DATE September 13, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Christopher Drew discusses the devastation in New
Orleans and the severe conditions in the shelters at the Superdome
and the New Orleans Convention Center
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The violence inside the New Orleans Convention Center was even worse than
previously described, according to interviews conducted by my guest,
Christopher Drew. Drew is an investigative reporter for The New York Times
who is now in New Orleans, where he's been reporting on Katrina's aftermath.
He co-wrote a front-page story on Sunday about the breakdowns in city, state
and federal responses to the hurricane. Drew covered how the Superdome and
Convention Center turned into death traps. A little later, we'll hear from
Eric Lipton, who reported on the communications breakdowns in government that
resulted in the delayed and insufficient response to the hurricane. We called
Christopher Drew earlier today in New Orleans.
Chris, would you first just set the scene for us? Where are you? Where have
you been staying?
Mr. CHRISTOPHER DREW (The New York Times): Well, last night, we got into the
Sheraton Hotel downtown. It's the first time I haven't been on a sofa, an air
mattress or sleeping in a car or an RV in the two weeks I've been down here,
and it's also a good sign of how much more quickly, in certain aspects, things
are improving down here. Some of the big hotels actually got power back
yesterday and they've rigged up some temporary water solutions, and they're
slowly opening floor by floor.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about your reporting on what actually happened
in the Convention Center during the storm, and you say that it was worse than
we thought we knew. You say people at the Superdome were searched for
weapons, but at the Convention Center, they weren't. Why not?
Mr. DREW: Well, the problem was there was no plan at the beginning to use the
Convention Center, and all the people were--poor people in the city were going
to the Superdome, and that was supposed to be the main shelter. And as you
recall during the storm, a big chunk of the roof got ripped out. Water was
coming in. They kept bringing people there. They ended up with 30,000 or so
people in the Superdome, and everybody was sort of huddled back in the stands
because it turned out that the rip in the roof was right over the 50-yard line
of the football field, and it scared everybody so much, I mean, nobody knew
what was going to happen with the rest of the building. And then as the
floods came from the break in the 17th Street Canal levee, it basically
surrounded the Superdome with four feet of water by Tuesday morning, so the
city had to find another place to bring more people.
They had to bring the people who were--first, people who were bringing rescued
by the search and rescue boats that were going into the heavily flooded
neighborhoods. They were hotel guests that couldn't stay in the high-rise
hotels because of damage. They were hospital workers and patients from
hospitals that got flooded out as the--after the levee break, so all these
people ended up being sent to the Convention Center.
GROSS: You know, if they were actually officially sent to the Convention
Center, it makes it more astounding that Michael Brown, the head of FEMA,
didn't know they were there.
Mr. DREW: Well, it's totally astonishing that he said that, because I asked
Mayor Ray Nagin here in New Orleans about his comment right after he said it,
and Mayor Nagin said that for the two days that people were in the Convention
Center before Michael Brown says he knew about it, that the mayor said he
talked about how many people were there at a daily meeting he had with other
FEMA officials and state officials, and so Michael Brown's deputies were at
these meetings, so the mayor said, `If Michael Brown didn't know about it,
it's just a problem of communication within FEMA.'
GROSS: What was the police presence like in the Convention Center?
Mr. DREW: The police--I'm not sure how many regular policemen there were. I
know in the Superdome, there were about 80 to 90 regular officers and a number
of National Guardsmen conducting patrols. I never could figure out the number
of regular policemen. There were some--I suspect fewer in the Convention
Center, but what was fascinating to me was I had an interview with the head of
the New Orleans Police Department SWAT team, who was very candid about just
how gruesome things were in the Convention Center, and there was gunfire every
night repeatedly. The SWAT team was called in by the regular police there
sometimes two or three times a night.
He said that armed groups of thugs, 15 or 25 guys, actually took control of
two of the six halls at the Convention Center and refused to let police and
emergency workers in, and the SWAT team had to go in and retake those halls.
And they had to do it without firing weapons because they had 15,000 people in
there, and so they would go in there, and I can't imagine the guts it took for
the SWAT team members, because he basically said--I mean, they would go in
with full body armor and they had flashlights mounted on their weapons, but
basically, when they saw a muzzle flash come out of the crowd somewhere that
indicated somebody had fired, they would just rush the spot where the shot had
been fired from, with their flashlights shining in there. Of course, the
flashlights were giving away their location as they moved in as well. And
they would just try to grab anybody they found in there who had a gun or who
seemed to be trying to run away.
GROSS: Well, you write that the police captain said that the police
department came close to abandoning the Convention Center and giving up on the
people there because--why? 'Cause it was so dangerous for the police?
