tell Compass that these rumors could set off a dangerous chain of events. Snipers firing at American troops on American soil, that could give the government the pretext to treat New Orleans like a war zone.
Honoré: You know, we going to snipers, now we’re gonna [go] to a case of civil unrest. And the president can assume control of all of this area now, because we’ve lost civil control.
Newkirk II: Governor Blanco was saying the National Guard would shoot to kill. The White House was offering Special Ops troops to provide order. Bush was considering invoking the Insurrection Act, which would federalize the response entirely. No president had done that since his father did—during the L.A. riots in 1992. The mayor was asking for martial law, and some officers thought it was actually in place. We were pretty dangerously close to a situation where armed-forces units would shoot civilians for the first time since the Kent State massacre in 1970. And all that talk about snipers, it almost did the job.
Honoré: “Where do you get this snipers shit from, chief?” “Well, maybe I used the wrong word.”
Newkirk II: I asked Compass about this when I talked to him. He said that’s exactly how it happened.
Eddie Compass: He was upset, though, ’cause he said sniper upsets people. It makes people worry. And I guess I shouldn’t have used that word.
Honoré: I said, “No shit, you used the wrong word.”
Compass: I’m sorry. I mean, I can’t take it back.
Honoré: So I call back down to the governor’s office and say, “Hey, tell the governor, ‘Don’t tell the troops to shoot to kill. Don’t ever tell law enforcement to shoot to kill your own people.’”
Newkirk II: In the days after he first landed at the Superdome, the rumors and misinformation had done their work. Troops pointed their weapons at flood survivors. The NOPD had shot at least 10 people in the week after Katrina. They ambushed two families on the Danziger Bridge. Gretna police had blocked a bridge to stop evacuees coming from the convention center. Honoré saw rumors as one of his biggest obstacles.
Honoré: This thing had been building about looting and about “The city’s out of control.” Bullshit. You got a bunch of reporters still pissing New York beer just showing up. They ain’t corroborating shit. Somebody walked down the street, said, “Hey, what happened to you last night?” “Well, I saw five people get raped at the convention center.” They don’t go ask the police if they know anybody. They don’t go ask and see anybody by name. Then sons-a-bitches going straight to national television. “There were five people—got to talk to Charles here. And Charles say five people got—Charles, you got—No, I don’t got nothing else to say.” But that’s not a corroboration of a story.
Newkirk II: There was another rumor going around that week. Lots of people he rescued were convinced that the levees in the Lower Ninth Ward had been blown up on purpose.
Honoré: The first day I had rumors, on Thursday, that they were blowing the levees.
Newkirk II: Honoré had grown up in Lakeland, Louisiana. Listening to old men telling stories about floods. He figured he knew where that idea came from.
Honoré: Somebody’s grandfather told them notes about “Back in ’27, when they blew the levees to save New Orleans. And they gon’ blow the levees where the black people live.” Well, you know what, that’s what happened in the Ninth Ward. But a barge hit a damn concrete wall there, and that’s how it started.
Newkirk II: A barge did hit the Industrial Canal levee. It was huge. Came right over the wall and into the Lower Ninth Ward. Maybe that’s what people heard.
Honoré: So you go on and on that there’s nobody out there blowing levees. I’m dealing with that. This is rumors.
Newkirk II: In some ways, Honoré really was the John Wayne dude people were looking for. He’s loud. He chews people out and curses a lot. He blew past all the red tape and just steamrolled past anything in his way. He took over, but not really in the way some people thought he would.
Archival (news clip): All of these National Guard troops are armed. They all have weapons. But General Honoré is going through and telling all of them to put their weapons pointed down. He very specifically has said, literally, he does not want this to look like Iraq.
Newkirk II: Instead of shooting looters, he told soldiers to put their guns down. Instead of freaking out about snipers and gangs, he held daily press conferences to dispel rumors. Instead of responding to Katrina like it was a war zone, he responded like it was a humanitarian crisis.
Archival (Honoré): We are issuing water from bottles and individual packets of food. And if you ever had 20,000 people come to supper, you know what I’m talking about.
Newkirk II: Honoré understood that his job wasn’t about establishing control over the victims of Katrina. It was about establishing control over officials and media. Controlling the narrative. It all came into view on Friday when he first went to the convention center. The police told Honoré that it was dangerous.
Honoré: I said, “Bullshit.” So I got in my vehicle with my boys. We drove down there, and the people said, “Hey, that’s a general.” And one of them say, “That guy name is Honoré. I know some Honorés right here in New Orleans.” So and they were yelling, “Hey, bruh! You here to get us?” I say, “Got it.”
Archival (news clip): When I saw that National Guard that arrived today, I felt like once again I was a part of America, ’cause I really felt like my country had deserted me until then.
Newkirk II: Honoré’s visit would help kick-start efforts to bring food and water to the thousands of people in the convention center. They began evacuating on Saturday and were all out by Sunday. The week of hell was over. Honoré stayed behind to rescue stragglers and help get the city up and running again.
Honoré: It takes a little time to do difficult shit. It takes a little longer to do fucking impossible. But we gon’ do this shit. I mean, we did D-Day. We did Iwo Jima. This is the fucking Army. We know how to do tough shit, but you gotta get the logistics set to get it done. You with me?
Newkirk II: In the superhero version of this story, this is the end. The guy born on the eve of a hurricane had rescued the city. New Orleans had its savior. The black John Wayne dude had come off the chopper, started cussin’, and got shit done.
Honoré: People ask me, “So what do you think about being compared to a black John Wayne?” But—I said, “Well, John Wayne was an actor. He could reshoot his fucking scenes. This is real.” You know what I mean?
Newkirk II: Honoré’s job, as well as he’d done it, was essentially damage control. He’d gotten there days after the storm. The rumors and misinformation that he fought had already claimed lives. People died waiting for help. Some people lost faith in the government. He helped get folks loaded up on airplanes, but he couldn’t do much to help them after that. They were joining what was probably the largest migration of people in the United States since the Great Depression. It would change New Orleans. And it would change the country.
Archival (news clip): Thousands and thousands of New Orleanians streaming westward …
Archival (news clip): Refugees are streaming to cities and towns. Governors throughout the South are asking for help and offering it …
Archival (news clip): Three thousand people a day heading to Texas …
Archival (news clip): Arkansas will take 20,000 people …
Archival (news clip): I’m not going back to New Orleans. I don’t want to go back to New Orleans.
Archival (news clip): Even the city of Philadelphia has put aside a million dollars to take in 1,000 families now.
Archival (news clip): They now join one of America’s greatest population shifts since the Great Depression.
Newkirk II: Alice Craft-Kearney and her family joined that great migration. A week after the levees broke, they finally got picked up from her brother’s three-story house in the Lower Ninth Ward.
Alice Craft-Kearney: We had to board this airplane. When we asked the question “Where are we going?,” we were told, “We don’t know.” Which I found was strange because, I’m not a pilot, but I know you have to file a flight plan. And so they would not tell us where we were being taken to.
Newkirk II: It wasn’t until the plane landed that they realized they were over a thousand miles away in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Craft-Kearney: Governor Richardson was right there to greet us. The mayor from Albuquerque was there to greet us when the plane landed.
Newkirk II: Red Cross volunteers gave Alice’s family a voucher for a hotel. After spending a long time without running water and in the dark, they had air conditioning, hot showers, and electricity. But still, when Alice watched TV, she couldn’t help but feel like Katrina was still with her.
Archival (news clip): These are, remember, refugees …
Archival (news clip): Refugees are streaming to cities …
Archival (news clip): Refugees in the United States of America, think of it; it’s a word you’ll be hearing, I bet, for years.
Craft-Kearney: I could not believe that we were being referred to as “refugees” in our own country. [Sighs.] Anyway.
Newkirk II: Lots of evacuees said they were never going back to New Orleans. Either they were fed up, or they just wanted to escape Katrina. But not Alice.
Craft-Kearney: Absolutely. I was coming back. I had something to come back to. I had home. And I definitely wanted to get back to my home.
Newkirk II: Evacuees were starting to pop up all over the country. The stolen city bus had taken Le-Ann Williams and her family a couple hours away to Lafayette, Louisiana. They’d stayed there for a few days, along with thousands of other evacuees. But one of Le-Ann’s aunts lived over in a town called Magee, Mississippi.
Le-Ann Williams: The middle of nowhere. You have to cut off into the woods to get to her house. Not a street, a road—rocks.
Newkirk II: Magee, Mississippi, is something like the exact opposite of New Orleans. It’s a town on the highway between Jackson and Hattiesburg. One of those places with hotels, fast-food spots, and a Piggly Wiggly, and not a whole lot more. Le-Ann was 14. She’d never lived outside of New Orleans in her life. It had only been a couple weeks since she was buying new uniforms and Jordans to start her new fancy high school. She even still had her hair done up for the first day.
Williams: My ma registered me in Magee High. People thought I talked funny because of my accent. I thought they talked funny. They made fun of my braids, because we, that’s how we wear our hair in New Orleans. But that’s not how they wear their hair in Mississippi.
Newkirk II: She went to class with one of her cousins. She tried to fit in, like any normal schoolgirl. But things just weren’t normal. A teacher asked them to talk about the disaster.
Williams: She was like, “Do you want to just stand in front of class and tell us about y’all self? Because we heard about what happened.” My cousin stood in front of the class and started talking about herself. I broke down crying. They brought me to the counselor.
Talked to the counselor the next period. The same thing. I cried, and I cried. And my cousin talked. She’s like, “Le-Ann, it’s gonna be okay. You just got to stop crying.” I just kept crying.
Alvin Melathe: Why do you think you were crying?
Williams: Because I wanted to go home. I didn’t want to be there. And then we watching the news, and I hear: “It will take New Orleans about five to 10 years to be back what it was.” And “The water still in the city, and it’s taking a long time to pump it out.” And I’m hearing my mom and them discuss this. I’m just saying, “I’m never going to be back home. Five to 10 years, I’ll be an adult. I don’t want to go home five to 10 years. I want to go home now.” My mom was like, “Where are we gonna go? How are we going to go home? You can’t get in the city. They not letting us in the city. You can go to your house no more. There is no home no more.”
Newkirk II: Her family did their best to find somewhere to make a new life. A couple months after they got to Magee, Le-Ann’s parents took her to Scottsdale, Arizona. A church there was helping families get back on their feet.
Le-Ann actually liked it in Scottsdale. The food was good. Her family had a pool. She even made some new friends. But she was still determined to go back home. Some volunteers at the church offered to buy her new clothes, and she decided she wanted a winter jacket.
Williams: And they was like, “I don’t think you gonna need that out here, because it don’t get that cold out here.” And I just was persistent. I wanted that coat. And they was like, “Oh, well, you can just wear it. It’s like 60 degrees in the morning, but in the evening it’s hot. You not gon’ need it.” But I’m thinking I’mma need it for where I’m going, because I’m going back home. So I’m just gonna get this jacket. [Laughs.] I’mma need it sooner or later ’cause we just gonna be here just temporarily anyway. So I got the jacket.
Melathe: And did you wear it?
Williams: Yeah, I wore that jacket to school, boy. It was cold when I got up. See, when I got out of my last period, I was burning up.
Newkirk II: It was like she’d left her life on pause back in New Orleans. Maybe if she could just get back, things would pick up right where they left off. Maybe she could get back to her high school, play basketball, hang out with her crush, Fonso. But reality began to set in one day when she finally was able to track Fonso down. He had made his way back to New Orleans. She gave him a call.
Williams: I just called the house phone, and it rung, and somebody answered it. And I asked to speak to him. And his mom hollered for him to get the phone.
Newkirk II: But as soon as she started talking, she could hear a lot of people in the background. Fonso seemed distracted. Like he was busy.
Williams: And he just didn’t want to talk. That hurted my feelings. It really did.
