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New Orleans' Levees Withstand Nudge From Gustav


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

New Orleans residents got another reminder that their lives could change in a day, but when they return to their empty city this time around they should find most things just about the same. Hurricane Gustav passed by New Orleans, and NPR's John Burnett, who's on the line. John, good morning.

JOHN BURNETT: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about the situations you do have to think about if you have an empty city. How's security?

BURNETT: Security is impressive. There are about 1,500 New Orleans police that are patrolling the streets constantly with their blue lights blinking, another 1,500 National Guard. We heard last night at a press conference, amazingly, they've made only two arrests in the last 24 hours. That was as of about eight o'clock last night - one for the looting of a gas station here in uptown New Orleans, the other for a citizen who stole gasoline. And really, there are just very, very few people in town. As we know, the evacuation was really successful. And also, just a lot of private security going on.

I know driving in the streets, everyone who has stayed back in their houses is heavily armed. Yesterday, we talked to a couple, they were sipping champagne with a 9 mm strapped to this waist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: It's a very stylish way to sip champagne.

BURNETT: It really is. It's very New Orleans style.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about a different kind of security: security from the water. Many of us spent time yesterday looking at that video of water splashing over a retaining wall, over a levee. Has everything held?

BURNETT: As of now, everything has held, and there was enormous relief in the voices of city officials last night, that even as you saw those waves splashing over the top of the Industrial Canal, the floodwalls held, some of which were new since Katrina. We heard from Mayor Ray Nagin last night at this press conference in city hall, and this is what he had to say.

Mayor RAY NAGIN (New Orleans, Louisiana): I was hoping that this would happen, that we would be able to stand before America and before everyone and say that we had some successes with the levee system. I feel really good about it. Now, what did it prove? It proved that the city can handle a Category 3 storm, that have winds of Category 3 that hit us and then dropped down to a Category 2. Is that good enough? No.

BURNETT: And so what he meant is that the city still needs to push the Army Corps of Engineers to complete all the work that they had going on before Gustav for the 100-year storm protection system and to complete the wetlands restoration.

INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR's John Burnett. He is in New Orleans this morning. And, John, of course, in the last 24 hours, we've heard about people who are in Shreveport, people who are in Dallas, people who are in Baton Rouge, people who fled to those locations maybe thinking they might never get back to New Orleans. Now, they must be thinking how quickly could I get back?

BURNETT: And that's the big question: When came people come home? This turned out to be such a small storm, really only tropical storm-force winds here in the city. Everyone's going to be very anxious to get back, and mindful that it took weeks and weeks and sometimes months to get back after Katrina.

The mayor last night assured them that it would be a matter of days, not weeks. But he said there's a lot to do now. There are still live wires down in the street. I'm looking out over a darkened city right now from the front window of the NPR bureau. Power is still out to almost - more than half of this city. The streets still have quite a bit of debris, a lot of big oak limbs down. Hospitals are on skeleton crews.

And so, in order to get citizens back, they're going to have to bring this city back. And that's still going to take them a few days.

INSKEEP: Well, very briefly, are officials now essentially taking the attitude we know how to handle a hurricane now?

BURNETT: Well, that's a really interesting question because there were some officials last night at the press conference that said we're concerned now because this ended up to be such a small storm, that the old complacency will be back.

The first storm after Katrina, we sort of expected there would be good evacuation. But now those who stayed home and decided to ride it out are feeling kind of smug that this wasn't too bad after all. And so how do they get people's attention the next time a storm approaches New Orleans?

INSKEEP: Okay. John, thanks very much.

BURNETT: My pleasure, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's John Burnett, speaking by satellite phone from New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.