Mr. DREW: That's it. I mean, late in the week, it was just so chaotic and
the regular district policemen who were there, it was totally out of control.
They couldn't handle it. I mean, as far as I can tell, I mean, people have
talked about maybe the 300 or so New Orleans policemen had quit during the
storm. Well, I was told maybe 17 or 18 of them were among the regular
policemen in the Convention Center. The SWAT team even lost four of its 60
members just who couldn't believe they were doing the kind of things they had
But part of the problem was in the Superdome everybody was pretty much poor,
but in this Convention Center, because the hotel guests, the hospital
officials went over there, you had a number--you had a really volatile mix of
poor people and wealthier people or middle-class people. And so these thugs,
it all started out with them trying to rob the people who seemed to have money
and take their money and take their jewelry, and then it evolved into much
worse and the regular police just felt powerless. I mean, Captain Jeff Winn,
the SWAT team commander, told me that a number of regular policemen there told
him about numerous women who had come back saying they had been dragged off by
these gangs of 15, 20, 25 men and raped and they would come back and report it
to the police and the police felt they couldn't do anything about it. He said
some of the women would just go stand outside the Convention Center and refuse
to go back in after this happened. And everybody was terrorized in the
Convention Center. Captain Winn said that when the SWAT team would go in
there and say `What do the regular people do when you're in there chasing
these thugs?' And he said they'd either be running for their lives or they'd
be on the floor in a fetal position.
And the other shocking thing when you think about the situation, the city's
jail was totally flooded out so they had no jail. And then when they caught
some of these guys, they had nothing to do with them. They couldn't put them
in jail. Everybody was too scared to finger them and identify them and really
testify about them. So I said, `What did you do with them?' And he said,
`Well, the only thing we could do was just take them outside or take them to
another hall in the convention and let them go and hope they didn't make their
GROSS: Now you write that a captain in charge of the police was preparing to
actually evacuate the police officers by helicopter 'cause things were so out
of control and so dangerous for the police. But they didn't evacuate the
police. Why not?
Mr. DREW: Well, this was--I think this was late in the week and as they were
preparing to do that and the SWAT team got called in to help with that,
somebody finally got through to the National Guard because there had been no
National Guard presence there. I think there were 300 National Guardsmen at
the Superdome, but I don't think there were any at the Convention Center. And
so it was this beleaguered small group of police. So they rushed a hundred
National Guard soldiers over there. I think they came from the Superdome. I
never could nail that down for sure. And they did a sweep of the six
convention halls as soon as they got there and they got enough order restored
that the police and with the SWAT team and the Guard, you know, they managed
to hang on till they got the people out.
The other thing was that in both places, you know, there was too little backup
generation. I mean, all they had at both places were dim emergency lights
inside the buildings. There was no air conditioning so it was totally
sweltering. Temperatures well over a hundred degrees during the day at these
places. And so you had people, old people--at the Superdome, two-thirds of
the people were women, children and elderly, and a lot of them were infirm to
begin with--so you had people dying in both places, not just from the violence
but just gave out. And the police commander in charge at the Superdome,
Lonnie Swain, told me that Saturday when the last people were leaving the
Superdome after they'd been in there since the previous Sunday, so almost a
week, I saw some of them coming out and they looked like the Baatan Death
March. They were so gaunt and dehydrated. But Lonnie Swain, the police
commander, told me that a couple people actually died just walking out of the
Dome after enduring those six days and the bus was finally there. They died
just walking out to get to the buses.
GROSS: My guest Christopher Drew is speaking to us from New Orleans. He's an
investigative reporter for The New York Times. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Christopher Drew, who's in New
Orleans. He's an investigative reporter for The New York Times and has
reported on how the Superdome and Convention Center became death traps.
And so, Chris, just standing back and looking at the big picture some more,
where do you think were the greatest failures in the planning for evacuees at
the Superdome and the Convention Center?
Mr. DREW: Well, I think there were big failures at every level of government.
And I'm from New Orleans. I was born here, I grew up here, went to school
here and my family is here. They all evacuated safely but some of them lost
their houses in the flooding; some of them emerged OK. And in amid the
reporting, I've been going to check their houses.
And what's just shocking and really disturbing to me is that for so many years
the scientists at LSU and other places have talked about how devastating a
Category 5 storm could be, and everybody's known that. And it's just amazing
to me that if you're going to put that many people in the Superdome, you know,
you wouldn't have some means to get them out of the Superdome if the whole
city started to flood. I mean, it's amazing to me that there wasn't more
backup generation in the Superdome and the Convention Center. If they'd been
able to keep more lights on, if they had been able to keep the air
conditioning on, a lot of these people wouldn't have died. And so I've
pressed the city officials on that and they all basically say, `Yeah, we
should have done it.' Part of the problem was the Saints want a new stadium
and there were actually some proposals to upgrade the Superdome as a shelter
and have more backup power. And they were kind of held in abeyance while the
state leaders decided whether to build a new stadium or not.