Newkirk II: And then Fonso hung up.
Williams: And the phone went [Imitates buzzing.], and I never spoke with him again.
Archival (Nagin): When you mention New Orleans anywhere around the world, everybody’s eyes light up.
Newkirk II: Back in that week after Katrina, Mayor Ray Nagin was on the radio with Garland Robinette. They talked about General Honoré and the slow government response. And Nagin defended the city that he loved.
Archival (Nagin): Now get off your asses, and let’s do something, and let’s fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country.
Archival (Robinette): I’ll say it right now: You’re the only politician that’s called and called for arms like this.
Newkirk II: The two men weren’t just angry or overwhelmed or frustrated. With unknown numbers of dead and so many people evacuating, they were also grieving.
Archival (Nagin): I am just—I’m at the point now where it don’t matter. People are dying. They don’t have homes. They don’t have jobs. The city of New Orleans will never be the same in this time.
Newkirk II: He was right. The city of New Orleans would never be the same. The lives that had been lost couldn’t just be restored. The lives like Le-Ann’s that had been broken and changed couldn’t just be fixed. And as the weeks became months, as Magee became Scottsdale became Houston, there were new questions hanging over the city of New Orleans. How would the city be rebuilt? Who was to blame? And who would get to come back? Who wouldn’t?
People would look for answers in investigations. In hearings and trials, council meetings and conspiracy theories. They would work to find meaning in the disaster. They would work to figure out what to say.
Archival (Robinette): We’re both pretty speechless here. Yeah, I don’t know what to say. [Crying.]
Archival (Nagin): I gotta go. Okay. [Crying.] [Hangs up.]
Archival (Robinette): Keep in touch. Keep in touch. Okay. Can we take a break? Jesus Christ. [Crying.]
Vann Newkirk II: It was three months after Katrina. There were still high-water marks on the houses. There were still X’s spray-painted on the doors, marking the places that had already been checked for survivors, counting the bodies that had been found inside. Lots of street signs had been washed away, so anybody driving had to navigate by memory. That was what New Orleans was like when J. David Rogers flew down.
J. David Rogers: It was a ghost town. It was just, it was eerie. It was like being, you know, at some place that had been bombed. Didn’t knock all the buildings down, but it sure knocked a lot of them down.
Newkirk II: David’s a professor of geological engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. But he’s also one of the guys people call when big engineering projects fail. He’s a forensic scientist for disasters.
Rogers: I worked on the Interstate 880 Cypress [Street] collapse in Oakland in 1989. That was 44 people were killed and crushed, and I was down there the first night in that one. But that was one structure. It wasn’t like New Orleans, where it’s just desolation, just goes for miles and miles and miles and nobody escapes.
Newkirk II: David was part of a team funded by the National Science Foundation and UC Berkeley. He was there to investigate how the levees had broken. Several groups were doing the same: the Army Corps of Engineers, private researchers, groups of amateurs. David went to the places where the levees broke to find answers
Rogers: Well, I think the one that was most penetrating that I’ll never forget is in St. Bernard Parish. The whole levee just disappeared. Liquified. So all the ships and the shrimp boats and everything just went right over the Arpent levee and into St. Bernard, and then the water couldn’t get out. And so you had cars on top of houses that we found, and you had these skilled care facilities with all these dead senior citizens inside of them. It was, it was like a scene from Dante’s hell. It was really hard.
Newkirk II: If Katrina had really been the big one, the answers would have been easy. The levees weren’t built for a direct hit by a Category 5 storm. But Katrina was a Category 3 storm at landfall. It didn’t hit the city directly. The levees should’ve held up.
Archival (congressional hearing): [Gavel hits.] Committee will come to order.
Newkirk II: As investigators worked, Congress started holding hearings.
Archival (congressional hearing): Would both of you raise your right hand. Will you testify under oath that the …
Newkirk II: The country was trying to figure out what happened. The country was trying to figure out who to blame.
Archival (news clip): A battleground over who should be held accountable for the catastrophic failures to respond effectively …
Archival (news clip): The president is fighting the impression that his administration waited too long …
Archival (news clip): Mr. Bush and the White House aware they have a problem trying to change …
Archival (news clip): The president said he’s going to lead an investigation into what went wrong. He need look only in the mirror.
Newkirk II: But before anyone could figure out who to blame, we needed to know what happened. Levees had failed in over 50 locations. Hundreds of people had died, and their families needed closure. There were thousands more returning to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast who needed to know the levees could keep them safe next time. There was a debate over the future of the city. Somewhere, in the hundreds of miles of levees between the mouth of the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain, there were answers to be found.
Rogers: We said, “We’re going to look at as many of these failures as we can to try and figure out what it was that caused the failure.”
Newkirk II: What did you think had happened?
Rogers: I had no idea.
Newkirk II: Part VI: “Reckoning.”
There wasn’t much to do in the Drury Inn & Suites in Lafayette, Louisiana. It’s only a couple hours away from New Orleans, but in the weeks after Katrina, it might as well have been on another planet. That’s where Sandy Rosenthal and her family were staying after the storm. And that’s where they still were, weeks after it had passed.
Sandy Rosenthal: We didn’t know that we were gonna be able to go home. When we first heard that the city was flooding, naturally we assumed the worst.
Newkirk II: Sandy’s a Boston transplant who lived uptown. Up on the high ground, in the “sliver by the river” she’d never really had to think about floods before.
Rosenthal: No one had ever talked about the levee breaking. That would be like—it would have made more sense to say martians had landed. It would have been easier to process that than to say the levees had broken. It never occurred to us they could break, especially levees built by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Newkirk II: So when you do have some sense of the fact that the city is flooding, what is the vision that’s in your mind when you piece that together?
Rosenthal: We all cried. ’Cause you know. We all just held each other and cried. And then the next morning, I remember jolting out of bed, sitting upright in bed. And I would wake up every day like that for about a month.
Newkirk II: But there was a little good news. She found out that the high ground in New Orleans had been spared.
Rosenthal: I was one of the lucky ones. I didn’t flood, which made my life completely different from 80 percent of the city. And so that I had. I had luxury, if you want to call it. I had the luxury of time that I could process the information.
Newkirk II: She hadn’t lost anything. But that’s exactly why her life was about to change.
Rosenthal: My memory of the weeks afterward is being glued to the radio, glued to the television set, glued to the newspapers, glued to the internet. News, news, news, news, news. I had—we were constantly drinking in news. Trying to understand, trying to process what had happened.
Newkirk II: As Sandy watched TV, she started to recognize a pattern. Early on, Katrina was always described like an act of God. The hurricane was massive; New Orleans was vulnerable; the disaster was unavoidable.
Archival (news clip): So much of this city, the Big Easy, is so easily flooded. It’s so exposed.
Archival (news clip): The trouble is everyone knows that when the big one hits, those levees won’t be high enough or strong enough.
Archival (news clip): For nearly 300 years, the sea has been closing in on New Orleans …
Newkirk II: And if New Orleans was somehow destined for destruction, maybe nobody should live there.
Archival (news clip): As the city begins what’s likely the biggest demolition project in U.S. history the question is: Can we or should we put New Orleans back together again?
Newkirk II: The idea that New Orleans shouldn’t be rebuilt, didn’t deserve to be rebuilt, it wasn’t all that uncommon. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert said early on that rebuilding the city didn’t make any sense.
Archival (news clip): The speaker of the House basically said that, given the geography of New Orleans, maybe it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to rebuild it as it was.
Newkirk II: A Slate editor named Jack Shafer wrote a piece called “Don’t Refloat” that agreed. He wrote, “New Orleans puts the D into ‘dysfunctional.’ Only a sadist would insist on resurrecting this concentration of poverty, crime, and deplorable schools.” Even some New Orleanians thought the city was too dysfunctional to save.
But for Sandy, none of it made any sense. Those Army Corps levees were strong. They shouldn’t have broken. She hadn’t expected to be holed up in the hotel that long. Like a lot of other folks who evacuated ahead of Katrina, she thought it was gonna be a couple weeks, tops. Kind of a forced vacation. She’d even packed her tennis racket.
Rosenthal: I found other people who play tennis in Lafayette, and I got a phone call. “The University of [Louisiana at] Lafayette is having a mixed doubles tournament. They need a female player. Do you want to play?”
Newkirk II: All Sandy was doing was watching news reports about Katrina. She really needed to get out of her hotel room. So she said “Sure.”
Rosenthal: So I put on my tennis clothes and got my tennis bag and went to the mixed doubles tournament, and the first thing I did is talked about the levees. I said, “I’m an evacuee.” I talked about the levees. I talked about how the levees were faulty and shouldn’t have broken.
Newkirk II: Another player at the tournament was from Alexandria, Louisiana. He cut in.
Rosenthal: And the gentleman from Alexandria told me, “Oh, no! There’s nothing wrong with those levees. Those levees were fine. Katrina was a huge storm, and people like you don’t deserve help.” He just insulted every person I know. Every family member I have, literally every friend I have, and every person in my entire city. He just insulted all of them with that statement. And by telling us, basically had just said we’re stupid for living here and imbeciles for wanting to rebuild. That we wanted special consideration was—he considered that chutzpah. That’s chutzpah. You want special help for your stupid behavior? And I went to my, my—I was shocked, of course. I went and got my keys. I held them up in front of the gentleman and said, “I’m a victim. And if you don’t apologize right now, I’m leaving.”
Newkirk II: He did apologize. Sandy stayed and played. But she felt like she was seeing clearly for the very first time.
Rosenthal: When this gentleman spoke to me those words, he opened up a world I didn’t realize was there. It’s a world of people who are sitting in judgment and blaming us for our misfortune. And who, with their arms across their chest, were not going to provide us any of the help that we needed and deserved. And had he not opened up my eyes to that world, it is entirely true that I might have come home and just lived my life and done absolutely nothing.
Newkirk II: A lot of people were made into activists by Katrina, but Sandy Rosenthal might be the only one who got activated at a mixed doubles tournament.
Rosenthal: I was 48 years old at that point. I was working part-time, playing a lot of tennis, and not politically active at all. And then, like almost every, I would say, like every person that experienced the trauma of the levee breaches, I changed.
Newkirk II: She decided she was going to find every piece of information she could about the levees, so she could shut up people who were judging New Orleans. She was going to rally people to demand answers. She would argue for the right of New Orleans to come back.
Rosenthal: I don’t know if it’s partly innate who I am. I tend to ask questions. Sometimes I irritate people with the questions I ask, including my husband. But I ask questions, and if I don’t get a sensible answer, I keep asking until I get the answer.
Newkirk II: She set up an online petition to demand that President Bush keep a promise to build the levees back stronger. And her 15-year-old son created a website.
Rosenthal: We chose Levees.org. And overnight we had 200 members. So I guess now we’re somebody.
Newkirk II: She had a mission. She had a website. She had numbers. Sandy was building an army. But they were about to go up against the real Army.
Archival (news clip): A general with the Army Corps of Engineers says he does not know how long it will take to drain the flooded city of New Orleans. But the Corps of Engineers believes there is progress being made in stopping the rush of water. The Army Corps of Engineers says everything was done to protect New Orleans, but Hurricane Katrina was more than the levees were built to handle.
Rosenthal: The narrative that the Army Corps of Engineers wanted you to believe after their levees broke was that Katrina was just too big a storm, that the geography of New Orleans is almost totally below sea level and soft spongy soils and difficult to work with. That’s what the Army Corps wanted you to believe.
Archival (documentary): Take a valley. Broad and gentle. Stretch it from the highlands to the sea. Cover it in grass, dense forest, lush fields, and great pastures. Cloak it with natural beauty. Build cities and towns along the wooded slopes, and you have the valley of the Mississippi, the greatest in the world. This is the valley of the giant.
Newkirk II: This is from a 1950 documentary from the Army Corps of Engineers. The film talks about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the most destructive river flood in American history.
