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Katrina: An Account of 'What Went Wrong'

Disaster science specialist Ivor Van Heerden is the cofounder and deputy director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Center and director of the Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes. His new book is The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina -- the Inside Story from One Louisiana Scientist.


Other segments from the episode on August 29, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 29, 2006: Interview with Ivor van Heerden; Interview with Father Doug Doussan and Sister Kathleen Pitman.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Disaster science specialist Ivor van Heerden discusses
Hurricane Katrina preparations, destruction and rebuilding

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Ivor van Heerden has spent much of the past year looking into what
went wrong during Hurricane Katrina from his perspective as a disaster science
specialist and hurricane researcher. So on this one-year anniversary, we
invited him to talk with us. Van Heerden is the deputy director of the
Louisiana State University Hurricane Center. He's one of the leaders of Team
Louisiana, a group of six LSU professors and three independent engineers
investigating the levee failure for the state's Department of Transportation
and Development. And he's the director of the Center for the Study of Public
Health Impacts of Hurricanes. Van Heerden has written a book about Katrina
called "The Storm."

Ivor van Heerden, welcome to FRESH AIR. After preparing for a hurricane for
so long and creating models to forecast the consequences of a hurricane, what
was it like a year ago to actually live through that hurricane?

Mr. IVOR van HEERDEN: You know, it really dawned on us on the Saturday
night, with landfall being on Monday, when our first model runs showed that
the city would flood. And I remember going to one of the fellows I work with,
Marc Levitan, and saying, `My golly! This is it. This is the big one.' And,
you know, feeling an absolute chill and dread because we knew then that within
48 hours there would be a fairly significant loss of life and a lot of damage.

GROSS: What are the ways that you feel your models were used by firefighters
or the police or, you know, the mayor, the FEMA, whomever, to help figure out
what was going to happen and what could be done about it?

Mr. van HEERDEN: Well, we're not sure what the mayor's office did with the
data or FEMA, but we know that the fire chiefs in New Orleans got color
printouts of the storm-surge maps, placed them in Ziploc bags, gave them to
their crews and said, `OK, this area, this neighborhood is going to flood,
based on Ivor's model. We need to go there now before the storm arrives and
anybody who hasn't been evacuated, we need to move them out of those areas so
that they won't be flooded, so that we won't have to come in and rescue them
later.' So they, in essence, started the rescue early and moved a large number
of people out of harm's way. And those same fire chiefs told us that the
model did an excellent job right up until the levees failed, and then
obviously the model results no longer held.

GROSS: Well, you know, during this anniversary week of the hurricane, we're
hearing a lot about people who have moved back to New Orleans and who are
starting to rebuild. Do you think that New Orleans is prepared enough for
another hurricane to justify the rebuilding that's under way now?

Mr. van HEERDEN: Well, that's a tough question. New Orleans isn't any safer
now than it was before Katrina. The repairs have been robust but there are
some areas that don't look very good in terms of repair. We're hoping that
some of the new, untested technology the corps has brought in with floodgates
at some of the canals would work. But for the longer term, we have to
recognize that Katrina was a fast-moving Category 3 storm that actually missed
New Orleans. If we had a Category 3 storm that moved a little slower than
Katrina but had passed west of the city, we could fill up every single part of
New Orleans without a levee even having to fail, and that's--includes that
part of the city south of the river that we call the West Bank. So we're a
long way away from having the real security that we would like.

GROSS: In the scenario you just described, the water would overtop the levee?

Mr. van HEERDEN: It would overtop the levees from Lake Pontchartrain in the
north and from the Barataria Bay, south of the West Bank.

GROSS: So are you saying you think that rebuilding is premature, that things
just have to hurry up with the rebuilding of the levees?

Mr. van HEERDEN: Well, I think the rebuilding has to go on because we have
to get New Orleans back on its feet. It's a very important part of the local
economy, as well as the US economy. But in parallel with that, we could now
be starting with the large-scale coastal restoration projects that are needed.
We could be starting with some of the major barriers and floodgates and

Offshore coastal Louisiana, just to give you an example, we have excellent
sand resources in federal waters that we could mine and use that sand to
rebuild the barrier islands. They're our line of defense. That's a project
that could have been started right after Katrina.