But I think the other huge failure on the federal government's part--besides
just the lateness with which FEMA responded--I think the other huge failure is
that three years ago the head of FEMA, Joe Allbaugh, who was one of President
Bush's campaign aides in his first presidential election, said that a bad
hurricane in New Orleans would be one of the absolute worst things that FEMA
had to deal with. And he and his people said three years ago, `We're going to
start working with the city and the state to plan better evacuation, better
So I sat down with the city's emergency preparedness head, Terry Ebbert, the
other day and I said, `Well, how many meetings did you have with FEMA in the
last two or three years? What did you do?' And he said, `We never met with
FEMA.' He said, `We never'--they weren't involved in the preparations for
evacuation and revising the evacuation plans at all. He said, `We did a lot
of work with the state of Louisiana. We did a lot of work with Mississippi on
helping to get our people out through Mississippi. But FEMA in the last three
years, even after they identified this as a horrible accident that could
happen, never did anything to help the city or state prepare.' And, in fact,
in terms of the delays afterwards, here the emergency preparedness director
for the city never heard from FEMA on the weekend before the storm. He never
heard from FEMA on Monday after the storm. It wasn't until Tuesday, the day
after the storm, that he ever had his first conversation with FEMA.
GROSS: Now Mayor Nagin said--I heard him say this to Tim Russert on Sunday,
and I'm paraphrasing here, but he basically said that he told evacuees to
bring food for a day or two if they were coming to the Convention Center and
then he expected that after that the cavalry would come in--you know, the feds
would come in...
Mr. DREW: Right.
GROSS: ...and help out, and help, you know, do whatever. Is that part of the
official--was that part of the official New Orleans evacuation plan that the
people would bring food with them?
Mr. DREW: Yes, and, in fact, they have used the Superdome a couple of times
in the past for hurricanes and that's exactly what they've done. And the
hurricane passed and in a day or two people went home. I mean, the idea of
using the Superdome wasn't such a bad idea. It seems like it, given how
horrible it was now, but when you stop and think about it, this storm had
winds of 150 to 175 miles an hour as it was approaching. The Louisiana
building code only requires buildings to be able to withstand
a-hundred-mile-an-hour winds. The Superdome is one of the very few buildings
in the city built to withstand at least 150-mile-an-hour winds. It's got no
windows. It's been up there for 30-something years and it's never had serious
damage in a hurricane. And it's, you know, in the downtown part of the city,
which traditionally doesn't flood.
So if you look at all those things--I mean, if they would have just put more
backup power in it and stocked it with some more food, it would have made a
lot of sense. I mean, where they fell down--and they did get food in. I
understand the National Guard was bringing in MREs starting on Tuesday as the
people's food ran out and people were getting at least a couple of MREs a day
there in the Superdome. There was no food brought in to the Convention
But I just think if you would have had a way--if there had been more planning
that, OK, we've got them in the Superdome. You know, normally they're able to
go home after a day or two. But what happens if we get that really bad storm,
we get the really big one, and they're stuck in the Superdome and the city's
flooded and they can't get out? There should have been that kind of
contingency planning and there should have been more planning for either to
mass buses outside the Superdome in case they had to be evacuated or there
should have been more backup power to keep the--you know, if they could have
kept the temperatures at a reasonable degree there, they could have kept a lot
of people from dying and they could have kept violence from flaring up.
GROSS: At the time of the hurricane Louisiana had 3,000 National Guard troops
that were deployed in Iraq. Had those troops actually been in Louisiana, do
you think the situation might have been any different?
Mr. DREW: My sense is that they could have probably deployed faster. And
we've been trying to pin that down because obviously that's probably the
most--one of the most volatile national political issues here. I think
there's only 10, 12,000 National Guardsmen in Louisiana. So it was a
significant chunk of people. The state still managed to mobilize thousands of
Guardsmen. It's hard to pin down exactly what equipment--in fact, where the
Guardsmen normally stage in New Orleans, their staging ground, they had 20
what they call high-water trucks that are meant to go through flooded areas
and help people, and the place they've staged those trucks normally doesn't
flood. And it ended up with 18 feet of water after some of these levees
broke, and they couldn't get these trucks out. So here, on the one hand,
we're all worried, legitimately so, about what equipment might have been in
Iraq, but some of the equipment they had right here they couldn't get out
because of the unexpected levee breaks.