Archival (documentary): But sometimes, the giant gets out of control.
Newkirk II: There’s footage of homeless people and Red Cross camps and refugees.
Archival (documentary): In response to this crisis, the Congress of the United States passed the Flood Control Act of 1928.
Newkirk II: That act put the Army Corps of Engineers in charge of controlling the flooding all up and down the Mississippi. Including in New Orleans.
Archival (documentary): The Army engineers were instructed to develop and put into effect an overall plan for controlling the floods, which for years …
Newkirk II: There’s no Nazis or Japanese fighters to overcome, but this is a war propaganda film. The Army was fighting the Mississippi. And in the film, there are the action shots to match: barges, dredges, heavy machinery. It’s the moon landing before the moon landing.
Archival (documentary): And so the future becomes one which holds new promise for the valley and the nation. The giant is being harnessed. Slowly but surely.
Newkirk II: Slowly, but surely. Before the 1920s, New Orleans was surrounded by a patchwork of local levees, sometimes just hills, that protected certain places from floods. Six decades after that documentary, the system it described was in place. The Army Corps took that patchwork and turned it into mighty walls that could hold back river, lake, and storm. Generations in New Orleans had lived behind the great levees that had been built and rebuilt by the Army Corps of Engineers. Before Katrina, even after Katrina, that system is considered a global marvel of engineering.
It’s the kind of thing an engineer like David Rogers would’ve grown up dreaming about.
Rogers: The history of the Corps of Engineers and the Mississippi River is the history of flood control in the United States.
Newkirk II: The problem is that history of flood control is also full of floods.
Archival (documentary): Flooding now at Jackson Barracks. You’re kidding! No one’s kidding. Betsy’s bringing in danger from a totally unexpected quarter …
Newkirk II: In 1965, Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans. And the Industrial Canal levee failed.
Archival (documentary): Roaring across the Industrial Canal into the southeast section of New Orleans. No one knows the full size of the disaster yet. In Betsy’s wake, there’s only darkness, confusion, and death.
Newkirk II: It put the entire Lower Ninth Ward and some other parts of the city underwater. It was so bad that President Johnson came down at night and to visit the victims.
Archival (Lyndon B. Johnson): I have just completed an extensive tour of New Orleans and the surrounding area. I am saddened by the damage and the suffering that I have seen.
Rogers: That was a real watershed event because that was the first natural disaster we had [in] the United States that exceeded $1 billion in losses.
Newkirk II: Lots of people who were in the Lower Ninth Ward during Betsy had heard stories about what happened in 1927. When businessmen and bankers had gotten together to blow up the levees on purpose. There was no evidence of sabotage from 1965, but still, that’s what lots of people believed.
When Katrina hit, the levees by the Lower Ninth failed again. Plenty people had heard about the suspicions in 1965. Some figured it couldn’t be a coincidence.
The idea of sabotage made it all the way to Capitol Hill during the congressional hearings on Katrina.
Archival (C-SPAN): I was on my front porch. I had witnesses that they bombed the walls of the levee. And the debris that’s in front of my door will testify to that.
Newkirk II: The sheer lack of information made it easier to believe the sabotage theory. How could those levees—the ones built by the mighty Army Corps—how could they have failed, if not on purpose? It was David Rogers’s job to figure that out.
And so he began to dig. He did soil samples. Busted out his trusty cone penetrometer.
Rogers: With a drive sampler, and you had to recognize that when the friction ratio got above 18 …
Newkirk II: He looked at sheet piles and slip surfaces.
Rogers: We’re trying to see what the mobilized sheer strength of those little horizons were.
Newkirk II: This is the engineer [who] engineers come to when they have a problem. His brain is full of details. I mean, the guy has like a million ways to describe mud.
Rogers: The consistency of real soft, runny, smooth, creamy peanut butter.
It looks like the kind of oil paint you paint with when you paint an oil painting.
It just looks like a little piece of baby poop. That’d be the best way to describe it.
Newkirk II: It sounds funny, but all these little details about friction ratio and mud and sheer strength can be the difference between life and death. The difference between a levee that can withstand a storm and one that’ll break.
Rogers: It’s serious. What we do as civil engineers is serious business. People depend on us to do it right.
Newkirk II: There are many types of levees in New Orleans, but a lot of them are basically big hills, sometimes with big concrete floodwalls stuck in them. They should be able to hold any flood that doesn’t go over the top. Before Katrina, the floodwalls were designed to be about 13–15 feet high.
The initial story from the Army Corps was that Katrina had been above that level. Army Corps commander Carl Strock said that the storm surge was so high that it just washed over the tops of the levees.
Archival (Carl Strock): Now, could this have been avoided? The area where the levee breaks occurred was at its final design configuration, so that was as good as it was going to get. And what does that mean? Actually, we knew that it would protect from a Category 3 hurricane. In fact, it has been through a number of Category 3 hurricanes. The intensity of this storm simply exceeded the design capacity of this levee.
Newkirk II: But even in the moment, without all the information, some people thought the story didn’t sound right.
Ivor van Heerden: They came out with, “This was an act of God.” You know, “It just overwhelmed our A-class levees, and therefore we’re not at fault.”
Newkirk II: That’s Ivor van Heerden. He’s from South Africa, but he’d been in Louisiana for over a decade. When Katrina hit, he was the deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center. He knew the levees well. He wasn’t buying the Army Corps’s story.
van Heerden: I walked many of those levees, and I saw ones that were down. You know, that were sinking under their own weight. I could see that. I looked at the, just these flimsy walls—metal walls—and I said, Those things ain’t gonna last.
Newkirk II: Ivor had been trying to warn of a potential catastrophe for years. He was one of the scientists whose work helped predict “the big one.” His computer modeling showed that the water hadn’t gotten high enough to go over the top of the 17th Street Canal levees.
van Heerden: So as soon as I got a chance, I flew in an airplane. And I saw a breach after breach after breach after breach. And I had a good video camera, and I videoed them.
Newkirk II: Looking down from above, Ivor saw that his computer models had been right. He couldn’t find any signs that the water had gone over the top of the levees.
van Heerden: The water didn’t get high enough. It didn’t go over the top, as they’re complaining.
Newkirk II: The Army Corps explanation that Katrina had been too powerful didn’t make sense. Something was wrong with the levees. But what was the problem? And who caused it? The Corps had designed and built the levees, but it was the local government’s job to maintain them. The FBI and DOJ started looking into whether local corruption could have partly been to blame. In a congressional hearing, Republican Bill Shuster outlined a similar theory.
Archival (congressional hearing): It’s also my understanding that the two canals that broke were under the supervision, maintenance, of the City of New Orleans, the levee boards, and the sewer and water treatment facilities. So I keep hearing “the levees, the levees.” I think that, although the Corps, as I said, certainly may have designed them, there is responsibility equally for the folks that are there maintaining and supervising those levees on a daily, weekly, monthly basis.
Archival (news clip): The Corps firing back now, saying engineers worked with all levels of government to build those levees. And you can’t blame one entity for the failure.
Archival (news clip): On Capitol Hill today, tough questions about whether local officials who were supposed to make sure the city’s levee system was properly maintained were doing their job.
Archival (news clip): Just a few minutes ago, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay came out of this contentious meeting and said it’s really not the federal government’s fault. It’s really the local government’s fault in Louisiana.
Newkirk II: While this whole conversation was happening in Washington, David Rogers was visiting the breach sites around New Orleans. The problems he found didn’t have much to do with maintenance at all. He found fundamental structural problems. Some levees were sinking. Some weren’t high enough. Some weren’t properly connected to others. There were huge gaps in between some walls. Later, testing showed the 17th Street levee couldn’t hold nearly the amount of water it was designed to hold. Those gold-standard levees built by the Army Corps of Engineers just weren’t so great.
Rogers: You know, there were just—there were some things that were just really stupid. Really bad. Then there were things that were just honest mistakes, where there’s a lack of peer review. There were details, nuances like that that could have been done better.
Newkirk II: David and his colleagues released their report in 2006, after months of investigation. They found that the failures weren’t just because of a particularly strong storm. Katrina was powerful enough to cause some flooding even if the levees had been well designed and well built. But they weren’t well designed. And they weren’t well built.
Rosenthal: The hurricane was a trigger. I want people to stop talking about a hurricane; I want people to talk about the levee failures.
Newkirk II: Sandy had her hands on David’s report as soon as he released it. But there were lots of things about it that she didn’t love. It didn’t put all of the blame on the Army Corps. It said that disorganization in New Orleans had also played a part. That local officials had a hand in forcing the Army Corps to build bad levees.
Rosenthal: That was very damaging. Even though the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said publicly “that shouldn’t have mattered; we should have still built this properly.” We were never able to get out from under that.
Newkirk II: Sandy was worried that any blame on the local levee boards would be used against New Orleans. Would become a part of the narrative that New Orleans somehow brought this on itself. That New Orleans shouldn’t be rebuilt. She used her website to try to get the word out that the Army Corps was responsible, not New Orleans. But then, she started noticing weird comments on the site.
Rosenthal: Oh, the comments, they were ugly and mean. They were going, “Sandy, you love to bash the Corps. And you obviously have a bone to pick with the Corps. Why do you—why do you hate the Corps so much?”
Newkirk II: Some of the comments weren’t just mean; they were scary.
Rosenthal: They were using intimidation. They were using, you know, saying ugly things. And it was clear from some of the comments, they knew where I lived. They could describe my house. So a colleague of mine said, “You should—you know, you can look up IP addresses, and you can see where they come from.” I thought to myself, “Yeah. I know.” But I didn’t want to focus on that. Well, he insisted. I said, “Okay. I tell you what: I will.”
Newkirk II: So they looked them up.
Rosenthal: I could see from their IP address where they were. They were actually Corps headquarters.
Newkirk II: A Department of Defense investigation eventually tracked some of the comments to the computer of an Army Corps contractor. We asked the Army Corps about it. A spokesperson said [that] as soon as leadership heard about it, they put a stop to it. The Corps blocked Levees.org from most of their computers.
Rosenthal: And the Army Corps was very embarrassed about it and actually issued me an apology for it. And they issued a memo to all of his staffers: “Don’t do that.” And most people would be frightened by it, but me, I was actually empowered by it because I knew I must be right. Why spend all his time and energy going after me if I’m wrong? If I was saying the Earth was flat.
Newkirk II: Ivor van Heerden, the director of the LSU Hurricane Center, kept speaking out about the Army Corps’s responsibility too. He even wrote a book. LSU told him he wasn’t qualified to be commenting on engineering mistakes and said the university shouldn’t be “pointing blame.” But he kept talking. In 2009, he was fired.
He sued for wrongful termination and later released a bunch of emails indicating state and federal officials had pressured the university into firing him. Ivor and LSU settled in 2013 for over $400,000. He hasn’t been able to get a job since.
As for David Rogers, he got some pushback too. His report wasn’t about blame or about pointing the finger at the Army Corps. It simply detailed the results of his forensic work. But with the Corps, he felt he became persona non grata.
Rogers: They didn’t like what I was saying, and they felt that it was damning of the Corps of Engineers. Like, we were saying they were a bunch of negligent fools. I didn’t ever say that.
Newkirk II: David was surprised. He said an Army Corps employee came to one of his lectures and called him a liar.
Rogers: I’m a real student of the Corps of Engineers and their history, and I have great respect for a lot of their people who have made incredible contributions. So that was probably the saddest thing of the whole consultation because I’m a military man. I had 31 years, Navy Marine Corps, counting active and reserve. I don’t consider the Corps of Engineers my enemy at all.
Newkirk II: When you think about it, all the pushback—the comments and emails and confrontations—they were all over what might be considered small details. Whether or not the Army Corps was partly at fault or mostly at fault. But what was on the line was something bigger. It was about a certain kind of faith.