GROSS: Would you describe why the barrier islands are an important line of

Mr. van HEERDEN: Well, they have two important functions. The first one is
they trip up the waves. So, in other words, in the Gulf of Mexico, in the
case of Katrina, we had 30-foot waves that were rushing towards the shore.
Once they hit the barrier islands, they were knocked down to about seven feet
in height. So they lost a lot of the energy. As a result, they're not that
erosive on the coastal wetland and any of the levee systems they may hit.

Additionally, they can also slow down the surge. Anything that adds friction
to the system that can reduce the surge is beneficial. So the barrier islands
play a very important role. Obviously the wetlands as well.

GROSS: So why have the barrier islands eroded or diminished--or whatever the
right word is--the fact that they're not as robust as they used to be?

Mr. van HEERDEN: Well, a couple of things have gone on. One is they've been
starved of the sediment that they need. And some of that reflects natural
processes. Some of that reflects the way we manage the Mississippi and the
Chippewa Rivers. But more importantly, the barrier islands have been
crisscrossed with different canals, navigational canals, pipeline canals and
so on, and this has disrupted the local hydrology, the local patterns of sand
movement. So as a result, they've shrunk down to probably 15 percent of what
they were 100 years ago.

GROSS: And you're saying we could build them back up again.

Mr. van HEERDEN: Definitely. We have these sand resources offshore. A
number of years ago, I was involved in the mining of marine diamonds in
southern Africa, where we would move gravel off the seafloor from a depth of
150 feet and actually pump it onto the shoreline a number of kilometers behind
us. When it comes to the case of the sand off coastal Louisiana, it's
excellent sand, be very easy to mine. It's only 11 miles, and there's over 13
billion cubic yards of it, so we don't need that much. We don't even need a
10th of it, and we could have some of the most robust barrier islands in the

GROSS: And why are wetlands important when it comes to controlling the impact
of hurricanes?

Mr. van HEERDEN: Well, the wetlands have two very important functions. You
imagine a hurricane approaching the shoreline. On the right hand side, the
winds are blowing towards the land and it's blowing the surge forward. But on
the left hand side, the winds are blowing offshore, so the water in the
wetlands and the bays is dropping as it's moved out to sea, and as a result,
any feature out there--so imagine bushes, trees, grasses, especially our
cypress swamps--sticks up into the wind and it adds a lot of friction. So it
helps reduce the wind energy. In addition, we go back to the right hand side.
As those waters are blown ashore, they start to feel the impact of the ridges
of the little levee system that exist through coastal Louisiana, the natural
levees, as well as the wetlands, and especially where we have the cypress
swamps. We now know from research we've just conducted is that a healthy
wetland reduces the surge by one foot for about every three to four miles of

Recognize that New Orleans has lost about 15 miles of--linearly of its coastal
wetlands. So if we had those wetlands now and they were in healthy condition,
we potentially could have reduced Katrina's surge by about five feet.

GROSS: Why has New Orleans lost so much of its wetlands?

Mr. van HEERDEN: The biggest reason for the loss of our wetlands was the
leveeing of the Mississippi River following the 1927 flood. Prior to that,
when the river flooded the sediments and the nutrients would flow out over the
wetlands, we came along, we leveed the system. We basically made the river a
canal, and now all that richness and goodness goes offshore. So what I tell
my students is imagine if I put an elastic band around my hand, eventually my
hand would die because I've cut off their delivery system. And that's what
we've done. We've basically starved our wetlands to death. And in the case
of New Orleans, we've lost probably more than 500,000 acres of wetlands.

GROSS: And I think that the canals have allowed saltwater into the wetlands.
How does that happen and why is that bad?

Mr. van HEERDEN: Well, we've cut off the sediment supply from the
Mississippi River and then we've exacerbated the problem by dredging a lot of
navigation canals or gas pipeline canals as we've mined the richness of the
oil fields in coastal Louisiana. The net result is we now have shortcuts from
the Gulf of Mexico into some of the freshwater environments. Saltwater moves
up these canals, the plants can't handle it, and they die. So the disruption
in the natural hydrology because of these navigation and pipeline and other
New Orleans gas activity canals has had a very dramatic impact on the wetland
loss. Recognizing that this is a system that's starved, and now you come and
disrupt its natural delivery system.