GROSS: Chris, one more question. You grew up in New Orleans. Of everything
that you've seen since the hurricane, what sticks most in your mind?
Mr. DREW: Well, I think when I came down from New York right in the aftermath
of the hurricane, I really thought I was coming to cover the death of the
city, the death of one of the great special American cities like San Francisco
or Boston. And I've had such mixed emotions while I've been here because
there are vast residential areas of the city out by the lakefront that because
of these levee breaks are totally inundated with this awful black, toxic, oily
water that's just, you know, sitting there for two weeks already and these
houses are going to be filled with mold and they're all going to have to be
bulldozed. And, you know, I have two relatives who had houses in those areas.
On the other hand, when I go downtown, you know, the French Quarter was hardly
damaged. The big office buildings in the CBD just have a lot of broken glass
but not much else. I mean, the skyline has not changed. If you go down St.
Charles Avenue in the Garden District and all the mansions that people like to
come see, the universities, the hospitals, none of that got flooded. All
that's in good shape. And Jefferson Parish, the biggest suburb, didn't get
hit with flooding and just a lot of wind. Power lines down, trees down.
But then I was out on a boat yesterday with a city councilwoman, Cynthia
Hedge-Morrell, and her husband, Arthur, who's a state representative. They
were part of the prosperous black middle class that grew up out toward the
lakefront in the eastern part--side of the city. And we're going past their
home. There's--they had 10 to 12 feet of water originally. It's still five
or six feet of water. The stench as you're going through the boat--I mean,
we're wearing those, you know, white masks for what help they give, but--and
they're passing all these houses and they're saying, you know, that's Norman
Francis' house. He's the president of Dillard. And that's Judge So-and-so's
house. And, you know, this whole black middle class--upper middle
class--professional class that has risen over the last 20 or 30 years and that
now basically runs the city on the political level--the mayor's house not far
from there--I mean, all devastated.
And I've been peering over the 17th Street levee 'cause one of my relatives
lives near there, and it's just the saddest thing to just see this black muck
with dogs floating in it and just everything. And in this climate, this
humidity, I mean, everything just gets mildewed and mold and it's just--one
thing they're going to have to come to grips with is whether they even let
people back into some of these areas when they get the water out or whether
they just decide to bulldoze them completely.
GROSS: Well, Chris, I really appreciate you talking with us.
Mr. DREW: No problem, I'm glad to do it.
GROSS: Thank you very much and I wish good luck to your family who lives in
Mr. DREW: Thank you so much, Terry.
GROSS: Christopher Drew, recorded earlier today from New Orleans. He's an
investigative reporter for The New York Times. He also co-wrote the best
seller "Blind Man's Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage."
Drew's colleague Eric Lipton will continue the story of what went wrong in the
response to Katrina in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, journalist Eric Lipton describes the communications
breakdowns between the regional and federal government that resulted in the
delayed and inadequate response to the hurricane. Lipton writes about
homeland security issues for The New York Times and is now in Baton Rouge.
And we remember Fats Waller's guitarist, Al Casey. He died Sunday at the age
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Eric Lipton discusses covering the hurricane aftermath
on the Gulf Coast as well as the Asian tsunami and World Trade
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest Eric Lipton has been reporting for The New York Times on how the
crisis in New Orleans was deepened by the breakdown in communication between
the regional authorities and the federal government. Lipton is a national
correspondent for The New York Times, who covers homeland security issues.
He's also the author of the book "City in the Sky: The Rise and Fall of the
World Trade Center." Earlier today we phoned him on Baton Rouge, where the
New Orleans city government and the federal government have set up offices.
Yesterday when Michael Brown resigned as the head of FEMA, he said, `We're not
a first-responder agency. We're there to coordinate and help people prepare
and coordinate in times of disaster. And so if the country wants us to be
more, then we should have a great public policy debate.' Now is that true,
that FEMA is not considered a first-responder? And if that is true, has that
always been the case, or is this a change under the Bush administration?