Rosenthal: We want to believe the romantic story—that it was Mother Nature. That’s romantic. The Titanic was almost romantic, the way they stylized it. You know, but the Titanic wasn’t romantic. It wasn’t a love story. The Titanic was a failure due to the arrogance of man. Arrogance is what caused them to put too few lifeboats. Arrogance is what caused them to turn off the radio so that they didn’t hear the warnings about the ice. They were so arrogant [that] they were going to break a record on their maiden voyage. They were not focused on the safety of their passengers. One hundred years later, we have the levees.
Newkirk II: Sandy felt that her fight was not just about facts, but about an idea. The Army Corps represented American might. No matter the enemy, from terrorists to hurricanes, people wanted to believe the American can-do spirit could defeat it. But what if it couldn’t?
Rosenthal: To believe that the Army Corps is responsible, you have to turn your, a lot of things you believe upside down. And you’re forced to have to entertain an idea that’s uncomfortable, that the federal government is responsible for this. Well, if they’re responsible for that, what else are they responsible for? The idea that the federal government is responsible for flooding an entire American city was just—I think it was just too much for people to believe. I don’t blame them for having trouble believing it. I don’t blame them.
Newkirk II: If Sandy was right about her version of events, it wasn’t just that the Army Corps was asleep at the wheel. They drove the damn car into the ditch.
Newkirk II: For the next decade, folks like Sandy and Ivor kept fighting that fight. Locals went to levee-board meetings. They commemorated all the anniversaries. But going into the 10th anniversary, Sandy was still worried that New Orleans was getting blamed for the levee breaches. And she thought there was someone who might be able to correct the record, once and for all: David Rogers.
Rosenthal: Oh, yes, indeed. Yes, indeed. We travelled to Rolla, Missouri, to speak with him. And he was instrumental. He’s a wonderful, wonderful man.
Newkirk II: Sandy brought David evidence that the local board didn’t really have much to do with the breaches. She found information about an old test the Army Corps had done to figure out how deep to anchor the 17th Street and London Avenue floodwalls. Turns out it didn’t interpret the tests right. Those levees weren’t deep enough. They were probably gonna fail no matter what. So, in 2015, David wrote a new report, saying the local levee board had no role in those failures.
Rosenthal: I would say that was absolutely the coup of my organization. We urged the civil engineers to write it, and they did upon our urging because they understood that it was true—that New Orleans was thrown under the bus.
Newkirk II: That’s it. It took 10 years, but they’d gotten the author of the most influential report on the levees to correct the record. End of story.
Today, the Army Corps agrees with that interpretation. After all of the reports and research over the years, they’ve confirmed something they didn’t in the immediate aftermath. They told us that design failures were a significant factor in the flooding of the city. And that they bear responsibility for those failures.
(Ambient recording near the levee in the Lower Ninth Ward.)
Newkirk II: If you go to the site of the breach in the Lower Ninth Ward today, you’ll see that the walls have been repaired. The levees and floodwalls were rebuilt stronger, taller, more capable of managing the power of the Mississippi giant, the massive storm surges from the gulf, the immense pressure from the lake.
You wouldn’t know just from looking at it that in 2005, a wall of water broke through the levee and killed dozens of people. But you might notice a plaque standing right at the spot where the levee broke.
Newkirk II: The sign reads Industrial Canal Flood Wall. The breach of the Industrial Canal and others created a pivotal moment in American history. When flood walls designed and built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed, the flooding from the breach here killed hundreds, destroyed homes, toppled trees, and forever altered the fabric of the historic Lower Ninth Ward. The disaster forced the Army Corps to issue new guidelines in levee building, which improved safety for residents all across the country.
Newkirk II: Levees.org put this sign there. They worked with New Orleans to place signs at major breaches with each one forever holding the Army Corps and America to account. Now the story that everyone agrees on is the one that blames the U.S. government and one that vindicates folks like Sandy, Ivor, and David.
The flood was not inevitable. They were right, but that wasn’t enough. On the other side of that plaque, it described the Lower Ninth Ward. A place where thousands of families had lived before the storm, mostly homeowners. A place where black people had thrived in a neighborhood all their own.
Most of New Orleans did come back. But on the street where this plaque sits, there is empty lot after empty lot. A house here and there, but plenty of open fields of grass. Fourteen years later, less than half of the former residents have made it back. The plaque memorializes what they built. But most of the people who did the building aren’t around to read it.
We know why the levees broke. We already built levees that won’t break the same way again. But as for the people—those who couldn’t come back—the neighborhoods and communities that just stand as memorials now while others thrive. There are lots of things that no levees could fix. Some things that were maybe even deeper than earth and water.
Archival (speech): I greet you all in the spirit of peace this morning.
Newkirk II: In 2006, Mayor Ray Nagin gave a speech on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Lots of people were still evacuated, scattered across the country.
Archival (speech): Everybody in New Orleans is dispersed. Over 44 different states.
Newkirk II: The city was still rebuilding. And Nagin knew that plenty of evacuees were worried about what would happen to their neighborhoods while they were gone. That people with power and money might see an empty city as an opportunity for change.
Archival (speech): We’re debating whether we should open this or close that. We’re debating whether property rights should trump everything or not. We’re debating how should we rebuild one of the greatest cultural cities the world has ever seen.
Newkirk II: Nagin was trying to rally people. Really trying.
Archival (speech): We as black people: It’s time. It’s time for us to come together. It’s time for us to rebuild a New Orleans, the one that should be a chocolate New Orleans. And I don’t care what people are saying Uptown or wherever they are. This city will be chocolate at the end of the day. This city will be a majority African American city. It’s the way God wants it to be. You can’t have New Orleans no other way; it wouldn’t be New Orleans. So before I get into too much more trouble …
Newkirk II: He was promising that the blackest city in America would stay that way. That New Orleans would come back just the way it was. But he was making a promise he wouldn’t keep.
Archival (footage): (Sounds of city-council protest.)
Newkirk II: Part VII: “Destiny.”
Le-Ann Williams: Houston was the worst part. I’ll tell you, I will never go back there. Not even to visit. If it was the last place in the United States of America, I live on a boat. Not going back. Not going back to Texas ever.
Newkirk II: Le-Ann Williams and her family had spent a year traveling across the country. First Lafayette, then Mississippi, then Arizona, then Texas. Before Katrina, she was an honor-roll student. Had never been in any real trouble before. But in Houston, things changed. She was bullied.
Williams: ’Cause they would say mean stuff. “Go back to New Orleans,” “Nobody don’t care about y’all,” “Y’all refugees,” and all kinds of stuff. “Dirty. You dirty. Y’all walked in dirty, nasty water,” and they just was mean. Texas was mean. And I would act out if somebody tell me something. I was fighting; I had to fight.
Newkirk II: She beat up a girl at school and spent a night in jail. After she got sentenced to reform school and probation, her mom decided she’d had enough. So just before Le-Ann’s 16th birthday, they were on their way back to New Orleans.
Williams: It’s like we couldn’t make it go faster. See—when I saw that Welcome to New Orleans sign, I’m like, I’m home.
Newkirk II: Getting into New Orleans that day, it might have seemed like things were going back to normal. Just off I-10, the roof was back on the Superdome. The Saints were playing there again, and they’d just signed Le-Ann’s favorite player, Drew Brees.
Archival (news clip): Here we are and here it is. The opening of the Lousianna superdome … the grand opening right now … through 13 months of labor, pain, tears, and sorry …
Newkirk II: Casinos were booming. The business district was coming back.
Archival (news clip): And this town is coming back. This town is better today than it was yesterday, and it’ll be better tomorrow than it was today.
Newkirk II: People were partying on Bourbon Street.
Archival (news clip): And that is a shot of the French Quarter tonight. It is crowded, tourists visiting—very much alive, that part of the city. And I gotta tell you, the French Quarter is cleaner than I’ve ever seen it in my entire life.
Newkirk II: Before Katrina, Le-Ann had lived in the Lafitte housing projects with her mom and dad. The bricks had been around for over 60 years. Some of the first public housing for black folks in the country. But they were still closed when she got back. The federal government had been trying to shut them down for years. They were trying to get rid of all the big housing projects in the city. The problem was that a lot of people lived there. But after the flood, residents were scattered across the country. And the city saw an opportunity.
Archival (footage): (Sounds of city-council protest.)
Newkirk II: In 2007, the city council held a meeting to vote on a plan to demolish four of the biggest housing projects: Magnolia, Calliope, St. Bernard, and Lafitte. Protesters showed up to try to stop it. The scene outside of city hall was chaos: Protesters pushed against police, surged against the doors of city hall. But they were barricaded. Only a few people could see what was going on inside.
Archival (footage): (Sounds of city-council protest.)
Newkirk II: Inside, supporters and opponents of the demolition argued for two and a half hours.
Archival (footage): It would be a violation of human rights to conduct wholesale demolition of public housing.
Archival (footage): The past model of public housing in this city has been a failed one.
Archival (footage): Who said that we want our homes demolished? Who said that?
Archival (footage): … complicity in the situation by ignoring it have left our public housing developments in ruin.
Archival (footage): Let me tell you something. You tried to take away our homes, our pride, our self respect, our dignity. But we refuse to let you take it.
Newkirk II: But the arguments in favor of demolishing the projects were winning. The mayor himself had written a letter in favor of demolition. The federal government was promising a lot of money to build new mixed-income units. City officials argued they could beautify the city and find a way to house everyone who’d left.
Archival (footage): Change is hard. And in New Orleans, it’s even harder. But those of us who are sitting here today, we were elected to be fair and to use our own life experiences and love for this city to help guide us in difficult decisions like we have to make. A course which will make New Orleans great again, not only for the few but for the all.
Newkirk II: The scene outside the chambers got more and more chaotic. Police pepper-sprayed and tasered people in the crowd. They tasered protesters who’d made it inside too.
Archival (footage): (Sounds of city-council protest.)
Newkirk II: Inside, the vote went down calmly. It was unanimous, in favor of demolition. In a few weeks, the bulldozers would move in and start knocking down 4,500 apartments.
Williams: We couldn’t come back home, and that just brought me all the way down. They just shut it down. Couldn’t come back … and I don’t know why.
Newkirk II: Many families who lived in those projects never came back. Rents rose in the city by almost 50 percent in two years. In some places, it doubled. But Le-Ann’s family managed to find a two-bedroom house to rent on Marigny Street, not too far from the French Quarter. There were a lot of folks, cramped up: Le-Ann, her parents, two aunts, her brother, her sister, and quite a few cousins. But Le-Ann had a ball in that two-bedroom house.
Williams: You know, the Pitty Pat, it was rolling. The cards was a-rolling. Playing for 50 cents, change everywhere. And my cousins, when they came to school and they kind of blended in with my friends and we were just all always together, all us.
Newkirk II: The fancy high school she’d just started when Katrina hit was closed down. She ended up going to Frederick [A.] Douglass High School with her cousins. But she says it just wasn’t the place that was gonna take her where she wanted to go.
Williams: It’s like the teachers didn’t really care to teach you that much? Like if you didn’t want to learn, you didn’t have to. You had a choice. Put it like that. You had a choice. If you didn’t feel like learning today when you came to school, you didn’t have to learn. You can wander the halls if you wanted to. You could walk out the front door if you want to, pass the security guard right up.
Newkirk II: She hadn’t had time to take the SAT or ACT, and she had no idea how to even apply for college, really. She talked with a local university about going, but her family couldn’t get the financial-aid paperwork together. College wasn’t gonna happen.
Williams: I just was crushed. I just didn’t understand. What was the problem?
Newkirk II: She had a job at Sbarro. She started dating someone new. In August, almost three years to the day after Katrina, Hurricane Gustav skated by New Orleans. It didn’t do much damage. But Le-Ann remembers it because, around then, she found out she was pregnant.
