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Douglas Brinkley: Chronicling 'The Great Deluge'

Historian and author Douglas Brinkley teaches at Tulane University and was displaced by Hurricane Katrina. He has since returned to New Orleans and begun to document the catastrophe by gathering oral histories -- he hopes to collect as many as 20,000 -- for a book, tentatively titled The Great Deluge.

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Other segments from the episode on September 16, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 16, 2005: Interview with Douglas Brinkley; Interview with Reverend Willie Walker; Interview with Lieutenant Kevin Judice; Interview with Father Anthony…

Transcript

DATE September 16, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Historian Douglas Brinkley comments on his experiences
in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Today we observe the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance for the victims of
Katrina. We'll hear from rescuers, survivors and a musician who's played
hundreds of New Orleans funerals. Each of these people has been changed by
what they experienced during and after the hurricane.

Our first guest, the historian Douglas Brinkley, is already at work
documenting Katrina. His book, tentatively titled "The Great Deluge," is
scheduled to be published early next year. Brinkley is a professor at Tulane
University in New Orleans. He's created a Tulane University Task Force to
document the catastrophe through oral history. He's the author of the
best-seller "Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War" and "The Boys of
Pointe du Hoc: Ronald Reagan, D-Day and the US Army 2nd Ranger Battalion." I
asked Brinkley why he's already writing a history of Katrina.

Professor DOUGLAS BRINKLEY (Historian, Tulane University): And I'm very
determined to make sure, as a historian and somebody loves New Orleans--It's
my home, and I teach at Tulane University--that we don't forget what happened,
that we learn why this is not just a catastrophe, but it's a deluge and that I
want to make sure that we get the oral history testimonies, talk to as many
evacuees as possible, talk to as many state, local, federal officials, try to
get to the bottom of it. And while the media has been, I think, very good and
are generating daily great stories, I want to use all those as primary source
material, but also develop my own oral history project where over a period of
a couple years, I plan to get the voices of 2,000, 3,000 additional people
just for my own Tulane project.

GROSS: So what's the process you're putting into effect to get the history of
what happened?

Prof. BRINKLEY: Well, the first thing is to communicate, which is what didn't
happen. I was in New Orleans for Katrina and then got out of town afterwards,
and I came back. And I was--constantly encountered people on dry land, mainly
FEMA people, trying to stop rescue attempts of people that were desperate for
help, and that startled me that this could happen in our country. I
understand politics and I understand that sometimes we can debate something
like the war in Iraq, but this seemed so basic. People are flooded, they're
screaming for help; get a boat and go get them. Yet people that had the means
to save a lot of people weren't doing it, and I recognized at that point
that--something Dwight Eisenhower had said when he was general after World War
II and encountered the concentration camps in Europe, and he said immediately,
`I want it completely documented by photograph, film, interviews, everything,
because if a government can turn their backs at these people in need, they
will try to whitewash what happened and make it seem like it was God's storm,
and there was not that much that could have done, and I think it's--the
story's much bigger than that.'

GROSS: You say you saw FEMA representatives preventing people from
rescuing people?

Prof. BRINKLEY: Yes. First off, they would stop trucks in Baton Rogue that
they didn't have on their clipboard, and if you were a private-sector truck
trying to bring in supplies, you were just completely derailed. Secondly, in
New Orleans at St. Charles near Menalley's Restaurant(ph), there were groups
of federal officials who didn't want to get a wrinkle in their clothes, who
stood by when virtually people, including schizophrenics, people with
diabetes, elderly people with arthritis were being--having to be saved by
common citizens in fishing boats who would bring them to dry land. We'd put
them on the shore and then the government officials would just let them sit
there, and they'd tell you, `Well, we're going to get them to a hospital.' I
didn't trust them, and so I would circle back and four, five hours later,
these people that were in desperate pain, with nothing, still sitting on a
street curb after they were pulled out of the water, nobody there to help
them, yet they're surrounded by a sea of government officials. You know, part
of it seemed to be a resentment that these people had stayed in New Orleans.
The feeling was--you had a warning to get out, why did 100,000 of you stay?

GROSS: Why did you decide to become like a freelance rescuer during the
hurricane?

Prof. BRINKLEY: It was not--I came back to Houston--set my family up in an
apartment. And you start watching on television, listening to a radio, and
you start thinking, `My gosh, this is my city, and I'm just kind of sitting
here in some air-conditioned, you know, high-rise Houston hotel, and there
must be something I can do.' And so I went back and just wanted to connect
with some friends I knew, and I had a lot of addresses of people to go check
on. Somebody who was missing a mother who had Alzheimer's who was in this
apartment and it was flooded. And I did some of that. Then I met a fellow
named Reverend Willie Walker, who has a Noah's Ark Church, and he told me that
there were loads of children trapped in a building and he needed a boat. And
with a couple of friends of mine, we went and found a kind of primitive but
useful fishing boat and went out, and sure enough, we just started pulling
people in.