Mr. ERIC LIPTON (National Correspondent, The New York Times; Author, "City in
the Sky: The Rise and Fall of the World Trade Center"): Historically, FEMA
has been there to support local and state governments in the midst of
disasters. They--you know, providing food, water, emergency relief. But
during the Bush administration, there's been a stated policy that they want
the states to play an even greater role in handling these disasters on their
own. The first director of FEMA under President Bush testified to Congress in
2001 that he felt that some of the assistance had become almost an entitlement
and that perhaps the federal government should be asking the states to play a
GROSS: Now Michael Brown, who resigned yesterday, came under a lot of
criticism for the way he handled the hurricane and, also, for not having much
disaster experience. Now he apparently wasn't the only person at FEMA who
didn't have a lot of experience in emergency response. The union that
represents FEMA employees wrote to Congress in June of 2004 complaining that,
quote, "Seasoned staff members are being pushed aside to make room for
inexperienced novices and contractors." What do you know about that
Mr. LIPTON: Well, if you look at the top ranks of FEMA employees, you have
Patrick Rhode, who's the chief of staff, who was basically an advance man for
the Bush campaign. You have Scott Morris, who's a deputy chief of staff,
who'd worked for--as a media strategist for President Bush during his primary
and also in the Bush-Cheney campaign. So, I mean, it's hard to argue that
some of the top people at an agency that's all about emergency response--you
know, that they're basically politicos, and, you know, they did not have a
great deal of experience in dealing with tornadoes, hurricanes or earthquakes.
GROSS: Now your article said that because under the Bush administration FEMA
redefined its role as being subordinate to state and local governments in
offering assistance, that that meant that with Katrina the agency most
experienced in dealing with disasters and with access to the greatest
resources followed rather than led. How do you think that affected the
coordination between state, city and the federal government?
Mr. LIPTON: I think that the single biggest failure in the aftermath of
Katrina was the inability of the state, local and federal governments to be
able to commandeer enough buses to get people out of the Superdome and the
convention center quickly. And for FEMA executives, in defending the time it
took them to get the buses there, starting Wednesday night, really, and
Thursday and Friday in big numbers, said, `But we were not asked to help with
buses until Wednesday.' But, I mean, if you see tens of thousands of people
packed into a stadium, who are--you know, some of whom are already dying from,
you know, the heat and the lack of sufficient food and water, you know,
wouldn't you already be requisitioning buses and sending them in? But
FEMA--you know, they felt as if they needed to have a request before they
actually participated in the process of lining up those buses.
GROSS: But why wouldn't the state or city have made such an obvious request?
Mr. LIPTON: Well, again, I mean, the state has some--you know, fell down here
as well. The state, first of all, should have been able to essentially push a
button and line up hundreds of buses if they knew that they were going to use
the Superdome as a place to assemble that many people. But they didn't have a
plan in place for how they were going to arrange for all those buses to
evacuate the Superdome. So, therefore, they were desperately calling around
to all the parishes in Louisiana, trying to convince the local officials to
send in their school buses. And once you had the law and order breakdown, the
parish officials were hesitant to allow their bus drivers to go into the
chaos. And so the state initially tried to do it on its own and then
desperately went to FEMA. And as a result you basically had three days of
people cooking in the Superdome and in the convention center and some of them
GROSS: Have you gotten a sense of what happened behind the scenes in
Washington, what the debate was like within the Bush administration and within
FEMA about what the role of FEMA should be?
Mr. LIPTON: I think I--you know, after this whole thing starts to unfold, as
of Tuesday, when the city is flooded, the big question among Washington was
whether or not the federal government should essentially federalize the rescue
effort and whether or not they should send in active-duty troops immediately,
take over the National Guard troops that were under control of Governor Blanco
in Louisiana and essentially make it a federal response. And there was a
debate within the White House as to whether or not that was an appropriate
act. And ultimately they decided that they were not going to do that, and as
a result there was a slowdown in the delivery of federal troops.
GROSS: Did the--you write that the White House actually considered sending
active-duty troops to impose order but that the Pentagon didn't want to do
that. What was that disagreement or debate like? What was it about?
Mr. LIPTON: Well, it goes back to, you know, a law that's been on the books
for, you know, over a hundred years that prohibits the use of active-duty
federal troops in a law enforcement role inside the United States. And the
only time that that can occur is if the president declares essentially a state
of emergency and federalizes the National Guard troops and then can send in
active-duty troops to act as almost police officers. The last time that
happened was during the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. And--but the White
House was reluctant to do that, and the Pentagon was also reluctant to get its
active-duty troops in the midst of a law enforcement role. But--and the
governor of Louisiana did not want to let the federal government control her
National Guard troops. So this debate was going on for a couple of days, and
as a result the delivery of active-duty troops was slow.
GROSS: Do you understand why the governor wanted to control the National
Mr. LIPTON: Well, the governor says that she did not actually hear this
request until Friday evening, after she felt they had actually taken care of
the worst of the looting and the violence. And at that point she didn't
understand why the Bush administration would want to take control of her
National Guard troops. And she and her commanding general felt that they were
in the best position to know how to deploy the available National Guard
resources. And essentially they were running the show, and they wanted to
continue to run the show. And they felt that--they welcomed active-duty
troops to assist them, but they did not want to hand over control.