GROSS: My guest is Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the Louisiana State
University Hurricane Center and author of the book, "The Storm." We'll talk
more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the LSU Hurricane
Center and director of the Center for the Study of Public Health Impacts of

Now you had predicted catastrophe if there was a big hurricane. You predicted
this in a 2005 study. So now that some of your predictions came true, do you
feel like your predictions about what could happen now are being taken

Mr. van HEERDEN: Certainly at the state level and at the level of local
governments, the science is being used far more. I think everybody recognizes
that unfortunately we had it right and that we do have, you know, these tools
that we can utilize. One of the things that we did do through our public
health center was do extensive public opinion surveys. So as a result, we
knew how many people would evacuate, how many people would stay behind, the
basic demographics of those who would stay. We had an idea of how many would
be homeless, how many would be disabled and so on. So that public opinion
data allowed us to really advise the first responders where to be looking
first in terms of those who would be most likely to have the least resources,
so the areas where the poorer people lived or where there were high
concentrations of retirees.

GROSS: You have computer models that can predict how a hurricane might behave
and how that might affect New Orleans. But you don't have a computer model
that can predict how you will behave in the face of that kind of disaster.
Did anything surprise you about how you behaved a year ago?

Mr. van HEERDEN: I think--the thing that surprised me about myself was
somewhere I found an inner strength to be able to get out in front of the
national media and international media and say what needed to be said in terms
of not only the science of what could go wrong but when we saw the failed
recovery efforts that we could then start talking more strongly about what was
needed and the net results of the lack of response. So, you know, there was
some really tough times because as an academic you were, in essence, having to
make political statements. And that's not very popular, certainly in
Louisiana institutions. And I definitely had to take a couple of breaths and
just say, `Well, this is it. I'm going to have to say what has to be said.'

GROSS: Was there a part of you that wanted to go into New Orleans during the
hurricane and actually experience what you could of it, either during or right
after, because it's something you had thought about for so long and planned
for for so long?

Mr. van HEERDEN: Yes, I was torn between getting in my four-wheel drive and
driving right down into New Orleans and obviously the safety of my family. We
live out in the country in an area with a lot of trees, and I knew we'd have
trees come down. So I waited at LSU until the last moment, drove through some
of the storm and then went home. Obviously after we knew that the city was
flooded, we wanted to get down there as quickly as possible. And my first
trip was actually by boat. I crossed Lake Pontchartrain and went into the
city that way.

GROSS: And could you talk a little bit about how the reality of the flood
compared with what you had always pictured from your computer models?

Mr. van HEERDEN: There's absolutely no way that the computer models could
prepare you for what you saw when you actually got down on the ground. You
know, it's one thing to see these computer animations of different colors
filling up a city and flooding neighborhood by neighborhood. But when you get
down there on the ground and you see mile after mile after mile of these
flooded homes, just the roofs visible in some places. In New Orleans East,
the roofs were below water, so you knew in these areas anybody who had stayed
wouldn't have survived. It's an unbelievable experience. Your heart is just
filled like somebody is clutching your heart as you fly around or move around.

And then I think that was followed by determination from all of us in the
hurricane center to really try and understand as much as possible about what
went wrong and why and what we can learn from this. And then that
precipitated the study into why the levees failed.

GROSS: Everybody wants to be right. You were right and that meant
catastrophe. You were right in predicting what were to happen if there was a
big hurricane in New Orleans. I'm sure it's something you kind of wish you
weren't right about. Can you talk a little bit about the kind of mixture of
emotions you had knowing that, on the one hand, you were vindicated, you were
right, on the other hand, it was a catastrophe?

Mr. van HEERDEN: Well, there's absolutely no joy in being right. You know,
there's been a lot of media coverage and I found my ugly mug on TV all over
the world. And it would be much nicer if that was happening because I, you
know, found the cure for cancer or something. So there's no fun in being
right. But I think it's very important to tell the story of Katrina, the good
sides and the bad sides, and to insure that something like this never happens
again. And part of that was to write the book and try and express what I saw
and what I understood, and with the hope that this never, ever happens again.