Many of the people that stayed that I encountered in this--and, you know, and
you'd have to take the boat in this thick toxic muck we keep hearing
about, and you'd get there and many of them stayed because they were too ill
to go. They're living on pension checks. They couldn't leave their
apartment, they were elderly and by themselves. Some had mental disabilities
and weren't really loved by anybody and were kind of the leftovers. There

were some people with a drug addiction problem, AIDS people. (Unintelligible)
encountered--there was a group of the downtrodden, if you'd like, or what
Michael Harrington, you know, would call the other America, a kind of people
we don't see a lot or hear a lot about, but they were there en masse, hadn't
left and were frightened to death, and so we did the best we could to start
bringing them back, and it would have been a normal reaction for anybody that
was there on the spot because, you know, it wasn't a time to think about your
own safety or what--you just knew that people were in dire straits, so you
kind of just lended a hand.

GROSS: What are you mourning most about the city now? What are you afraid
you're going to miss most, afraid that will never be the same about the city?

Prof. BRINKLEY: Well, the good news is, the French Quarter, warehouse
district, Garden District and uptown is going to survive. They didn't get too
much of the flooding damage. They're going to fix some windows, clear some
trees, get electricity and water running, and the historic New Orleans will be
back in business. But it's these side neighborhoods and communities, near
where the levees broke along Lake Pontchartrain that I just believe are going
to be devastated. Any wooden house, which was part of the charm in New
Orleans, where these great wooden shotgun homes and these kind of ramshackle
Victorians, and--they've all been devastated. They're going to be bulldozed
down, and I kind of will miss that, seeing those neighborhoods, because I'm
afraid what will come in are these prefab town houses, and it will kind of
start looking like suburbia instead of this kind of rich, subtropical,
Afro-Caribbean center which I love so much.

GROSS: How long have you lived in New Orleans?

Prof. BRINKLEY: I've been there now since 1992, so I--you know, and it's
been adopted home. My wife's born and raised there and her family is, and so,
now I'm an expat in Houston, and my whole wife's family is with us. But I
first fell in love with New Orleans because of the folklore of it. You'd hear
stories about it, and as a historian, I was always very interested in the lore
of the Mississippi and New Orleans. So when I first went there as a boy with
my mother and father, I was just taken with it as some people are, so for me,
it's my Paris in London and Venice and Amsterdam all rolled up into one. And
that's so much--I'm somebody who loves poetry and literature, and, I mean,
everywhere you walk there, it's where John Dos Passos wrote "Manhatten
Transfer" or Walt Whitman worked there, here at this location as an editor.
Or this is where Tennessee Williams wrote "Streetcar Named Desire," and Truman
Capote was born here. And this is the house William Faulkner wrote his first
book, and it goes on and on.

And you're--and yet it's not a plaqued city, it's not--there's so much
literary and musical history that kind of gets forgotten. You could walk to
these historic sites; in other cities, there'd be a big marker there, but in
New Orleans, it's just kind of part of the Big Easy history life, and that's
always fascinated me a great deal. It's still, to me, due to the music and
the culture and the food, I mean, it's just a magical kind of place. To think
of America without it gives me kind of a vision of a homogenized America.

GROSS: You know, having gone through the hurricane, having gone back to help
rescue people and now starting a history project documenting what happened,
I'm wondering how all of that has effected your sense of identity as an
American, your sense of being part of a city, a state and a country.

Prof. BRINKLEY: I'm very disappointed in my country. You know, I write
American history for a living. I love America, and as a boy I spent my
summers--my parents were teachers and we had a trailer and we traveled the
country and I live for this country. I mean, I am a great patriot. But I
feel that our government, particularly the federal government but also the
state government of Louisiana, let us down. Don't want to see that happen
when you love your country. You have to raise your voice in dissent when you
see something wrong. But what surprised me about myself is what an identity I
have to New Orleans. I'd been living there. I first taught at University of
New Orleans, now Tulane University. It's where my life revolves around, but I
realized just how many friends I had there and, like, we're all here together.
And normally when I hear of a hurricane, I'd say, `Get out.' Like I'd leave,
you know. I can go other places. I know people. I can move to California or
New York. And I'm--yet I'm haunted. I'm kind of like driven back to New
Orleans and I realize that's what home is. It's a place you love so much and
your attachments are so deeply rooted to the landscape in a way that it's not
for some people a simple matter of being pragmatic and going elsewhere.