I think that historically governors have been reluctant to allow the federal
government to assume control of their own National Guard troops. It's a
matter of pride. It's also a sense that they better understand where the
troops should be deployed and what the needs are in their own state.
GROSS: Now Louisiana and Mississippi at the time of the hurricane each had
about 3,000 National Guard troops deployed in Iraq. How did the troops
deployed in Iraq and the equipment from the National Guard in Iraq--how do you
think that affected the ability of New Orleans to respond to the hurricane?
Mr. LIPTON: Well, ultimately, Louisiana was able to preposition about 4,000
troops prior to the arrival of Katrina. You know, I mean, the governor,
herself said, you know, if they had another 3,000 troops, that would have made
a difference. Now exactly how this would have played out differently is
impossible to predict, but, you know, that's almost twice as many troops. You
could have had, you know, say, 4,000 focusing on rescue and a couple thousand
focusing on law and order.
So, I mean, you know, it's hard to really replay it and to see exactly, you
know, whether or not there would have been the chaos that there was, whether
or not the rescues would have gone quicker, whether or not those people
would--you know, 43 people would have died in a hospital. But clearly there
would have been more National Guard resources to speed the evacuation and to
prevent the kind of lawlessness that occurred.
GROSS: What are some of the things that FEMA tried to do but that were either
delayed or misplaced or went wrong in some way?
Mr. LIPTON: Well, for example, they have 28 urban search and rescue teams
that are positioned in locations around the United States. They're basically
fire departments that have specially trained teams. They only sent seven of
them to the region in advance of Katrina. And, you know, that's more than, in
fact, they almost ever send--or perhaps ever sent before. But the warning
that was issued on Sunday by the National Weather Service, as Katrina was
approaching New Orleans, really was terrifying. I mean, it was--they were
expecting a city that really was going to be wiped out. And not only did they
only send seven of the 28 teams, but it took some of these teams a couple of
days to get into the proper location. And so, you know, FEMA had trouble
getting its resources into the city of New Orleans, into some of these
parishes that were most hard hit. And it really--it slowed down their
capacity to help the people that were most in need.
GROSS: My guest is New York Times reporter Eric Lipton. He's joining us from
Baton Rouge. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Joining us from Baton Rouge is Eric Lipton. He's a national
correspondent for The New York Times and covers homeland security issues.
FEMA stopped some supplies from coming in. What can you tell us about that?
Mr. LIPTON: I think that it's hard to know exactly. One of the things I
learned during the World--in the aftermath of the World Trade Center was that
there were so many offers of assistance coming in that it's hard for, you
know, a federal agency like FEMA to know when to accept and not to accept
those kinds of things. What they had to do is focus on what they know they
can deliver. So there clearly were many things that were offered to FEMA, to
the federal government in the days immediately following Katrina's arrival
and some things that clearly would have helped that they turned down.
There was an ambulance company that was willing in one of the parishes to help
evacuate and provide medical assistance, but FEMA was not, you know, taking
them up on their offer. New Mexico was offering to send in National Guard
very quickly, and they did not--they were not allowed to move in immediately.
And so--and Amtrak apparently was ready to start running trains, we're told,
but they were not allowed to for several days. So--but, again, it's
hard--you'd have to dissect each one of those individually to really know how
ready were each one of these parties to deliver the services. And did FEMA
end up costing lives or just preventing, you know, a service that couldn't
actually have helped? And I don't know the answer to that right now.
GROSS: Now you write that hundreds of firefighters who responded to a
nationwide call for help were held up for two days in Atlanta by FEMA before
getting to New Orleans. And they were held up for a couple of days of
training on community relations and sexual harassment. Do you know why that
Mr. LIPTON: FEMA says that these firefighters were going to go into New
Orleans and other damaged areas to serve as community relations officers and
not as rescue personnel, and so, therefore, they felt it was appropriate to
give them this sensitivity training. It really infuriated the firefighters,
who were, you know, desperate to try to help in any way. And, you know--and
then you have, you know, hundreds of thousands of people who are angry because
of their inability to reach FEMA and to register for assistance. So it's hard
to understand why they thought, in such a, you know, obvious crisis, that it
was appropriate to do that kind of--you know, sitting people down for days
before they really got in and were helping out.
GROSS: You write that the leaders in Louisiana were so overwhelmed by the
scale of the storm that they were not only unable to manage the crisis; they
were not always exactly sure what they needed. How specifically was the state
or the city supposed to ask for help?
