“We know why the levees broke. We already built levees that won’t break the same way again,” narrates the Atlantic staff writer Vann R. Newkirk II in Floodlines. “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.”
It’s this story, of what lies deeper than earth and water—of a disaster waiting just below the surface, seeped into the legacy of America—that forms Floodlines, a gripping eight-part podcast from The Atlantic examining what happened in New Orleans after the levees broke. Reported and hosted by Vann R. Newkirk II, executive produced by Katherine Wells, and produced by Alvin Melathe and Kevin Townsend, Floodlines revisits the story of Hurricane Katrina through the experiences of four New Orleanians—Le-Ann Williams, Fred Johnson, Alice Craft-Kerney, and Sandy Rosenthal—who remained in the city through the storm and its aftermath, and who are still living with the consequences.
All eight parts of Floodlines, spanning nearly four and a half hours, are available to listen to in full today on any podcast app (Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play) and at theatlantic.com/floodlines. Woven throughout is the music of the New Orleans composer Christian Scott, which forms a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack.
Floodlines shows that the catastrophic outcome of the levee breaches in New Orleans was the result not of a natural disaster, but of an unnatural one: the failure of government, media, and society, leading to one of the most misunderstood events in modern-day America. In taking listeners through the experiences of Le-Ann Williams, Fred Johnson, Alice Craft-Kerney, and Sandy Rosenthal, and in hearing the conspiracies and rumors that fueled media reports and clouded the official response, Newkirk shows that the government failed at its most basic job. Craft-Kerney describes it to Newkirk this way: “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.”
Floodlines also questions and occasionally unearths new regrets from the officials responsible for the country’s response: Michael Brown, the former FEMA director; Lieutenant General Russel Honore, lauded as a “black John Wayne” for coordinating the evacuation of the Superdome and the convention center; and the former New Orleans police chief Eddie Compass. Brown’s interview with Newkirk lasted six hours; at one point, he wrestled with whether to apologize, and for what.
In one exchange, Newkirk asked Brown about the lack of response and acknowledgement that thousands of people were stranded at the convention center. How could his agency have missed this? Brown replied: “We didn’t. We knew they were there. I knew immediately. I knew immediately.” Newkirk pressed: “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?”
Brown responded: “I think the acknowledgment piece—I think you’re right. I think you’re right on that one. I think you’re absolutely right … There is no explanation for it other than, I think, by that point the system was overwhelmed … I just think we have this unrealistic expectation that this massive federal bureaucracy can just instantaneously do stuff. And it just cannot.”
For 163 years, The Atlantic has been home to long-form storytelling; Floodlines builds on this tradition and represents The Atlantic’s first foray into long-form audio. Editor in Chief Jeffrey Goldberg explains that returning to the story of the day the levees broke “provided a way to explain issues of race and class, and truth and lies. We knew it was a way to explore our relationship with nature itself. But we did not know then how chillingly relevant it would be. Katrina marked a breakpoint in the history of our country, a moment when Americans came to understand that, sometimes, the cavalry isn't coming.”
Anna Bross + Helen Tobin // The Atlantic