GROSS: As you begin work on your project documenting Hurricane Katrina, is
there an historical incident of the past that you've been thinking about a
lot?

Prof. BRINKLEY: Well, like a lot of people, we're suddenly doing quick
history lessons on things like the Galveston hurricane of 1900 which killed
over 8,000 people. But Galveston's interesting because what got rebuilt was
Houston out of it, and Galveston stayed a port city; it's a historic city.
People live there, but the industrial thrust of the commerce moved to Houston
a little bit from the Gulf of Mexico. And I think you might see that with New
Orleans, or Baton Rogue, which was 250,000 people, is now about 500. It's the
biggest city overnight. But also things like the San Francisco earthquake or
the great Chicago fire, the Johnstown Flood, it does make you and make
journalists look back at some of those and realize that communities can spring
back. I would argue San Francisco's probably the most beautiful and efficient
cityscape in America today, and it certainly wasn't that after the earthquake
when you look at the photographs and hear the stories. So I think history in
this way reminds us that our times are not uniquely oppressive and that as bad
as it seems in New Orleans and the Gulf region, we can spring back and will
spring back, and history is a good guide for that.

GROSS: So you were in New Orleans throughout the whole hurricane?

Prof. BRINKLEY: Yes, I was. I did a vertical evacuation to the 15th floor
of the building known as One River Place. The reason we did that was my
father-in-law was the architect of the building, and it was built after
Hurricane Camille in 1969, so it was supposedly a hurricane-proof building.
And I do have to say, it did survive in very good shape, except I was on the
top floor and some of the balconies started blowing off. The generator that
was supposed to be there for the building didn't work, so we had to sit in the
lobby with a lot of other people that stayed. But I was very blessed that
this building was along the river and not along Lake Pontchartrain and that it
was very well designed architecturally to survive a storm of this magnitude.
Very few buildings in New Orleans are.

GROSS: While you were in New Orleans during the hurricane in this high-rise
that you had evacuated to, what is the most, you know, amazing part of the
hurricane that you witnessed?

Prof. BRINKLEY: Well, there's--you know, I'm a great lover of the
Mississippi River, and Mark Twain once said, you know, `No sense of ever
studying the river because it changes course every week,' meaning it's a hard
river to map. Of course, the Army Corps of Engineers, after the Great Flood
of 1927, has built up the levee system, but sitting on top of--on the balcony
of a high-rise right on the river, I saw the Mississippi run backwards. I
never thought I'd live to see such a thing. The wrath of the storm was
white-capping the river, and all that water from the Gulf was flowing upriver
instead of down, and so it was a menacing, horrific sight which is etched in
my memory forever. And it was--you know, it's hard to believe a river as
large and powerful and potent as the Mississippi could turn on its heels and
run backwards, but that's what it did.

GROSS: Doug Brinkley, thank you very much for talking with us.

Prof. BRINKLEY: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it, Terry.

GROSS: Douglas Brinkley is a professor of history at Tulane University and is
writing a book about Katrina, scheduled for publication early next year.

Coming up, we talk with one of the people Brinkley thinks emerged from the
storm as a hero, Reverend Willie Walker. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

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Interview: Reverend Willie Walker comments on the rescue efforts
after Hurricane Katrina
TERRY GROSS, host:

My guest, Reverend Willie Walker, is one of the people historian Douglas
Brinkley says emerged as a hero during the hurricane. Reverend Walker is the
pastor of Noah's Ark Ministries in New Orleans. His neighborhood is flooded,
his church badly damaged. After helping his family evacuate, he went back
into the city to rescue people by boat.

At what point did you decide to personally organize a rescue effort?

Reverend WILLIE WALKER (Noah's Ark Church, New Orleans): It was--I guess that
Tuesday after I made sure my immediate family were out of the city, I noticed
that the waters just kept rising and they weren't going down and I just went
back into the city and said, `Look, I'm here to help with rescue.' I got
tired of just these feeble reports about not enough people, everything is
uncoordinated. I see people on roofs hollering and screaming, and I was
getting stories that people were drowning in their houses, medication not
available, dialysis machines going out, air running out on people, and I just
took it upon myself to go. And we just started taking people off of
second-story roofs, second-story balconies, and we were just loading them up
and we were just bringing them back to the Tulane overpass. And we were
just--I was just giving them instructions and telling them that hey--tell them
Pastor Walker dropped you off, and he's going back to get more people.

GROSS: What neighborhood is your church in? Would you describe the
neighborhood for us?