GROSS: Your book that you just referred to is called "The Storm." Do you see
any opportunities now in New Orleans, since so much was destroyed and has to
be reconceptualized and rebuilt? Are there opportunities, ones that you
haven't yet mentioned, that the city should take advantage of?

Mr. van HEERDEN: Yes. I think, you know, some of the subdivisions that got
destroyed are very low-lying. And certainly if the homes had been elevated,
then they would have been able to have, in essence, absorbed some water. So I
think we have to recognize that what we had in the past didn't work, whether
it was coastal restoration levees or how we built our infrastructure in New
Orleans. And we're going to, as we move forward, as we plan for the
future--it's not only the wetlands, it's not only the levees--we have to build
our city smarter. Some of that is going to be raising the houses. Some of
that is going to be abandoning areas that are low-lying, perhaps creating
parks or ponds. And we're going to have to get a lot smarter in terms of the
infrastructure. We had major problems with power lines and the sewerage
systems and so on. And one thing we could learn is, `Let's bury our power
lines.' If we had our--as they do in many European countries. Once those
power lines are buried, we don't have to worry about them coming down.

So, if you will, nature has given us a chance to plan a 21st century city in a
location that has, if you will, severe drawbacks in that it could be sunk
again if we have another major hurricane.

GROSS: Are you optimistic that New Orleans will emerge as this model 21st
century city? Or do you think things will be done too piecemeal for that to

Mr. van HEERDEN: Unfortunately, right now, I'm not very optimistic. The
political will is not there. There's no consensus. We have different groups
competing with each other as to who is going to actually draw up the plans,
who has the say. Unfortunately, race is a part of the problem. You know, one
keeps hearing that we can't rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward because it's the
lowest lying land. And, in fact, it isn't. It's some of the best land to be
rebuilding because it's close to the Mississippi River and it's higher. So at
this point in time we may have to actually wait until we get through the next
election cycle before we can get a unified voice out there in terms of how
we're going to restore and rebuild New Orleans.

GROSS: You're saying that that neighborhood isn't being rebuilt because of

Mr. van HEERDEN: Well, there are a lot of entities, and a lot of groups are
saying we shouldn't rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward. And my own personal feeling
is that race has a lot to do with it.

GROSS: It was primarily African American and, I believe, poor neighborhood.

Mr. van HEERDEN: It was a poor African-American neighborhood, but a
neighborhood with an enormous amount of culture.

Ivor van Heerden is the deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center and author
"The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina." He'll be back
in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Singer: (Singing) "My darlin' New Orleans, my brawlin' hometown.
You're mad or you're melancholy. How it...(unintelligible). Please set me


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's get back to our interview with Ivor van Heerden, deputy director of the
Louisiana State University Hurricane Center. He directs the Center for the
Study of Public Health Impacts of Hurricanes at LSU, which had started
studying the potential effects of hurricanes on the population of New Orleans
several years before Katrina hit.

So, are you still doing the study? Is this an ongoing study?

Mr. van HEERDEN: Yes. It's not every day you start a study and then end up
with the lab in your back door, so to speak. We are continuing.
Unfortunately, our funding runs out fairly soon. So we are in the process of
getting additional funding. But the study is continuing, and we're very
fortunate in that the funding agency right after Katrina gave me permission to
use our research dollars for operational support. So, for instance, we had
people in New Orleans sampling the water for chemical and bacterial
contamination within five days. And in this way we were able to give the
various medical response crews some idea of what they were looking at.

The mapping, the geographical information system, the GIS mapping, we, as I
mentioned earlier, we moved that into the state emergency operation center and
started mapping for them any bit of information. One of the first things they
wanted to know was: Where are all the nursing homes? In addition, we can
take that database and plot all the 911 calls, and our record was 79 people
saved one day out of their attics. These are folk who could not break through
their attics, had taken refuge in their attics and may have well died there if
we hadn't been able to determine from their cell phone calls where they were

GROSS: What role did your center play in determining where they were located?