Mr. LIPTON: Well, one of the most important lessons from September 11th was
the need to have an extremely redundant communications system, so that, you
know, almost no matter what happens you're able to--the leaders are able to
talk to the first responders on the front line. That completely failed here
in Katrina, and they--the governor and the state officials were--they just
were not able to reach the mayor of New Orleans, the president of Jefferson
Parish, the next-largest jurisdiction down here. And so they didn't know what
the needs were, and so they were unable to ask FEMA--to tell them, `Well,
we've got, you know, 5,000 people in this neighborhood. We've got 10,000
people there. We need medical assistance here.'
And at one point the governor actually went into Jefferson Parish on two
occasions to try to find the president of Jefferson Parish just to find out
what his needs were, and she couldn't find him. To think that the governor,
you know, felt that she should take the time to do that and ultimately was
unsuccessful is an expression of the kind of communications breakdowns that
GROSS: At the start of Katrina you were covering the story from Washington,
and then you moved to Baton Rouge and were covering it from there. Does the
story look completely different when you're trying to see it from the eyes of
the federal government and FEMA than how it looks when you actually move to
Louisiana and start talking to, you know, local and state officials?
Mr. LIPTON: I think that thing that you appreciate when you're on the ground
here is just that--the scale of this catastrophe. I mean, I flew into
Jackson, Mississippi, because I couldn't get a flight into Baton Rouge. And
then I drove down, you know, through Mississippi into Louisiana. I mean, even
in Jackson, it's, you know, a couple hundred miles inland--I mean, just as you
come out of the airport, you're seeing trees down, signs down, damage. And, I
mean, it--you know, as the federal government says, you know, this is
something like 90,000 square miles of devastation, you know, or at least
damage and complete devastation along the coast.
And I think that when you see it, you begin to appreciate just how enormous
the challenge was here and why, you know, logistically speaking, you know,
even in a country as rich and powerful and, you know--as the United States,
immediately responding to this as comprehensively as the American public would
like and as comprehensively as the people who desperately need wanted was
going to be very hard. And I think it's easier to see that when you're on the
ground here. And you just drive through mile and mile of area of damage.
GROSS: Now you're staying in Baton Rouge. Would you set the scene for us
there and tell us how Baton Rouge has been changed?
Mr. LIPTON: The most different--the biggest difference here in Baton Rouge is
just how overwhelmed it is. This city's population has been perhaps doubled
or tripled. Even just getting, you know, down the street here is--you have to
fight--there's so much traffic. The city is--you know, the services, the
roads and everything else is just packed with people. It's--this has become a
refugee town for some of the residents of New Orleans and many of the
businesses. So, I mean, it's strange because here you are in a city, you
know, that everything's operating, and the damage is--there are trees that are
down, but the damage is quite curtailed. And just next door, you know,
literally, is New Orleans, where the devastation is overwhelming. So, you
know, you know it's happened, but at the same time there's a real distance
between the two worlds.
GROSS: Eric, you co-wrote a book a few years ago about the World Trade
Center, about how it was built and how it was destroyed by terrorist attack.
Of course, Sunday was the anniversary of that attack, and you were covering
the catastrophe in New Orleans. And I'm just wondering what it's been like
these past few days to be thinking about the anniversary of September 11th
and, at the same time, to be in the middle of covering, you know, a natural
Mr. LIPTON: I think it--one of the things that I appreciate is, you know, the
sense of--the overwhelming, you know, sense of catastrophe that we all had in
New York on September 11th and the question as to whether or not we could ever
return to normal and the sense that this was such a war zone in Lower
Manhattan, where I lived, not far from the World Trade Center. And, you know,
four years out, you know, it's hard to remember just how overwhelmed we were.
And I think that's something here that's important to keep in mind. Even, you
know, with a city like New Orleans that is now empty--that's largely empty to
people and completely flooded, that, you know--look at where New York is at
now and its capacity to sort of rise from such a catastrophe. And I don't
know. I mean, it's just--I think the thing that I reflected upon is this
resilience of--and how people are able to overcome even things that seem
GROSS: You know, in addition to writing about the World Trade Center and now
covering the hurricane, you were also in Banda Aceh after the tsunami, so
you've been covering a lot of disasters in the past few years. And is that
making you feel either any more vulnerable or any more toughened, you know,
seeing all of this human suffering and disaster?
Mr. LIPTON: I think it's made me more humble and also given me, you know, a
greater sense of just how finite, you know, life is and, you know, how much it
has to do with sort of where you're standing and whether or not you're lucky.