Rev. WALKER: I'm in Central City, and that neighborhood is really
poverty-ridden, it's hard-core neglect from, I guess, years of abandonment of
houses and a lot of drug deals, crooked cops at one time, but God has really
blessed through Noah's Ark Ministries, and we've cleaned up a lot of the areas
that were just dilapidated and torn down. And we've actually stopped a lot of
the violence and the dope dealing that was going on.

GROSS: Most of the people who were in New Orleans during the hurricane, most
of the people in the Superdome, most of the people evacuated to the Astrodome
were African-American and, you know, looking back on the past couple of weeks,
what does how the storm played out and how it was handled--what does it say to
you about race?

Rev. WALKER: It definitely is still a problem in America. It's one that we
address, it seems like, only in crucial situations. And I made a statement
that America's dress has been raised and our panties are dirty. We're trying
to force the world to accept our culture, but we're not living up to the
standards that we want the rest of the world to embrace.

GROSS: In extreme times, some people find their faith is shaken and they lose
their faith, and other people find their faith is strengthened or find faith
who never had faith before.

Rev. WALKER: Yes.

GROSS: And I'm wondering how--do you feel like your faith was tested in any
way?

Rev. WALKER: Our faith is tested every day, you know, and my thing is, I
don't look at situations and conditions because they change. Happenstances
and things we go through, they change. The Bible says if I look past the
healed towards my help--the healed which cometh my help, all of my help cometh
from the Lord, things are going to be just like God said they were going to
be. There's going to be perilous times, there's going to be trouble in the
land, and here it is. I can't be shaken by the things that I see. Through
faith I'm walking this race, and as God strengthens me to deal with the dead
folk around me, to comfort the people with the horror stories, homes being
broken in, being threatened by people, you know, ...(unintelligible). I was
just made for this time. I consider myself an in-time preacher, a radical
preacher ready to go to another level because it seems as though we've become
complacent in America.

GROSS: Today is a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance. Is there a
particular prayer that you'll be saying today?

Rev. WALKER: Well, I have a prayer that I really say every day to all of
mankind, and that's the 23rd Psalm, that we would embrace it and really use
our God to hold us as our Father and we would heed to his word and be
obedient. Turn back to a way of holiness and respect and reverence. And
we've become complacent. We've become spoiled and we've become a bunch of
people who are in a microwave society, and if it doesn't come when we want it,
we'll do what we have to do to get it. And, you know, I'm just reflecting
back, you know, the Lord said, first, he took it by water, next time by fire.
This is a flashback to biblical days. The water splashed, the people will
scatter. Some were lost. The next time will we be able, you know, to count
the cost? Will we be able to say, `Thank you, God'? Will we be able, you
know, to have another day or more or less to pray and for fellowship?

GROSS: Well, Reverend Walker, thank you very much for talking with us.

Rev. WALKER: Thank you, ma'am.

GROSS: Thank you.

Rev. WALKER: God bless and keep you.

GROSS: Reverend Willie Walker is the pastor of Noah's Ark Ministries in New
Orleans.

We continue our observation of this Day of Prayer and Remembrance in the
second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing ) Ooh, when the saints...

Chorus: (Singing) When the saints...

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) ...go marching in.

Chorus: (Singing) ...go marching in.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Ooh, when the saints--when the saints go
marching in...

Chorus: (Singing) Go marching in.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) I want to stand up, be counted in the glory
number. Oh, yes, I do. Yeah, yeah.

Chorus: (Singing) Oh, when the saints...

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) When the saints go marching in.

(Credits)

GROSS: Coming up, we talk with a cop who rescued inmates in a flooded prison
and a priest who was evacuated to the Superdome. Novelist Alice Sebold
reflects on living with the dead and Gregory Davis, of The Dirty Dozen Brass
Band, talks about playing jazz funerals.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Lieutenant Kevin Judice discusses the impact of the
eight days he spent rescuing people in New Orleans
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Today is a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance for the victims of Hurricane
Katrina. Our next guest spent eight days rescuing people from the flood.
Lieutenant Kevin Judice works on the narcotics squad in New Iberia, which is
about 100 miles away from New Orleans. He's been on the force for 10 years
and served six years in the National Guard. Since New Iberia had no
significant hurricane damage, a group from his police department was able to
go to New Orleans.

One of the things you did was evacuate critically ill patients from Charity
Hospital. Would you describe what you saw when you got there and tell us what
it was like to...

Lieutenant KEVIN JUDICE (Narcotics Division, New Iberia): Sure.

GROSS: ...evacuate the patients?

Lt. JUDICE: Sure. It--Charity Hospital is about 12, 13 stories tall. We had
to get to the top on the outside fire escape, got to the top, made contact
with the people up there, told them what we were there to do. They began
preparing the people who had to leave right now, and that's what they did.
They put them on backboards, secured them as best they could, and we carried
them down, back down those 12 floors while they continued to work on them,
continued to breathe for these people and things like that and loaded them on
boats, let the medical personnel on the boats and brought them to the
Superdome, which was not far away where they were still, at the time,
airlifting people from those ramps on the dome by helicopter to Baton Rouge.