Mr. van HEERDEN: Well, the signals were very weak, and a lot of it was text
messages. So, we weren't often getting addresses. But we could, from the
GPS, the global positioning component of the cell phones, we could start
trying to plot where these groups of calls were coming from. And then first
responders could go by boat from house to house to house, knock on the roof in
the general area of where those calls were coming from until they heard a
response and then break open the roof and get the folk out.

GROSS: As someone who has studied the public health impact of hurricanes, are
you relieved that there was no major epidemic after Katrina? Did you expect
that that would be one of the consequences?

Mr. van HEERDEN: Yes, we were very relieved. That was one of our concerns,
especially when the response was to move people from New Orleans across the
United States. One big scare was there were about 11 or 17 residents of New
Orleans who had a drug-resistant form of TB, and they were lost for about two
weeks. In addition, New Orleans is a port city. So, every day we get sailors
in and sailors out, a lot of them from tropical parts of the world. And so
there's always a resident pool of diseases like dengue and malaria. We
obviously have a real mosquito problem, so the concern is that we would spread
some of these diseases through the country. I think the Centers of Disease
Control were very, very worried, as were others, when we started to just
literally ship New Orleanians all over the country without any medical
surveillance beforehand.

GROSS: I believe one of your passions is sailing. Is that right?

Mr. van HEERDEN: Yes. Yes, very much so.

GROSS: After the hurricane, did it take a while to develop a passion for
water again, an interest in being in the water?

Mr. van HEERDEN: Well, to be quite honest, in the last year I've been--I've
sailed my sailboat three times. You know, there's been a--just an enormous
amount of work. And in some ways, it just didn't feel right to go out there
frolicking and sailing while there was all this tragedy around us. So, you
know, I'm looking forward, now that the anniversary has passed, to hopefully
getting a break and maybe doing a little sailing. But, you know, a number of
people asked me before Katrina, `How is it that you could study this death and
destruction, and how could you get into this sort of work?' And there were two
things. I said, number one is, if I save or if our research saves the life of
just one child, then it's all been worth it. And secondly, my relief valve
was to go sailing. So, I'd actually wait sometimes in the winter until we got
these very strong northerlies coming through and I'd go out there in 20, 30
knots and sail my boat by myself. But that was my relief, my release. And
that's in some ways how I kept my sanity.

GROSS: During and after the hurricane, you were and continue to be very
outspoken in your criticisms of the Army Corps of Engineers and their design
for the levees. You've been critical of government response to the hurricane.
Have there been consequences for being so outspoken?

Mr. van HEERDEN: Initially, some of my supervisors at the university
indicated they would prefer I didn't talk to the media, that I needed to
recognize the Katrina story was dead. That created a lot of difficulty, but
those issues have now been resolved. And while, you know, some of upper
administration may not agree with some of my opinions, if you will, they
recognize that we try to always push the best science forward, and certainly,
you know, whether it's the levee studies or anything else, we've always based
our statements on science that we can back up.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. van HEERDEN: Well, thank you so very much for this opportunity.

GROSS: Ivor van Heerden is the deputy director of the LSU Hurricane Center,
and author of the book, "The Storm: What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane

Coming up, Father Doug Doussan and Sister Kathleen Pitman talk about
rebuilding their church in New Orleans and bringing it back to life.

This is FRESH AIR.

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

Interview: Father Doug Doussan and Sister Kathleen Pitman talk
about rebuilding their church and the surrounding neighborhoods

With the help of many volunteers and generous people, Father Doug Doussan and
Sister Kathleen Pitman have been rebuilding their flooded church and bringing
it back to life. But it's a different life than the church had before
Katrina, as we're about to hear. St. Gabriel the Archangel Catholic Church
is located in the Gentilly section of New Orleans and serves Gentilly and
Pontchartrain Park, subdivisions made up primarily of African-American
homeowners, many of them elderly.

Last Sunday 300 people showed up for St. Gabriel's Katrina anniversary
service. That's about half the number of parishioners the church had before
Katrina. But most of the people who did show up came from a distance and have
not moved back to the neighborhood, at least not yet. That neighborhood is
still pretty devastated.