Williams: I was scared; I didn’t want a child. I was a child myself. I had plans on what I wanted to do, and I wanted to go to school, and I wasn’t ready to raise someone. But I’m having a baby.
Newkirk II: So Le-Ann was going to have a little girl. She needed to figure out what to name her.
Williams: Oh my God, it was a battle. It was so many names. Kia this and that, and I’m like, Destiny? Yeah, that’s beautiful. Like, that was my first time hearing the name Destiny.
Newkirk II: You get chills?
Williams: Yeah. It was just fit for her. Somebody that I never even met. It’s like I heard “Destiny” for the first time. I named my daughter Destiny.
Newkirk II: Le-Ann worked hard to save up money for her baby girl. She went to school and held down two jobs. But her boyfriend stopped showing up for work, lost his job. And Le-Ann noticed that he was starting to act strange.
Williams: He stopped going to work, and he just started acting weird and always lashing out and angry all the time, and he just was a different person. I was with Destiny’s father for a minute before I really realized that it’s not just me I’m protecting; it’s Destiny too.
Newkirk II: It was hard, but eventually, she realized things weren’t going to get better. So she decided to leave him. She raised Destiny on her own. She worked two jobs. She went to community college. But it was hard to get stability. One day at work, she was accused of stealing money from the safe. She insisted she hadn’t done it, but she was prosecuted anyway. She went to trial.
Williams: They had black folks on the jury; they took all them off. I had older white folks, like lawyers and stuff. I’m like, “Oh my God. I’m going down.” That’s—I was like, “I’m going down. I’m going to jail for something that I didn’t do.” That was my first time being black and dealing with the law. And so many times I hear, “Ohh, you, we black. They doing this to us. I’m black.” I actually, like, went through it.
Newkirk II: It turned out that there was videotape of the incident, and it wasn’t her on the tape. She was found not guilty. She didn’t go to jail … but the charge itself was punishment. She lost her job. She couldn’t pay her rent, so she lost her apartment too. She was gonna have to start over again.
Williams: And I remember just being so depressed and down and out. I tried to take my own life. I was in Covington mental hospital for major depression. They prescribed me Zoloft; I remember that.
Newkirk II: It was just over four years after she’d gotten back to New Orleans. Five years after Katrina. Like so many other Katrina kids, her life had been disrupted over and over again. They’d been separated from home and from family; dealt with violence, homelessness, and PTSD. Le-Ann left the city as a kid, still excited about first-day-of-school outfits and booty braids. She came back and was forced to grow up.
Williams: Just felt alone again. In my city. Where I wanted to be. Alone in my city.
Newkirk II: Le-Ann had finally made it home. But it felt like home didn’t want her anymore. Maybe it didn’t want anybody like her anymore.
Alice Craft-Kerney: When I came into the inside of my house, it was just a catastrophe. Everything was topsy-turvy; it was mud. You know. It just smell like rotten, something rotten. I looked up and I could see the sky because the parts of my roof were completely gone. Nothing was really salvageable.
Newkirk II: Alice Craft-Kerney was back in the city too. Her house was in bad shape. Her mother’s house in the Lower Ninth Ward was destroyed. Before Katrina, Alice had been a nurse at Charity Hospital for almost 20 years. Charity had been a landmark for black New Orleanians. It had been around since the 1700s, and that’s where lots of older folks in the city were born. It was a safety-net hospital. They cared for a lot of poor folks without insurance, and [it] was the only place lots of them could get mental health care. Charity didn’t flood that badly during Katrina, but it was never reopened.
Craft-Kerney: Oh. Oh, it was—that’s fighting words, really. “You know, well, Charity isn’t coming back. Well, what are you going to do?”
Newkirk II: Eventually a new hospital was built down the street. And Alice was let go.
Craft-Kerney: I was given, as they say, my walking papers. I was. Told that after 19 and a half years working at Charity Hospital, my services were no longer needed.
Newkirk II: Alice spent a lot of time at her brother’s house in the Lower Ninth Ward after she got back. Trying to figure out what to do next.
Craft-Kerney: One day I was in my room at my brother’s house, and I don’t know how to describe it except it was like I was lying down and it was like I could hear it. It’s like, Take care of my people, and I’ll take care of you. And I’m like, What in the devil? And I said, No, no, no. I know I’m not hearing that. And it came to me again: Take care of my people, and I will take care of you.
Newkirk II: What kind of voice was it?
Craft-Kerney: I can’t describe it. It’s … It was just, it was something. It was like something just was planted in my spirit. And I said, Lord, I know you’re not talking to me. And I just tried to shrug it off, and it came back to me again.
Newkirk II: Alice knew what she had to do. She decided to start a clinic to help people trying to come back to the Lower Ninth Ward. Her friend who was also a nurse had a house they could use. Volunteers helped get the place running. They served mostly black folks in the neighborhood.
Craft-Kerney: PTSD, anxiety, and depression. I mean, those were the three most prevalent diagnoses that I saw in my clinic.
Newkirk II: Alice was doing what she’d seen black folks in the Lower Ninth Ward do forever. Taking care of her own. Filling in the gaps. Doing what the city couldn’t … or wouldn’t do. But she kept running into roadblocks. First, there were code violations. She had trouble with the funding and Louisiana’s Road Home grant program. Money was tight. Reimbursements from health insurance companies could take months to arrive, and she was often making ends meet with donations. A few years after she opened the clinic, she had to close it down.
Craft-Kerney: I tell people all the time, I said, “I think about Nehemiah in the Bible when they were building a wall.” I said, “I felt like you had to have a hammer in one hand and a sword in another.” In other words, you had to fight as well as try and rebuild, which was very difficult. It didn’t feel like the effort was in your favor, and that’s a difficult place to be. And I think that affected people mentally too.
Newkirk II: Alice wasn’t the only person hitting weird roadblocks. Black families all over the city had a harder time securing money for rebuilding than white families. In the Lower Ninth, it was especially bad. Plenty land and houses there were never reclaimed. Many families who’d owned houses for generations didn’t have title paperwork, and if they couldn’t prove ownership, they couldn’t get aid. Some people who got FEMA trailers found out they were laced with formaldehyde. Only a few stores and restaurants returned. And all that seemed to make it easier for private developers to buy up land at cut rates.
Meanwhile, parts of the rest of the city got to rebuilding. White residents came back more quickly than black residents and were more likely to be able to stay in the homes they had before the flood.
Alice is pretty discreet. But about all this, she has some things that she will say.
Craft-Kerney: Well, this is what I’ll say. There was a large population of professional African Americans that left the city never to return again. So our city did actually become poor, like they reported in the newspaper. They say it’s poorer, but it’s whiter.
Newkirk II: It was hard to ignore the pattern. And many people figured the pattern was deliberate. To this day, plenty of people in the Lower Ninth Ward believe the levee there was deliberately blown up during Katrina to push black people out and take their land. I heard it all over town.
Montage (multiple voices): Everybody around here heard the explosion. My family members in the Ninth Ward saying that they hearing a loud popping sound. A lot of people said they heard a big boom. They absolutely broke it purposely. I don’t know whether it was an explosion or not. I wouldn’t put it past them.
Newkirk II: After all, a levee had been blown up 1927. People had worried about sabotage in 1965 during Hurricane Betsy too. Lots of people wondered, How could all of this be anything other than a plan?
Maybe it’s easy to dismiss all this as a conspiracy theory. But I think I get where it’s coming from. People need explanations. And if you’re not getting answers from people in charge, then you base your theory on what you know.
Craft-Kerney: We were gone, and folks were making plans for that land. I don’t know if they got their marching orders from somebody to say, “Let this area just languish and die,” but that’s what it felt like. Was it poor planning, or was it by design? We don’t know. You know, it’s a lot of questions. You know, it’s—you really don’t know because you’re not in the room to know what really happened. You just know what the effect was on you. They’ve, they’ve. What I will say: When the story is finally told, it’ll probably be one of the largest transfer of land from African American homeowners to others.
Newkirk II: Others.
Craft-Kerney: To others.
Fred Johnson: Katrina in New Orleans set the dichotomy for a lot of things. People of power thought that they wanted to change, to change [what] they otherwise would have had holy hell changing.
Newkirk II: So it gave them an opportunity almost.
Johnson: One up.
Newkirk II: Fred Johnson never really left New Orleans after Katrina. He stayed behind for weeks in the Hyatt hotel, running missions for the police and authorities. He got an early start on rebuilding his home in the Seventh Ward. It was a double: His mother’s old unit was next to his. She died before Katrina, and they’d given away all her clothes and most of her belongings. But there were two end tables he’d left sitting on the floor.
Johnson: My regret was that in those end tables is where she kept all of the picture books. And that did me in. I mean, that really did me in. Because by the time I could get to them, there were 40 different colors. And I think the thing that tore me up the worst was the loss of those photographs. That got to me more than anything else.
Newkirk II: Were they like childhood photographs?
Johnson: Everything. Everything. Everything you could think about. My grandchildren won’t get to see those pictures. So I don’t have a point of reference to physically show them. You know what I mean? When my mom passed, my grandson, I don’t think he was 1 years old. May have just been 1, so he never got to really know his great grandmother.
Newkirk II: Fred’s big on stuff like that. Lineage. Passing down memories. Passing down wealth through homes. He managed to rebuild and helped other folks do the same. But for Fred, it’s not really about the houses.
Johnson: My primary feelings. I don’t know what it is. It’s a combination. It’s a gumbo. It ain’t one thing; it’s multiple things. But I thank God for blessing me with the ability to think, to understand what I’m looking at. Because in New Orleans, we had a Katrina. In other places, they didn’t have a Katrina, and it’s happening to them. And it’s called gentrification. People make communities. Seventh, Sixth Ward, Eighth Ward, Ninth Ward—I don’t care what ward you in—the absence of those people is the change in their community. The absence of those people is a radical change in those communities.
Newkirk II: Today, Le-Ann Williams is a long way from where she grew up. She lives out in the east [part of the city] now.
Williams: I moved here about two months ago. I was staying in Algiers on the west bank. The apartment was small. They didn’t want to fix anything. And I was looking all over to find a house. And the only places they really have is in the east.
Newkirk II: The black population in Orleans Parish has diminished by almost a third since 2000. A new mixed-income development replaced the Lafitte Projects. Less than half of the 400 or so units there belong to people who used to live there. It’s called Faubourg Lafitte now. And even in Treme … the old heart of black New Orleans, where Le-Ann used to have pretend second lines … even that’s changing. When we drove out to Dumaine Street with her one morning, she didn’t recognize much.
Williams: It makes me so mad. That’s why I don’t like coming around here. Because it makes me so mad. It do. All this is gone. Everybody just pushed to the east. Everybody.
Newkirk II: Le-Ann doesn’t go back to Dumaine Street much anymore. No reason. Her family is scattered now. Most of the folks around this way are strangers. A lot more of them are white. And the weirdest thing is that it’s quiet.
Williams: When I was younger, like the culture here, the music, and everything, I always was around it no matter what. Now it’s just gone. So if you push us out, what’s gonna be left? Just come look at things like a museum, just at historic places and buildings—that’s it? If you push us out … where the culture gonna come from?
Newkirk II: Everything’s different. She thinks a lot about what things would be like if it weren’t so different.
Williams: Our kids would be here, and they would be able to experience it, and they’ll be like history repeating itself. They’ll probably get the experience what we did. Running around on Dumaine saying, “Car time! Car time!” Probably picking up boxes and starting their own second line. I just wish we could come back. I’m telling you, if I win the lottery, I’m buying the whole block. So, they gon’ have to just leave because I’m buying it. I’m buying the whole block.
Newkirk II: We sat on the porch of what used to be her grandmother’s place. Big Jackie’s house. Knocked on the door, hoping somebody might come let us in … let Le-Ann see the tree in the backyard she’d grown up climbing or the place where she used to play Pitty Pat with her cousins.