And we did that until we couldn't do it anymore. We really became physically
exhausted. We just couldn't climb anymore, couldn't carry anymore. And at
that time, it was getting--it was dark and the people we had left behind at
the--to guard everything were really becoming concerned about being able to
exit safely. So we made one last trip to Charity. We actually stopped to
pick up some children. They were floating in a pool, a plastic pool, and
picked them up, got them to the Dome as well. And then we loaded the boats
and went back to our command post.

GROSS: You helped evacuate a prison.

Lt. JUDICE: Correct.

GROSS: How did the prisoners respond to you? Did any of them--did they try
to escape?

Lt. JUDICE: No, I don't know if any did actually escape. But, no, I mean,
there was not a single problem at all. I mean, they were so happy to see
somebody, it didn't matter if it was law enforcement or anyone. They'd have
gone with anybody at that point, because they had nothing. I mean, they were
locked in a prison that they couldn't get out of, and it was flooded. It was
under water. And they were--I mean, they were hanging signs from the windows,
`Help,' on and on and on. And we actually became--when we got there, when
they saw--when the prisoner officials saw us in the water, they asked if we
could help.

GROSS: So...

Lt. JUDICE: I mean, there were thousands. You're talking about seven to
8,000 prisoners in this prison.

GROSS: So where did you take the ones that you rescued? Where'd you take
them to?

Lt. JUDICE: Prison buses were there to take them out, to take them to
Louisiana State Penitentiary or to various other correctional institutes, I
mean, as they could get them. I mean, there were thousands that were just
sitting on various overpasses. I mean, these--they were in bad shape, I'll
tell you. I really felt for these guys because they were--I mean, I don't--I
lost count of how many passed out, you know, as you're trying--you'd bring
them, and that day, we were really in the water and it was really getting bad.
And, you know, `cause we'd get them to a certain point where the boats could
no longer get through debris, it was railroad tracks, that kind of a thing.
We'd have to get them in the water and actually walk them, you know, along a
path that we had established was safe in the water, get them into an area,
line them up until other buses could get there. It took hours. I think we
got about 3,000 out that day. And they brought water, they brought food. I
mean, these guys hadn't eaten in two days. So, I mean, they were
appreciative, there's no doubt. I mean, they were extremely appreciative.

GROSS: Do you feel like you were--how do you feel like you were changed by
this experience?

Lt. JUDICE: I'll tell you, it's--it really--it's hard to say. I mean, you
really--it has really shown you your humanity. I can say that, you know. And
when I got down there, it made me feel very, very small, that you are in the
middle of a very big problem and that--I mean, you know, we all tend to think
of ourselves as the center of the universe sometimes, but it's really made me,
you know, realize that we're not. We're part of a larger community, and
we have to think that way. If we don't think that way, this is what happens.
You know, I appreciate my--I always have. I've always been a very, you know,
big family person. It's the most important thing in my life, and--but, I
mean, after, you know, eight days there and seeing my children, which I have
three, and my wife again, it was just a sobering experience, you know. It
made me just realize that I had something to come back to. You know, at any
given time, I could turn the car around, tell them I've had enough and I could
drive home and stay there, whereas, you know, these people couldn't.

GROSS: Do you think of your job as a cop any differently now than you did
before Katrina?

Lt. JUDICE: I'll tell you, it's been hard to get back into `cop mode,' if I
can say it that way, into the law enforcement-type mode, into going out
and--you know, I've had meetings with various citizens about different things,
you know, about complaints in the area, about, you know, there's loud music
here and, you know, and there's people hanging out late at night here, and
it's how--I had to sit through that and keep reminding myself that, you know,
these are problems of these people and just--and not think that, you know, you
really have no problems. You know, in the general scope of things, this is
not a big problem for you. You know, if you could have seen what I saw and
been where I've been, then you'd understand that, you know, loud music late at
night is not really that big of a deal, that we're gonna get to it and that
we'll take care of it, but, you know, let's just remember what's happening
down there even as we speak.

GROSS: Let me just ask you one more thing before we wrap up. I know you were
traveling through the stench of the waters in New Orleans. Have you gotten
the smell out of your nose yet?