Father Doug is the pastor of St. Gabriel's. Sister Kathleen is the pastoral

Father Doug, Sister Kathleen, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Now, your church is operating again, but what's around it? What does the
surrounding neighborhood look like? Have people come back to the community?

Father DOUG DOUSSAN: We have a number of parishioners who are living in FEMA
trailers on their front lawn. We have a number of others who are living in
their homes, but mostly on the second floor because the first floor was, or
course, the part that was devastated. But they have electricity and air
conditioning, and they're slowly remodeling their first floor. Where my
rectory is, where my residence is, the side street, there are five homes that
were completely demolished, and they're simply open lots. And it really got
to me yesterday. I'd been out of town for a week, both of us had been on
vacation. And when I returned, I noticed my neighbor right across the street,
her house was gone, and it was an empty lot. And that kind of did something
to me.

GROSS: Do you feel like it's part of your job to help fight discouragement
and despair, and give a sense of optimism? And is it hard for you to do that?

Father DOUSSAN: Yes. We feel that's our job. And, yes, it is hard to do it
because both of us are struggling with our own depression over the whole
situation. And the fact that where Sister Kathleen lives, that house was
destroyed. And the rectory where I lived was also destroyed. And we lost a
lot of our possessions. So, we have our own struggle going on, and yet we
know for so many people this represents their whole life's work that's been
washed away by the flood.

GROSS: Is that why you're doing this? I mean, I could make the argument that
you would both be better off moving some place else.

Father DOUSSAN: You're correct.

Sister KATHLEEN PITMAN: Well, depends on what you mean. Yes, physically, we
would be. But I know for myself, I can only say how I felt at the beginning.
Of course, I've had very many moments of second thoughts about it because it
is depressing many times and very difficult to do. But I've felt from the
beginning that this is what I had to do. You know, to be there and to do
whatever I could to help the parishioners, as long as they wanted, as long as
they felt like they wanted to come back. And we don't always know what that
is, we're not always sure we're doing the right thing, and we're often--it's
often very difficult to do.

Father DOUSSAN: Right.

GROSS: When do you become not sure you're doing the right thing? What are
those moments of doubt like?

Father DOUSSAN: When I drive through the neighborhood and I see so many homes
that have been cleaned out and gutted, but there's no other activity going on
there. There doesn't seem to be any attempt to rebuild or to come back. So,
I don't know what those families are thinking. And when I see homes
demolished and empty lots, I'm wondering what percentage of our community will
return and are we making a mistake by encouraging people to come back, rebuild
their home, re-establish their lives there. I wonder sometimes.

GROSS: Let's go back one year ago. Where were each of you when the hurricane
hit, and what was your day like?

Father DOUSSAN: Well, each of us left on Saturday. The hurricane hit on
Monday. We left on Saturday because they began the announcements to mandatory
evacuation of lower Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parishes, civil parishes.
And then they had the volunteer evacuation of Jefferson Parish and the
volunteer evacuation of New Orleans. And I think the handwriting was on the
wall. They were going to soon declare it mandatory. And the highways were
going to be packed. So we decided to close the church on Saturday afternoon
and evacuate. And I went to Baton Rouge to St. Jean Vianney Parish, and
Sister Kathleen also went to Baton Rouge to stay with some fellow religious

Sister PITMAN: And we encouraged our parishioners to also evacuate. Many of
them feel, `Oh, you know, this is not really going to happen. We don't want
to get in that traffic. We're going to come back in two or three days. We're
just going to stay and ride it out.' Thank goodness most of them did not
decide that, but some did.

GROSS: How high were the water levels in your neighborhood?

Father DOUSSAN: Our two subdivisions are on a decline or a slant toward the
lake. And so as you enter the first subdivision of Gentilly Woods, the water
would have been three feet deep, and in the middle of that subdivision, it
would have been five feet, toward the back of the subdivision where the parish
plant is, it was eight feet deep. Then as you go back farther to
Pontchartrain Park, it was up to the roof. It was 11, 12 feet deep. Then, of
course, when the land gets to the lake, it comes back up, and those right
along the lake or the river, of course, were protected. So, we have a sloping
land there, and so the water got deeper the deeper you went into each of the

GROSS: Were any of your parishioners drowned in the hurricane?