I mean, thinking about, for example, people standing on the 78th floor at the
World Trade Center, the sky lobby where--in the south tower where the
airplane--the bottom part of the airplane impacted, and talking to, you know,
one woman who was standing next to another man, and she survives and the guy
standing right next to her was killed in the impact.
And, you know, it's just quirks of fate, I think, sometimes that is the
difference between who lives and who dies. And I just have seen that over and
over again now, at the World Trade Center; in Indonesia, you know, the one
member of the family that's still alive and every other member of their family
is dead. And here, you know, the difference between life and death is
just--it's hard to understand. But it's something that--I think it consumes
people. They want to know that answer, and I'm not able to give them. But
it's something that people want to understand, why that is.
GROSS: Eric Lipton, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. LIPTON: Sure. Thank you.
GROSS: Eric Lipton recorded earlier today from Baton Rouge. He's a national
correspondent for The New York Times and covers homeland security issues.
Coming up, we remember Fats Waller's guitarist, Al Casey. He died Sunday.
This is FRESH AIR.
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Profile: Remembering Al Casey, who died Sunday at age 89
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. FATS WALLER: (Singing) I had no romance, no heavenly bliss. I never
wanted a goodnight kiss. Then all at once up jumped you with love. Can you
TERRY GROSS, host:
The guitarist on that Fats Waller recording is Al Casey. He died Sunday at
the age of 89. Casey had played with Waller from the early 1930s until
Waller's death in 1943. He later freelanced in many bands and played with
saxophonist King Curtis in the late '50s and early '60s. For about 20 years,
beginning in 1981, he played with the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band.
In May of 2004, we paid tribute to Fats Waller to celebrate the centennial of
his birth. Our guest, guitarist and singer Marty Grosz, performed Waller's
songs. We also called Casey at his home in New York for a brief chat. First,
Marty Grosz and I talked about Casey.
(Soundbites of May 2004 broadcast)
GROSS: Marty, was Al Casey influential on you? What do you--how would you
describe Al Casey as a guitarist and his importance in Fats Waller's group?
Mr. MARTY GROSZ (Singer/Guitarist): Well, there was no amplification for
guitars in those days, so Fats was one of the few bands where you heard the
guitar and, indeed, where the guitar was frequently featured either backing up
his vocals or in solos. Al got a lot of solo space on the Waller recordings
in that--during those years. And you just didn't get that with the big bands,
and you didn't get it with a lot of little bands either. Either they didn't
have a guitar, or if they did, the guy just played rhythm. So I think he was
GROSS: There is one recording that Al Casey's very prominently featured on
and he gets to solo. What recording is that?
Mr. GROSZ: With Fats, that would be "Buck Jumping," yeah. It's nice that he
got the feature. He deserved it, you know.
(Soundbite of "Buck Jumping")
GROSS: Well, I think we have Al Casey on the phone now.
Al Casey, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you for joining us in this centennial
celebration of Fats Waller.
Mr. AL CASEY (Guitarist): Yes, thank you.
GROSS: And with me here is guitarist and singer Marty Grosz. What was it
like to play with Fats Waller? Can you talk a little bit about that?
Mr. CASEY: Oh, it was a time. It was wonderful. It was a very good
experience for me. It was fun music.
GROSS: It sure was. And how did you meet Fats Waller?
Mr. CASEY: Well, our two families knew each other. I met him through a part
of my family. I'd known him and his clan, and his clan kind of got to me in a
way, you know. And so I tried to combine both of them, his playing and my
GROSS: You know, Fats Waller was famous for not only being a great musician
and songwriter, but he was fat, which was how he got his nickname. He also
drank a lot, and that helped, I think, ruin his health. He died of pneumonia
in 1943. Did you ever worry about his health when you were playing with him?
Mr. CASEY: Oh, did I ever worry about him? Of course I did. But he seemed
to be all right, and, you know, I didn't know all that much was wrong with him
until it happened, you know. And he kind of shocked me. Well, you know kind
of what it did to me.
Mr. CASEY: You can imagine.
GROSS: Yeah. Are you doing anything to celebrate the Fats Waller centennial?
Mr. CASEY: I've had a lot of nice calls ...(unintelligible), too, you know.
And I haven't made it out, but, I mean, I know about it, and it's kind of--oh,
well, you know. You know what I feel probably.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you for spending some of this time with us.
Mr. CASEY: Well, I want to thank you for having me.
GROSS: Al Casey recorded in 2004 on the occasion of the centennial of Fats
Waller's birth. Casey died of colon cancer Sunday at the age of 89. He would
have turned 90 on Thursday. His planned birthday celebration will now be a
musical memorial service.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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