Lt. JUDICE: It took awhile, it really did. I mean, that's the biggest thing
was that smell. It was the--and it's not just that sewer smell; it was
gasoline. I mean, it hit me in a big way a couple of days ago when I was
putting gas in my police unit. That smell is--that reminds me so much of
being down there. I mean, you could see it on the water and just gasoline and
diesel and other chemicals, just a film on the water everywhere you went.
There was, I mean, hundreds of cars submerged. Some of them you could see,
some of them you couldn't. And that smell mixed with that--what that sewer
smell was overpowering. And any equipment that we had that was in that water,
I mean, it's gone. We've thrown it all away and we're ordering brand-new
stuff. It's just unusable, and it's contaminated. And, yeah, that gasoline
smell is something that sticks with me.

GROSS: Thank you very much for talking with us, and I wish you the best.

Lt. JUDICE: Absolutely. It's good talking to you, too.

GROSS: Lieutenant Kevin Judice spoke to us from New Iberia, where he works on
the police department's narcotics division.

Coming up, a priest who was evacuated to the Superdome. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Father Anthony DeConciliis discusses his evacuation to
the Superdome and what he observed there
TERRY GROSS, host:

Father Anthony De Conciliis moved to New Orleans in August to start his new
position as president of the community college Our Lady of Holy Cross, which
was founded with the mission of helping the poor. He was inaugurated August
26th. Three days later, when the hurricane struck, he stayed at the school
where he felt he belonged. As the waters rose, he knew he had to get out. He
was rescued Wednesday and evacuated to the Superdome, where he stayed until
Thursday afternoon. We called him in New York and asked what he observed at
the Superdome.

Father ANTHONY De CONCILIIS (Our Lady of Holy Cross College): When you first
entered, everyone, of course, was concerned about their homes, and many people
were trying to take with them their belongings, little pieces of material, it
looked like, or trinkets or toys and guarding them in a sense of holding them
to their hearts. And that gave you a sense of the fear and the trepidation of
the people there. Of course, many of the people there did not have a lot of
possessions, in any case, I would imagine. And when you got to the line to be
searched for weapons and other articles that may hurt somebody else, you had a
sense that you were moving into an atmosphere and an environment that was safe
but cautious and unsafe. And it was a sense of being locked in almost because
when you went in, you knew that you weren't going to get out easily, out of
that building.

GROSS: What were your prayers like then? I mean, I don't want to invade your
privacy here, but I'm wondering, like, in a time of crisis like that, when you
were in the Superdome, were your prayers more a kind of meditative kind of
prayer or more of a sense of, like, trying to directly communicate, asking for
something? I mean, what was the nature of your prayer?

Father De CONCILIIS: The nature of my prayer was to engender courage and
fortitude and a sensitivity for other people and not to reflect so much on
what was happening to me. And so I asked God to help me to move out to
others and in that way, keep me clear on the needs of others than my own
needs.

GROSS: You said that you prayed for courage. Were you afraid in the
Superdome? It sounds like there'd be plenty of things to be afraid of.

Father De CONCILIIS: Oh, certainly. I think anyone who was not concerned was
not seeing the reality of the situation.

GROSS: What did you do to pass the time? I mean, I imagine it was pretty
dark even in the daytime.

Father De CONCILIIS: Well, there was enough light that you could read. And I
had a Bible with me and so I read.

GROSS: You read the Bible.

Father De CONCILIIS: Yes.

GROSS: What did you read, which parts?

Father De CONCILIIS: Oh, I read St. John, and I read those areas where--of
St. Paul where he talks about courage and...

GROSS: And why St. John?

Father De CONCILIIS: Oh, it's my favorite, one of my favorite Gospels.

GROSS: Why?

Father De CONCILIIS: Because St. John has--is a Gospel of love, a Gospel
where he shows a tremendous affection of God for his people and not as factual
as the other synoptics, but his Gospel really shows how much affection God had
for his people, and that always has impressed me over the years.

GROSS: Times of crisis and catastrophe tend to test people's faith. I mean,
some people lose their faith, some people find faith they never had before.
And I'm wondering if there was any point where you felt like your faith was
shaken or if people you know had their faith shaken.

Father De CONCILIIS: Well, I can't answer for other people, but for me, it
was like a second wind. We always talk about the Holy Spirit coming into,
breathing into--life into the disciples in the Upper Room. In a way, I feel
that happened to me. I can't express it yet and I'm gonna be writing about it
certainly, but it was a new breath, a new way of looking at life and faith for
me rather than a challenge to my faith at all.

GROSS: In what sense was it a new way of looking at life?

Father De CONCILIIS: Well, as you can imagine, most of the people in the Dome
were people from the city of New Orleans. And given that so many had so
little, I looked at that, and I said to them, `This is where my college is and
where we are living. And how can we serve more and more of these people in
our college and, indeed, all the colleges?' Because it is education that
helps so many people move from one step to the other.