Father DOUSSAN: Two.

Sister PITMAN: Two of our men.

Father DOUSSAN: Two of our men...

Sister PITMAN: Two of our older men.

Father DOUSSAN: ...who refused to leave. Their families begged them to
leave, and they refused to. The two of them were drowned. We had one other
parishioner who died of heat exhaustion in one of the nursing homes where she
was properly cared for, but they had lost power and lost air conditioning, and
so she died of heat exhaustion, I guess.

GROSS: When were you able to come back and see your church for the first time
after the storm?

Father DOUSSAN: It was five weeks. The water stayed three weeks. The mayor
would not let us back in for five weeks. So, we came back. Sister Kathleen
and I and the maintenance man drove back into the subdivision five weeks after
the storm. And two of the things we noticed immediately was this thick gray
film of mud that covered everything. It was not nice water, you know, that
flooded this. It was filthy water. And the second thing we noticed was the
silence. There were no children playing, no adults talking. There was not
one other car in the neighborhood. We were the only car that drove in at that
time. And it was just complete silence. And it just seemed to shout to us,
the mud and the silence, there was just no way to bring life back to this
community and to this parish. And yet that was not true.

GROSS: Because everything in your homes and in the church was ruined, you had
to throw--probably nearly everything you owned, you had to throw away.

Father DOUSSAN: Right.

GROSS: Now, you are both clergy. I mean, you're supposed to transcend
attachment to material things. Nevertheless, I'm sure there were things you
were quite attached to and really valued for physical or personal or, you
know, emotional reasons. What were the hardest things for you to lose in the

Father DOUSSAN: Well, for me the hardest thing were my books. I had a
library of about 700 or 800 books, and it wasn't so much the loss of the
books, but I developed the practice about 10 years ago of putting notes on the
back blank pages of the books referring to different pages, page numbers where
I found a particularly interesting insight or fact. And so I must have had
about 200 books that had these notes in the back of them. So, the pain for me
was not just losing the book, but losing all those notes because I could find
whatever I wanted in any of those books very quickly by looking at the notes
in the back of the book.

GROSS: Has there been any advantage in not having that to rely on?

Father DOUSSAN: I'm not sure what you mean by that.

GROSS: Well, sometimes when you don't have the things that you're accustomed
to having, you have to invent new ways of doing it and sometimes that results
in something good.

Father DOUSSAN: I don't think I've found that new way yet.

GROSS: Right.

Father DOUSSAN: I think I might still be looking. I'm mostly mourning what I

GROSS: Yeah. I hear you. Do you feel that your faith has been tested in the
past year?

Sister PITMAN: Yes. I would say so. There were moments, I guess, for me, at
first that I felt sometimes, you know, where is God in all this, and that God
was sort of not causing any of this. I don't believe that. But, God, where
are you, you know? Are you just watching this on the sidelines? And I think
when we started coming back and beginning to get a lot of assistance, as well
as meeting again with our parishioners and to hear them say, people who had
been through much more difficult circumstances than I was, `We know God is
with us.' We know, in spite of losing all their possessions, many cases, their
loved ones, that their faith was still strong. Their faith was still there,
and a rock. And I tell you that has been a great blessing to me and
strengthening my own faith.

Father DOUSSAN: I guess I would say something of the same thing. I guess
I've gone through periods where I've gotten very depressed over the whole
situation and wondered how in the world this could have possibly happened.
The disaster is just so unprecedented. It's so extensive. It's so deep.
It's so all-encompassing. It's just hard to imagine anything being so
enormous. And so, I guess, that's really--I've struggled with that. And I've
searched for God in the midst of that. And I think it's true what Kathleen
said that seeing parishioners who have lost more than I have who maintain such
a strong faith, and they will say in the midst of this, `Well, I know that God
is still with me. I lost all these things, but I know God is still with me.
And I know God is going to take care of me.' And those would be some of the
things they would say. And I just found that so encouraging.