While we stood there, I thought about the things the people will and will not say. Plenty of people say New Orleans is better off now. But they don’t often say who paid the price. Nobody ever said to Le-Ann: “I see that you were here; I see what you lost.” No one ever explained. No one ever said “I’m sorry.”
We waited on that porch for awhile. But nobody answered.
Archival (footage): Take a look at the list of scenarios in front of you. First, you will select which one you want to tackle. You’ll get a briefing, expert policy advice, and vote on what you what to do. The experts will not agree among themselves, but your job is to make a decision.
Vann Newkirk II: You’re listening to audio taken at the [George W.] Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas, Texas. It’s from “Decision Points Theater,” an interactive exhibit at the museum … more like a video game, really.
In it you can choose one of four crises that Bush experienced in his time as president: Saddam Hussein, the Iraq War troop surge, the financial crisis …
Archival (footage): The majority of the theater chose Hurricane Katrina.
Newkirk II: And Hurricane Katrina.
Archival (footage): (Montage of news reporters from exhibit.)
Newkirk II: In this scenario, the main “decision” the audience is supposed to make is whether to send in federal troops with law-enforcement power. Basically to militarize the city and to declare it in a state of insurrection. And there are actors on screen playing your advisers.
Archival (footage): This is an emergency. We need to send federal troops in right away.
Newkirk II: I mean … yeah.
Archival (footage): The city’s resources are overwhelmed, the police cannot cope with the crisis, and Americans are facing lawlessness and chaos
Newkirk II: News alerts break in as the fake advisors talk, hyping up the tension.
Archival (footage): It’s getting increasingly chaotic in New Orleans. The city’s homeland-security chief saying there are gangs of armed men moving around the city.
Newkirk II: Gangs. Snipers. Lawlessness. Sitting in this simulation, you might be forgiven if you thought the flood wasn’t the main problem.
Archival (footage): There are snipers taking shots at med-evac helicopters. They say it’s simply too dangerous to go out there.
Newkirk II: The whole thing is designed to put you in a pressure cooker. You’re bombarded with information. Images of chaos fill the screen. You have to make a decision. Do you federalize the response? Do you send armed troops in? Do you send food to the convention center?
Archival (footage): Time’s up. It’s time to make a decision.
When Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans in 2005, I chose to send in federal troops without law-enforcement authority. It became clear during the crisis that local and state officials were overwhelmed and the governor of the state wasn’t going to relinquish authority. So I sent 7,000 federal troops into New Orleans but did not give them the authority to act as law-enforcement officers. I decided it was what the crisis required, and the troops helped restore order in the city.
Newkirk II: And that’s pretty much it.
Newkirk II: It’s a strange exhibit. But mostly for what it doesn’t say. It doesn’t talk about the fallout from Katrina—how his inaction became part of his legacy.
In his book, Decision Points, the president does go a bit further than the exhibit does. He has a whole chapter on Katrina. In it he says that the fallout from the storm haunted his second term. That accusations of racism during Katrina were the low point of his presidency. He also writes, “The problem was not that I made the wrong decisions. It was that I took too long to decide.”
I wanted to ask him about all of this—about what taking accountability for the disaster should look like and whether he felt he’d done it. The note I got back read, “President Bush is enjoying retirement and is not currently participating in interviews.” We made multiple requests to his chief of staff, Andy Card, and to his secretary of homeland security, Michael Chertoff. Neither of them responded.
Many of the other officials who might be able to give some explanation of what went wrong aren’t available to talk. Governor Blanco died a few days before the 14th anniversary of the storm in 2019. I wrote letters to former Mayor Ray Nagin. He’s in federal prison in Texas on corruption charges. He never wrote back. But there is one government official who wanted to talk.
Michael Brown: How are you?
Newkirk II: I’m all right.
Brown: Michael Brown.
Newkirk II: Vann Newkirk.
Newkirk II: Michael Brown. Better known as Brownie.
Archival (news clip): You’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie …
Brown: Yeah, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” or whatever and slaps me in the gut. And I think, “Shit.”
Newkirk II: Michael was head of FEMA when Katrina hit. He was eager to talk, but he had one condition: He didn’t want to do this interview over the phone; he wanted to talk in person.
Brown: I like the challenge.
Newkirk II: The challenge? You think I’m gonna roast you here?
Brown: No. I’m here for the challenge of it. And to be brutally honest to you, I’m here because you can never correct the record enough, because the narrative is out there. You’ve done your homework; you’ve Googled my name; you know the stories that are out there. You and I are gonna do this face to face.
Newkirk II: Part VIII: “The Wake.”
Michael Brown has an interesting résumé. I’ll give you the highlights. He grew up in small-town Oklahoma, Tornado Alley. He served on the city council. Went to law school. Had an unsuccessful run for Congress. Then … he got another gig—commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association. He says they wanted an outsider to come in and deal with corruption. And if you’re wondering what corruption looks like in the Arabian-horse–breeding world … I was wondering the same thing.
Brown: I’ll tell you what my wife says, and I think she’s absolutely—this is hard for me to admit, but I think she’s right. I like to push the envelope. I—and sometimes I push it too far.
Are you ready for this?
Newkirk II: Let’s go.
Brown: They perform cosmetic surgery on the horse.
Newkirk II: Like liposuction?
Brown: Liposuction. You change the color and the shape of the eyeballs. You make it the most perfect horse you can imagine.
Newkirk II: Wow. So it’s like an Instagram horse?
Newkirk II: So anyway, Michael joined the horse association. He had no experience with horses, but Michael Brown likes a challenge.
Brown: I’ll tell you what my wife says, and I think she’s absolutely—this is hard for me to admit, but I think she’s right. I like to push the envelope. I—and sometimes I push it too far.
Newkirk II: He spent about a decade at the horse association. But eventually, he chose to leave. He says the breeders didn’t like him challenging them. The next bullet point on the résumé is … FEMA. After George W. Bush became president, he named his former campaign manager and chief of staff, Joe Allbaugh, as director of FEMA. Joe’s an Oklahoma guy too. He’d known Michael since college. When Joe needed a right-hand man, he gave Michael a call.
Brown: Joe said, “I need somebody I can trust.”
Newkirk II: So Michael became FEMA’s general counsel. But after 9/11, Congress created the Department of Homeland Security … and put FEMA under it. That meant the FEMA head now reported to DHS, not the president. After that, Joe Albaugh left, and Michael Brown became director. In charge of the whole thing.
Brown: So I got this—I got this burr in my saddle that we’re going to do freakin’ catastrophic disaster planning.
Newkirk II: The first disaster they planned for was “the big one” in New Orleans. A year before Katrina, FEMA ran a role-playing exercise to try to figure out what would happen if a Category 3 hurricane hit the city. They came up with some useful plans, but Michael thought, overall, the whole thing was a failure. Coordination between different layers of local, state, and national actors just … didn’t exist.
He was also worried about FEMA being under DHS. He thought too much bureaucracy was going to slow FEMA’s ability to respond to disasters. And he thought DHS’s focus on terrorism was overshadowing FEMA’s mission.
He says he tried to bring this concern to the president. One day he was riding with Bush in his limo. He gave it a shot.
Brown: “Mr. President, I’m really concerned about the DHS and kind of the culture and stuff we need to cha—” And before I could finish, he looked at me and said, “I’ve already fixed that.” And he said it in such a way that I knew. Okay.
Newkirk II: And that was it.
Brown: I’m not gonna push this.
Newkirk II: But you’re a guy who pushes the envelope. You listen and challenge. Why not listen and challenge the president on this?
Brown: Have you ever sat in the limo with the most powerful man in the world?
Newkirk II: Can’t say I have.
Brown: And he turns to you and he sternly tells you, “I have fixed that.”
Newkirk II: Yeah, I don’t know what it’s like to be in a limo with the president, and Michael Brown does. That’s why I wanted to talk to him. I wanted to know what it was like that week, what the people in charge were thinking and doing.
Kanye, and plenty other people, had figured that officials just didn’t care about black people. But was that true? Even if it wasn’t, why didn’t they do more to help people? How could they have seen people suffering at the convention center, and not even acknowledged they were there?
So I asked Michael Brown to walk me through the week. Decision by decision. Starting with the moment Katrina crossed over southern Florida and started heading toward New Orleans.
Brown: That’s when I start to panic.
Newkirk II: You start panicking?
Brown: I do. I start to panic. It’s gonna be my worst fear. I’m worried because I know if it goes up the mouth of the Mississippi and hits New Orleans, I know that people are going to die. Or likely to die. And I know the response is going to be not the best it can be. So, yes, I’m worried about that. But I’m also worried that if this is truly the worst that it can be, I know it’s a disaster for me personally.
Newkirk II: Why?
Brown: Who’s going to get the blame? Feces rolls downhill.
Newkirk II: Michael was desperate. As the storm approached, he sent emails with jokes about wanting to resign. He wanted everyone to evacuate the city, but he couldn’t make the call. Mayor Ray Nagin had to. And he was dragging his feet. So in conference calls with officials and through the media, Michael tried to scare everyone into action with the worst-case scenarios.
Newkirk II: In your mind, what was the worst thing?
Brown: The levees would break. My press secretary was instructed, “You find every freakin’ outlet that I can talk to so that I can tell them that I think this is going to be really bad and that you need to get the hell out of dodge.”
Newkirk II: You told them the levees [were] going to breach?
Brown: No, I didn’t. Oh, no. I talked. There’s a fine line between—I’m never going to say to somebody “I think the levees are going to breach.” I’m not going to say that. I’m not going to—I’m not gonna panic people.
Newkirk II: Would panic not have been a little bit useful in this case?
Brown: In the hindsight, yeah. In hindsight. You know, now you’re asking me to look backward.
Newkirk II: Well, that’s the whole show.
Brown: Looking backward, I might have said, “I fear the levees could break.”
Newkirk II: By Saturday morning, the mayor and the governor still hadn’t called for a mandatory evacuation. So Michael called the president. He asked Bush to put pressure on local officials. Bush made the call, and Nagin and Blanco did eventually call that evacuation on Sunday. Most of the city left. And at least some of that’s due to Michael Brown.
But the people left behind were going to need somewhere to go. Mayor Nagin wanted that place to be the Superdome. Michael hated that plan.
Brown: I threw a fit on the conference call because I’m holding this engineering report that says the dome can’t withstand a Category 3, let alone a Category 5. That, you know, the roof’s gonna be blown off. It’s, it’s—“Don’t do this. Don’t do it.” But then when he announced that he was going to do it, then I ordered supplies in.
Newkirk II: Well, that’s the—so if you have an engineer report that says this building can’t withstand the storm that’s coming, and people are going there, should you have stopped them from going there? What’s the role? Because I guess the worst case didn’t happen, right?
Brown: No, the worst case did happen. Think about the shock of a single mother with a baby who, for whatever reason—not judgmental—for whatever reason, didn’t evacuate. But hears that she can go to the Superdome, can be safe. Because that’s what the mayor told them. She takes her baby, and she goes there. There’s power for a little bit, and then it goes dark. And then the roof blows off. And now the storm’s blowing in. And I’m not going to accept responsibility for that because I told that governor and I told that mayor. This engineering report says “Do not do this.”
Newkirk II: Point taken.
Brown: But your question is—
Newkirk: I’m asking—
Brown: Why didn’t I do something.
Newkirk II: Well, inhabiting that woman’s mind, right?
Newkirk II: She—
Brown: Let me ask you—I’m curious. What would you have had me do?
Newkirk II: Well, I guess that you have access to the most powerful person in the world.
Brown: Point taken. I’ve never been asked this question. And I’ve never thought about this. I could’ve called Bush back and said, “I need you to go on TV and tell people: Don’t go to the Superdome.” The problem with that as I think through it, what do I tell them to do? What do I tell the president to tell them to do? Because it’s too late to evacuate. Do you see the conundrum?