GROSS: Father Anthony De Conciliis is the new president of Our Lady of Holy
Cross College in New Orleans. The college is now being used by police and
Reservists from New York.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Author Alice Sebold reads from her article "Living With
the Dead" and discusses her feelings about the images coming out
of New Orleans
TERRY GROSS, host:

This Day of Remembrance for the victims of Katrina comes less than a week
after the anniversary of the September 11th attacks. My guest, Alice Sebold,
wrote an OP-ED piece for The New York Times reflecting on both catastrophic
events, titled "Living With the Dead." Sebold is the author of the
best-selling novel "The Lovely Bones," which is written from the point of view
of a 14-year-old girl who was raped and murdered and is now in heaven watching
her family and friends carry on without her. We invited Sebold to read an
excerpt of her piece, "Living With the Dead."

Ms. ALICE SEBOLD (Author): `What can the living do in the aftermath of
Hurricane Katrina and 9/11, where loss has greeted us twice on a national
scale in such a short span of years? Do the dead wish you to suffer? Do they
want you to watch CNN and FOX News for days on end? Do they want your guilt
or pity? All of these things are like jewels to them. In other words,
valueless where they have gone. Instead, a woman wants her husband not to
forget her but to go on and live. A child longs for a lost mother's arms
again. A man grows peaceful when his partner finds new love.'

`Some of the dead, I imagine, get enraged at these things. They are dead,
after all. They get to do and feel, I hope, what they want to. The living,
who are close to the dead, have a well-marked path of grief to walk down, but
what about the rest of us? What can we, the distant, those of us who live in
Nebraska or California or the very tip of Maine do? You were in your kitchen
or your backyard or stuck on an endless elevator ride. You were sitting with
a book in the park. Perhaps it is an image you remember having seen, a
handmade grave of sheets and bricks: "Here lies Vera. God help us." Perhaps
it is the voice from a message left on an answering machine. "They have told
us to remain at our desks. I'm OK, Mom. I love you." Perhaps it is less
specific, bodies falling from high windows, bodies floating in muddy water,
bodies wrapped in dirty bedding and tucked along the sides of bridges and
highways, the faces of the missing taped and tacked up on a wall.'

`Whatever it is that comes to you in three months, six months, a year or more,
don't turn the page of your book and forget. Don't stab the elevator button,
trying to hurry up the trip. Stop. These tragedies, it's worth remembering,
grant us an opportunity to understand what is perhaps our finest raw material,
our humanity, the way we at our best treat one another, the way we listen to
one another, the way we grieve.'

GROSS: Alice Sebold, thanks for reading that. Why did you decide to write
this piece?

Ms. SEBOLD: I think I was overwhelmed, as almost all of us were, by the
images coming out of New Orleans and how helpless almost all of us were, those
who were there and those far away. And in that helplessness, I just kept
seeing the people who were dying or who were--that grave that I speak of in
that passage, "Here lies Vera. God help us." That was an image that had a
lot of impact on me because it was a pretty early image, and it was a
beautiful grave. And it was out of sheets and rocks, and it talked about,
even in the midst of all that helplessness, the attention that was given to
that dead body. And it touched me a lot, and I think out of those images, I
just felt like I wanted to go to some kind of prayer. In some sense, the
piece that I wrote is some type of prayer for me in that way to acknowledge
the dead and to hope to have communion between the living and the dead.

GROSS: You know, your piece is about the importance of keeping the dead in
our memory, and that's what this day is about. Why does that feel so
important to you?

Ms. SEBOLD: Well...

GROSS: And we're talking here of dead people that you don't know, you--where
do you live?

Ms. SEBOLD: I live in California.

GROSS: Right. So you're at a remove.

Ms. SEBOLD: Right.

GROSS: So how does one keep alive the memory of the dead that you don't even
know?

Ms. SEBOLD: Well, I think, you know, the honest answer to that is you will
never know the specific facts of these people's lives, so you can't grieve
them or honor them in the same way of those people that did know them.
Perhaps part of it is because I naturally go toward narrative, but, you know,
you honor them by thinking of them, by remembering the images that you might
not wish to remember that might be difficult to think about and by imagining
them struggling for life and acknowledging that you could be in that very
position yourself. So it's a certain sense of putting yourself in the
position of the person who has died and honoring them in that moment.

GROSS: And you think that just, like, thinking about the dead is a potent way
of doing that? It doesn't have to be a more formal kind of prayer?