GROSS: In those moments when you have your doubts, do you try to keep those
private or do you share any of those doubts with your parishioners?

Father DOUSSAN: I've occasionally shared in my homilies some of my struggles
with the parishioners. I've shared it more with friends. But, you know, I
guess I've shared it sometimes.

Sister PITMAN: Yes.

GROSS: And what happens when someone in your parish comes to you and
confesses that they feel maybe they're losing their faith because things have
gotten so unimaginably bad?

Sister PITMAN: I think that they feel we're a part of this. You know, we're
not above this. We are not feeling so faith-filled that we don't question God
or question the situation. I think they--one of the consolations for them is
that we're human just like they are. We've suffered just like they're
suffering. And we're all in this together. And I think that is a
strengthening thing for them. And I know it is for me in my relationship with

GROSS: My guests are Father Doug Doussan and Sister Kathleen Pitman, the
pastor and pastoral associate of St. Gabriel the Archangel Church in New
Orleans. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guests are Father Doug Doussan and Sister Kathleen Pitman, the
pastor and pastoral associate of St. Gabriel the Archangel Church in New
Orleans. We're talking about rebuilding the church and bringing it back to

Let's start with something that you consider a genuine sign of hope, the kind
of thing you hang onto when you're having your doubts.

Father DOUSSAN: I think when we gather for worship on Sunday and there are
250, 300 people there, many of whom have driven in from maybe an hour, 45
minutes or an hour to be there. And we sing and we pray, and there's such
strong fellowship. The sign of peace which is part of our liturgy where
people greet one another with the peace of Christ sometimes goes on for five
or 10 minutes and expresses the kind of bond that's there. I think when we're
gathered together as a community and we're worshipping together, to me that is
a great sign of hope because it's sort of saying, number one, nobody is in
this alone. We're in this together and we're here to support each other. And
it's also saying we believe that God is with us and that Christ is in our
midst and that he will help us find a way to restore our homes and our lives.

Sister PITMAN: When I hear someone who's almost 80 years old who is a widow
and who lived alone before Katrina in a very nice home, when I see she's
living in her FEMA trailer and I hear her say, `I'm rebuilding. Of course,
I'm going to rebuild. In fact, I'm not only rebuilding the house the way it
was, I wanted to make some changes in it.' And so she is expanding her home.
And she is after those contractors to be there and to do what they said they
were supposed to do. She's a woman, 80 years old, and to have that kind of
hope and that kind of faith and that kind of spirit is what gives me hope and
faith and spirit.

GROSS: It sounds like a lot of people coming to your church now are
parishioners, but they're no longer living within the actual parish. They're
coming from their new homes. How is that changing the nature of the church to
have this almost, you know, like commuting relationship with the parishioners?
It's more of like a destination church for a lot of the people.

Sister PITMAN: I think we will know better as time goes on how this will
affect us because up till now we have not had a lot of the different ministry
groups or committees meeting. We haven't had the parish school of religion
which met every Sunday. So, now we're trying to get that started again. And
whether or not people will feel like coming back a distance on an evening or
on a Saturday, we'll find out, you know, whether that will be the case.

Father DOUSSAN: I wonder sometimes if people relocate in the surrounding
areas of New Orleans like some of our parishioners already have, but still
come to St. Gabriel for church, whether that's going to get old after a while
and whether they're going to stop traveling that distance to come to church.
However, we started in February and this is August, and some of them have been
doing it for the past five or six months. And so I think it's a sign of their
sense of solidarity with the rest of the congregation.

GROSS: It sounds like your church is going to keep evolving as post-Katrina
New Orleans evolves. You'll probably have functions within the community you
haven't even thought of yet.

Father DOUSSAN: I think that's going to be true.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both very much. And I wish you good luck
and good health in your rebuilding. Thank you.

Father DOUSSAN: Thank you.

Sister PITMAN: Thank you very much, Terry.

GROSS: Father Doug Doussan is the pastor of St. Gabriel the Archangel Church
in the Gentilly section of New Orleans. Sister Kathleen Pitman is the
associate pastor.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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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