Newkirk II: I do see the conundrum. Where else were the people going to go? Still, even acknowledging that … and how difficult all the decisions were after Katrina … I kept wondering, Why couldn’t we just get stuff done? Why couldn’t the people leading the response cut through the red tape? Why couldn’t they use the most powerful bully pulpit in the world to move people and supplies?
Those all became even more pressing concerns when people started going to the convention center. Three days after the storm, DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff went on NPR. He said he wasn’t even aware of the thousands of people who had gathered there. In three different interviews that same day, Michael Brown said he’d just learned about it.
Archival (news clip): Sir, you’re not telling me you just learned that the folks at the convention center didn’t have food and water until today, are you? You had no idea they were completely cut off?
Archival (news clip): Paula … the federal government didn’t even know about the convention center people until today.
Newkirk II: How could so many people have missed that people were—thousands of people were—at the biggest building outside the Superdome in the city?
Brown: We didn’t.
Newkirk II: Go on.
Brown: We knew they were there.
Newkirk II: When was this? How long did you know after the storm?
Brown: I knew immediately. I knew immediately after people had broken into the convention center. So the thing about the conve—the thing about the convention center that drives me nuts is that Ted Koppel—and who else? I did like three interviews in a row where I said, “We just learned about the convention center.” Well, in my head, we had just learned about the convention center. But having “just learned about the convention center,” it was actually like 46 hours ago. It wasn’t just then. And right—I’m not criticizing. In my head, having not slept, yes, we just learned about it.
Newkirk II: So explain to me as if I’m a person in the convention center. If I get there Tuesday, explain to me why there’s no real federal presence until Thursday, Friday.
Brown: There’s no ex—there is no explanation for it, other than I think, by that point, the system was overwhelmed. I think we just have an unrealistic expectation [that] massive federal bureaucracy can just instantaneously do stuff, and it just cannot.
Newkirk II: Where the rubber meets the road for me is, what is unreasonable here? Is it—I mean, maybe it is unreasonable to get a truck full of MREs in there. But is it unreasonable for somebody to come and say “We see you’re here”? Or “We’re gonna come get you”? You can walk from the Superdome to the convention center. Nobody walked or tried to make it in the 36 hours? Like, that just seems like … we’re acting like this is—
Brown: It’s inexcusable.
Newkirk II: An ocean.
Brown: I know, but when it comes to food and supplies, it is kind of an ocean.
Newkirk II: Well, I’m not—I’m just saying the acknowledgment piece.
Brown: Right, right.
Newkirk II: The “We’re gonna come get you.”
Brown: I think the acknowledgment piece, I think you’re right. I think you’re right on that one. I think you’re absolutely right. And I think that’s a great lesson to be learned is—we always talk about, you know, in the corporate world government, what is it? Communication, communication, communication. Right? No. 1 thing you’re supposed to do. I don’t think we did a very good job of it. I think we were so in our own heads about the response that, when it came to things like press relations, media relations, acknowledgments, as you call them, I think we completely dropped the ball.
Newkirk II: How much of a part of your job is that? People being informed and having the information they need to make decisions. Is that not a major part of, say, the FEMA director’s job?
Newkirk II: If they didn’t get it, was that a failure on your part?
Brown: Absolutely. I think the failure to use the media and to do the kinds of things that you’re talking about that—I like your word, acknowledgment.
Newkirk II: Have you ever apologized?
Brown: What do you want me to apologize for?
Newkirk II: Well, you said you made mistakes.
Brown: Yeah, isn’t that an apology? I mean, you want “I’m sorry I made these mistakes.”
Newkirk II: I don’t know. I’m just asking. If you feel like that’s an apology, then that’s fine.
Brown: No, I just, I find that fascinating because clearly by admitting your mistakes, you’re telling the world. I mean, you’re opening the kimono up to the world and saying, “You know what? I messed up this, this, this, and this. I did this, this, and this right.” Your conclusion then is, “Okay, at the end of that line of good and bad, make an apology.”
Newkirk II: I think the part of an apology for me is “I did X, Y, and Z bad. I see how it contributed to the suffering in your life. And I acknowledge that.”
Brown: We did that. At least from my perspective, I thought we did that. You don't seem convinced.
Newkirk II: The difficulty I’m having is [that] when we talk about the convention center, especially, we have a reason. We talked to a girl who was 14 then who thought she was gonna die. Right?
Newkirk II: And you think you’re going to die, and there was somebody there who could have prevented at least that feeling. Which is a terrible thing for a teenager to feel, right? The apology from me would be, “We made mistakes. We understand that it made you feel abandoned. Here’s how we plan to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Brown: I’m with you. All the way up to “Here’s how we plan to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Which I have no control over. Now, if she ne—if she needs somebody to say “I’m sorry,” I’ll say that to her. I’m sorry that you felt that way, and I’m sorry that we didn’t do what we could have done to take away that fear. I would also, though, talk to her about “I don’t think we could take your fear away. You may have found it comforting for a moment,” but considering how disaster response works, I don’t want to give her a false hope that somewhere in the future—maybe not her in particular—that this is going to happen again. It’s the nature of the beast.
Newkirk II: The woman I’m referring to, her name is Le-Ann, by the way.
Brown: Hi, Le-Ann. Before we—before we leave that. If I can get Americans to think about risk and tell them honestly that when that proverbial feces hits the fan, that you may be fearful for your life, and there’s nothing that anybody can do about that. We’re not going—the government is not going to be there. The minute it happens. And they may not be there for a day, depending on how bad it is. So you tell Le-Ann I’m sorry, but you tell Le-Ann that her responsibility is to understand the nature of the risk where she lives and to be prepared for it. Knowing that somebody’s not going to come—the shining knight in armor is not going to come and rescue her when that fear sets in.
Newkirk II: You know, we’ve interviewed quite a few people, and it seems that the experience of being [part] of a delay, of not having help come when you think it’s gonna come, of having—that that manifests as betrayal, right?
Newkirk II: And I think what we saw [was] lots of people saw that betrayal along the lines of the ways they’d been betrayed before. And so you’ve got a black city, and they experience that betrayal as racism.
Newkirk II: How do you process that?
Brown: I know what’s in my heart. And in my heart, I did not—I do—not “did not,” I do not. I was raised by two incredible parents to see people as humans. And while I understand—to the best that I can as a Caucasian—while I understand the plight of people in the Lower Ninth Ward or people that were predominately black, it angers me when people keep bringing up racism. There was not one decision, not one movement, not—there was nothing, not a scintilla of anything of racism in what me, my staff, or the people that are the career civil servants of FEMA did that was based on race. And I find it offensive. I’m not saying I find it offensive that you bring it up. I find it offensive that there are people out there who want to think that. Because it’s just not true.
Newkirk II: Well, I guess—think—I just want—if we’re continuing this exercise of inhabiting these people you’ve talked to, these stories of folks who went through this, just wondering if you might understand why somebody who has all these pieces of evidence—
Brown: Oh, of course I understand! Oh, trust me, I understand it. Do I think that systemic racism exists in this country? You’d be naive not to think so. You and I both—you’re a black man; I’m a white man. We both know biggots. I hope none of our friends. But we both know bigoted people. We both know racist people.
Newkirk II: One of the ways that we have seen people talk about how they saw racism or bias manifest was in the descriptions of crime or looting and all that stuff—
Brown: Oh yeah.
Newkirk II: —happening during Katrina. In your book, you said it was a situation that sometimes seemed akin to going to a zoo, opening all the cages and telling the predator they were on the honor system. Now, you know, it seems in your book you were lamenting that Louisiana didn’t have a shoot-to-kill order, or that they weren’t issuing some of the hard-line denunciations of looters. How do you reconcile that with, essentially, [that] we know a lot of the reports were racially biased. Or they weren’t really—we didn’t have confirmation.
Brown: We heard all sorts of rumors: rapes, murders, muggings, everything. And I could never get good, ground-based knowledge of what was going on because the New Orleans Police Department had utterly disintegrated. Just disintegrated. But yes. I do believe, if you’re looting in a disaster area to feed your family, I don’t care. I’d do the same thing. You and I both would. We’re going do whatever it takes. If you’re looting in a disaster or in a riot or whatever to grab a TV, I don’t think you should lose—I don’t think necessarily you should lose your life. But there ought to be consequences.
Newkirk II: What kind of consequences?
Brown: Grab them and throw their ass in jail.
Newkirk II: Just backing up, though. If, if—what I see as a black guy who has, you know, had a couple run-ins with the law, we’ll say. What I see here is, and I can’t help but see it as a confirmation of things that I have suspected to be true, right? Which is, you see the moment the lights go out, the moment somewhere—and yeah, you have crime that is real, but you also have people using this as an opportunity to paint a whole city of black people as being violent and being uniquely criminal. You had folks on the news saying that based on these reports. These folks are sort of deserving of being shot on sight. And I mean, I think that’s what the—like in your book, you were kind of—you were saying they were soft.
Brown: Yeah, they were soft. But I don’t think you can extrap—I don’t think you can extrapolate “Let’s shoot them on sight.”
Newkirk II: But that was what Mississippi—Haley Barbour said, “We’re going to shoot ’em on sight.”
Brown: Haley Barbour said they’re going to shoot ’em on sight. Michael Brown didn’t say “We’re going to shoot ’em on sight.”
Newkirk II: You praised Haley Barbour in the book.
Brown: Haley Barbour did a fantastic job of responding to the disaster. Yes.
Newkirk II: Responding by saying they were going to shoot people on sight.
Brown: My general response to Haley Barbour and to Bob Riley is they did a fantastic job. I’m not going to justify Haley Barbour “shoot to kill.” I’m not going to justify that.
Newkirk II: I spent six hours with Michael Brown. He was generous, and he answered every question. The show’s producers, Alvin and Katherine, kept asking if we wanted to take a break, get some coffee. He wouldn’t.
Brown: No, no, no, no, no, no. I, I was. If Vann’s willing to keep going, I’m willing to keep going. I’m here.
Newkirk II: He admitted to getting some stuff wrong. But it seemed like it was harder for him to talk about responsibility beyond that.
Newkirk II: You, in 2015, you wrote the Politico article about “stop blaming you.”
Newkirk II: It seems like you’ve admitted to a lot of things we should blame you for. Today.
Brown: Yeah, but stop blaming me. Did I make mistakes? Absolutely. It’s everything that went wrong. Katrina my fault, not in the least.
Newkirk II: Michael Brown wasn’t gonna take all the blame for Katrina. And if he sounds overly defiant about it … I think it’s because he has a case to make. He really was made a scapegoat. Two weeks after the storm, after the “heck of a job Brownie” comment and lots of negative media coverage, he resigned. Even after he was gone, FEMA struggled to manage the response. There were racial disparities in aid money and in who got help at all. Poor folks got stuck with trailers full of formaldehyde. Some didn’t get trailers at all. Those things were out of Michael Brown’s control. But they still contributed to how he was painted: incompetent at best; an avatar of racist indifference at worst. It’s a perception he hasn’t really shaken. He is still the face of the failure of Katrina. And it’s not like he gets a presidential library to wash away his sins.
Brown: I joke with my kids, “You know, your dad was—his obituary was never gonna be in The New York Times. Oh, but it will be now. And it will—and the New York Times headline will be ‘heck of a job, Brownie’ dies at the age of 92.”
Newkirk II: We had a long day talking. Our producers gave the signal to wrap everything up. But Michael tried to explain himself one more time.
Brown: And I know these microphones are still.
Katherine Wells: Yep.
Brown: I think the thing that has thrown me the greatest loop in this curveball is the whole apology thing. I mean, I understand it from another person’s perspective. I totally get that. I struggle with—and I know you, you’re not gonna answer the question—but it’s like, What do people want me to apologize for?