Ms. SEBOLD: That is what I do because, like I said, I'm not somebody who
prays in a formal way. I think that you have to be very aware of what you're
doing, and you're doing it for them and for yourself simultaneously. I think
it can be very potent. And I think sometimes what's dangerous about a more
formalized prayer is that you end up saying words that you're not connecting
with necessarily. You're doing it because, well, this is the time to pray.
We pray now and then tomorrow, I go and buy an SUV. And my sense is that, no,
make it fluid, make it, in some sense, whenever it comes to you as opposed to
a specific time. You know, I would hope that one doesn't have to be efficient
about grief and that it can be spread across whatever days that the images
come back to you. This is something that's going to be, you know, in our
newspapers and on our television for a very long time, and the idea that it
only exists when the TV is on, or it only exists one day of the week I think
is a foolish belief.

GROSS: On this Day of Remembrance, what do you think is, like, the power of
keeping people in our memory?

Ms. SEBOLD: First of all, I think part of it is just it comes down to how
you want to live. And so you are making a conscious choice to keep them in
your memory. For me, I will say in a very selfish--it's a selfish choice for
me to think that the dead are somehow present in life. It's a form of playing
with the world in some sense and inviting the dead to play with you instead of
sealing them off forever as separate from us. I think that that's what I just
instinctually feel doesn't make sense, is that when people die, they're gone
physically. But they're everywhere simultaneously, I think.

GROSS: Alice Sebold, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. SEBOLD: Thank you.

GROSS: Alice Sebold's article, "Living With the Dead," was published last
Sunday in The New York Times.

Coming up, Gregory Davis of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. He's played hundreds
of New Orleans jazz funerals. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Trumpeter Gregory Davis discusses playing jazz music
at funerals
TERRY GROSS, host:

On this Day of Remembrance, we close with trumpeter Gregory Davis, a New
Orleans musician who has played at hundreds of jazz funerals. His
internationally known group, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, even has an album
called "Funeral For a Friend."

(Soundbite of jazz music)

GROSS: Trumpeter Gregory Davis and his family evacuated to Houston. We
called him there.

I think at funerals, mournful music is played on the way to the grave and then
more joyful music on the way back, is that right?

Mr. GREGORY DAVIS (Dirty Dozen Brass Band): That's right. On the way out of
the church and to the cemetery, you know, it's sad, mournful music because,
you know, you do want to honor and respect, you know, the funeral itself and
the death of, you know, the person that you're honoring. But once, you know,
that body--it used to be but, you know, now you really can't get to the
funeral--I'm sorry, to the cemetery all the time. Once that body was put into
the grave, the party started, you know, back to this person's home or back to
his favorite, you know, spot wherever he used to like to hang out. And that
just symbolizes, you know, yeah, death is sad and it hurts, but life goes on,
you know. And it's a joy to be alive and the music--it's reflected in the
music.

GROSS: Today's a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance for the people who
died in the hurricane. And I'm wondering, like, we want to end our show with
some music and we thought some music that is often played at New Orleans
funerals might be appropriate. Is there a song that's particularly going
through your mind today?

Mr. DAVIS: A song that's going through my mind? When I first saw the
devastation, you know, I did think of a, you know, song "I'll Fly Away," you
know, the lyrics dealing with `some glad morning when this life is over, you
know, I'll fly away. You know, I'm struggling here on Earth, but one day it's
all gonna be over, you know, and I'll fly away to glory.'

We lost--you know, we don't know how many people we actually lost. They're
still finding, you know, bodies in some of the houses. Some people were
trapped in attics and on rooftops and, you know, there were people dying in
nursing homes that--they had no way out, you know. So, for me, I don't know
what I'm going back to, but I know some of the same--some of the happy faces
that I used to see around New Orleans, you know, I won't see them anymore.
Some of the watering holes and some of the spots where we used to play in, you
know, where we rehearsed and where we grew up, some of those places are not
gonna be there anymore. You know, we have them in our memories, but
physically, you know, we can't pass them on, you know, to our siblings, to our
children. But, you know, we're coming back.

GROSS: So you're confident you're gonna go back to New Orleans.

Mr. DAVIS: Oh, I know I'm going back. I have no doubt in my mind that no
matter what it takes, you know, if my home is destroyed, if it has to be torn
down and start over, I have to start over, you know, I'm going back. I've
been blessed. I've traveled all over this world and there's no other place in
this world that I would rather live than New Orleans.

GROSS: Gregory, thank you.

Mr. DAVIS: OK.

GROSS: Thank you very much, and I wish good luck to you and your family.

Mr. DAVIS: Thank you very much.

GROSS: Gregory Davis plays trumpet with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. We thank
all our guests for helping us observe this Day of Remembrance for the victims
of Katrina.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "I'll Fly Away")

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Some glad morning when this life is o'er, I'll
fly away.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) I'll fly away.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Oh, to a home on God's celestial shore, I'll
fly away.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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