Newkirk II: The paradox of Michael Brown seems to be this: All of his efforts to defend himself, to not be made a scapegoat … they seem to make it impossible for him to perform empathy. To understand why an apology from him might mean something.
Brown: And maybe that’s a blind spot of mine. Very well could be. Either a blind spot or an unwillingness.
Newkirk II: Maybe we should have known we weren’t going to get that from Michael Brown. There wasn’t going to be an easy answer, no matter how long we talked. We were just asking him the same question, in different ways.
Wells: I think what I’m asking is, I’m wondering if your experience, how much you think about the experience of people who went through it. It sounds like it—of course you do. You were there. But do you relate to or understand that experience? Do you feel a kind of empathy with it or indignance on their behalf?
Brown: I get real emotional about this. And I get emotional about it because when you’re portrayed, if you—I had dinner with a friend last night. I tell him about this interview. And I told him that, you know, I’m not nervous about it, but I’m really curious about the line of questioning and the tone of the questioning and everything. And he said, “Just be that caring person that you are.” And the thing that drives me—the thing, the thing that bothers me—the thing that bothers me the most are that people think I don’t care. [Crying.]
Newkirk II: Thank you so much.
Brown: Told myself I wasn’t going to do that.
Newkirk II: Le-Ann’s still out in New Orleans East now. She lives by the levee on the lake with her boyfriend and her daughter. Alvin and I went out to visit her. She works so many double shifts we had trouble fitting in her schedule. But we managed.
Newkirk II: So. Le-Ann. We are back.
Le-Ann Williams: Yeah.
Newkirk II: Yeah. You probably sick of us.
Williams: I ain’t see ya’ll in a minute.
Newkirk II: We sat and talked about the city, how you can still see Katrina in some places. What life would be like if it hadn’t happened.
Williams: Oh my God. I think about that all the time. All the time, I think it would be better. I’d graduated from Gilbert Academy the top of my class. I know I would have. I know they would have helped me with college applications and stuff and everything. I don’t know. It’s like, after Katrina. I just had this drive before Katrina. Like, I just had my whole “I want to do this. I’m gonna be the first person to go to college. I’m gonna graduate from college.” I just had this drive, this just bright light. It is just like it’s—just, after Katrina, it just dimmed and dimmed.
Newkirk II: Has anybody ever apologized to you?
Newkirk II: No.
Newkirk II: What would you do if somebody did? If somebody, I don’t know, from like the top came down and said “I’m sorry for what happened.”
Williams: Tsk. Sorry for what? Like … [Sighs.]
Newkirk II: It matter?
Williams: Came down from the top and said “I’m sorry for what happened to you and Katrina and this and that and dadada.” After 14 years. I wouldn’t even really care to hear it.
Newkirk II: Do you know Michael Brown? Brownie? You know about him?
The chief of FEMA. Brownie. “Heck of a job, Brownie.”
Williams: The one with the glasses.
Newkirk II: Mhmm.
Newkirk II: You heard about him? What did you think about him?
Williams: Like a lot of people didn’t know what they were doing, like they was confused. How you get a job like that and you don’t know what you’re doing? The same with President Bush. He didn’t even know what to do. How you somebody’s president and you can’t even handle a national disaster? But you oversee a country. Boy, stop.
Newkirk II: We actually asked him about the convention center. And about why they couldn’t get there. And …
Williams: What he say?
Newkirk II: He talked about some of it, and we kind of wanted to let you listen to it and see what you made of it.
Williams: Oh my God, let me hear this! Let me hear.
Newkirk II: We gave her some headphones and sat there while she listened.
Williams: Oh, he sound cocky.
Oh my God. Y’all …
Newkirk II: So what do you think?
Williams: Oh my God. When he said my name, it’s just like, oh my God. I don’t know. Like him, like talking directly to me, saying that he’s sorry. It’s just like something just came over me. Like what the hell? Like he talking to me. Umm, I don’t know. It’s crazy. I don’t know.
Newkirk II: We don’t know either. That’s—we didn’t know what to make of it.
Williams: I feel like it’s crazy. Like I’m like, it don’t. I don’t care about no apology, but y’all two, see—I’mma get y’all! Like him saying, “Le-Ann Williams,” you know, “I’m sorry, Le-Ann Williams. I’m sorry.” Like he right here telling me “I’m sorry.” I’mma get y’all two.
For him to acknowledge me and say “Sorry, Le-Ann Williams. I’m sorry.” Like the part when he was saying my name when talking to me made me feel like I matter.
Newkirk II: Le-Ann has had to wonder in these last 15 years why all of this happened. If the reason she got screwed [was] because someone was racist, or mean, or incompetent, or just didn’t care about people like her. She’s had to wonder if the people in power ever saw her at all.
Michael Brown feels like he’s a scapegoat. When he dies, he’ll be “the Katrina guy,” and maybe that’s not fair. But even being a scapegoat means that people know who you are. That you mattered.
Williams: That’s crazy. What he doing now? … Hope not dealing with no national disasters. Okay. When I first heard it and he started talking, I was like, Oh my god, just shut up. Why are you talking? Because he was just, when he first came on like, “What am I saying I’m sorry for?” Like, “Vann, [make] me understand what I’m saying I’m sorry for—then that mean, I’m admitting that I did something wrong.” So you don’t feel like you did nothing wrong? “Tell Le-Ann that, you know, next time there’s not gonna be her knight in shining armor coming and come and rescue her and …” What all that was for? Like, why would you say that? Yeah. Instead of having ’em up, treating us like dogs with guns, they should have been down there trying to help us. Ain’t they trained for all that stuff? To go try to get food and stuff like that. Why they weren’t doing that? But they worrying about putting guns on us. Was that part of the plan? They really had a shitty plan.
You know what? I really, after Katrina is when I really started to notice that [Whispers.] I’m black in America.
Newkirk II: Yeah, I think actually, for me, I was all the way up in North Carolina. And Katrina was the first time I saw it.
Newkirk II: Somewhere else.
Williams: Right yeah. That was crazy. I just …
Newkirk II: Saw race matter in like a way that was …
Newkirk II: Yeah, I’d seen, I knew people who were racist like my whole life. I’d seen. I grew up with mostly black folks, but I knew a couple of white people who had the Confederate flag or whatever. But Katrina’s the first time I saw something happened to a whole group of people who look like me, and it was because they look like me, right?
Williams: Yeah, that was crazy. I’m like, They gonna kill us because we black? That don’t make no sense. We refugees. Nobody not—you look around and you just see black people babies, just everybody crying they want help. This man Bush, he telling us that they coming. Oh my God. I just don’t understand it.
Newkirk II: Yeah, it’s been a long time since Katrina. Lots of people don’t really like talking about the day the levees broke, and I get that. They wanna move on. They don’t want some out-of-town journalists asking them over and over about a bad time in their lives. There are good things now. There are great things. And we should talk about them.
Crime in the city has gone way down. The police department has also come a long way. After the Danziger Bridge shootings, the families sued the department and revealed the cover up. Their fight helped advance department-wide criminal-justice reforms. In 2018, the city had a record low of four shootings by police officers. 
There’s new businesses. A shiny new airport. A cool scene for young people and tourists. Every day, life in New Orleans defies all the people who said it shouldn’t come back or couldn’t come back.
But I don’t know if I would call that recovery. Recovery means that things are back to normal. But things ain’t back to normal. They’re just different.
Williams I’m just working paycheck to paycheck, and it’s crazy, because I’m doing that but I still have enough to help my mom out. And that’s the crazy part. I don’t know how I do it or how I make a way.
Newkirk II: After we were done talking, Le-Ann took us out to the levee by her place. It’s right across the street from her apartment. She comes out here with her friends and her daughter to let loose.
Williams: Me and my girls, we come sit up here with the kids, and they run around, and we get some seafood and some daiquiris! And we sit up here.
Newkirk II: You walk up a hill and up to a fence, and you can look out over the lake.
Alvin Melathe: And when you look at this levee, what do you see?
Williams: Our enemy. We surrounded by water. We live in a bowl. It is beautiful, but also deadly. It’s beautiful but also deadly. This is what can destroy my city. This is what destroyed my city. I don’t think New Orleans’ll be here years to come. I’m just enjoying it while we’re still here. But my daughter’s kids and their kids [are] probably not gonna be able to enjoy the same thing. Eventually, it’s not gonna be here. And when I just look at it, it makes me really think about that we really not gonna be here that long. It’s crazy there’s nowhere in the world I’d rather be than here. I love it. It’s my home. It’s my home. I love New Orleans. I done been to Arizona, Texas, Mississippi after Katrina. Nothing like New Orleans. Nothing’s like New Orleans.
Newkirk II: Toni Morrison once said, “All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” She was talking about the Mississippi River. People might try to forget the past, but maybe the water remembers as it laps away at the wetlands. Maybe it remembers as it rises a little higher and swallows more and more communities on the coast. Maybe it remembers as the levees sink a little more. Maybe the water is waiting to betray us again, because to betray also means to expose the truth.
In 1856, Last Island, Louisiana, was destroyed. It was cleaved by the hurricane, broken into pieces … and then slowly reclaimed by the salt and the waves. You wouldn’t know now that it was a vacation spot. That the sons and daughters of the American slavocracy had tempted fate there. Or that a man named Richard had tried to warn them about what was coming.
I think I figured out why I keep thinking about Richard. It’s because he didn’t have the luxury of denial. He saw clearly what the slave owners tried to ignore. We are all vulnerable. And the past will always find its way back to us.
Williams: God forbid another Katrina come and my daughter have to go through what I went through, getting tooken from my friends living here, living there. So I’mma be in the same position my mom and dad was in. So, you know, still to this day, I don’t know how they felt as parent.
Melathe: Have you talked to them about it?
Williams: No, I’m telling you, we just kind of swept under the rug for 14 years. We never really talked to each other like—“Well, Le-Ann, how you feel? Or Mom, how you feel since Katrina? Are you doing fine?” None of that.
Melathe: Do you feel like after this maybe you will?
Williams: After we all leave, I’mma call my mom, ’cause we never asked each other. I’m gonna go call my momma on the phone and tell her I love her and I’mma just ask her.
Melathe: Will you let us know how that call goes?
Newkirk II: We walked back across the street. And Le-Ann went home.
Floodlines is a production of The Atlantic. The show was reported and produced by me and Alvin Melathe. Our executive producer is Katherine Wells. Katy Reckdahl is our editorial advisor. Archival production and research by Kevin Townsend. Editing by Scott Stossel. Production assistance from Emily Gottschalk-Marconi, Myles Poydras, and Kaila Philo. Fact-checking by William Brennan. Music by Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah and Anthony Braxton. Sound design, mix, and additional music by David Herman. Art direction by Paul Spella.
We are very much indebted to a group of first listeners who made this project better with their notes and guidance. Thanks to Adrienne LaFrance, Jeffrey Goldberg, David Dennis Jr., Hannah Giorgis, Clint Smith, and Shan Wang.
Special thanks to Eve Abrams, Brett Anderson, Tina Antolini, Roy Arrigo, Earl Bartheé Jr., Julie Bogen, Rachel Breunlin, Douglas Brinkley, Sarah Broom, Aimee Castenell, Robert Green, Ronnie Green, Leslie Harris, Jack Hitt, Andy Horowitz, Mary Howell, Pam Jenkins, Pableaux Johnson, Ashley Jones, Nathalie Jordi, Ronald Lewis, Yvonne Loiselle, Travis Lux, John McQuaid, Richard M. Mizelle Jr., Diane Newman, Garrett Pittman, Jonathan Reynolds, Robert Ricks, Bruce Shapiro, Leona Tate, Eve Troeh, Eric Waters, Kalamu ya Salaam, WWNO, WWL, and the Louisiana Division/City Archives at the New Orleans Public Library.
If you want to support journalism like this, the best way to do it is with a subscription to The Atlantic. Visit Theatlantic.com/supportus. Thank you for listening.