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Tom Abrahams' journal from New Orleans

Sunday, August 29, 2010

ABC13 Eyewitness News Anchor Tom Abrahams gives a unique look at New Orleans today, five years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the area. Tom will be blogging and posting photos on this page throughout the weekend, so be sure to check back here for more on the fifth anniversary of Katrina.

SATURDAY

A po-boy sandwich for lunch

At the Parkway Bakery, the president had a fried shrimp po-boy for lunch. It is not known what Michelle and the daughters ate. The restaurant had six feet of water after Katrina, according to Sandra Kruse, the restaurant's office manager. It reopened in December 2005, just a few months after the storm.

"It's an honor to have met the president and his family," Kruse said. "They're so beautiful."

She said the restaurant had 20 minutes advance notice that they would be serving lunch to the First Family. The motorcade was back on the road by about 12:50 p.m.

Awaiting words from the President

We are on the campus of Xavier University in New Orleans. Later today, President Obama will speak at the University Center here to commemorate the 5th anniversary of Katrina. It is the second time that the President has spoken at this Catholic school since Katrina hit in August 2005. In 2006, he was a first term Illinois senator (elected in 2004) when he addressed the first post-Katrina graduating class.

In his speech, he talked of responsibility and giving back and perseverance:

"Remember witnessing the pain that neglect and indifference can cause," he said. " How entire neighborhoods in this city were left to drown because no one thought to make sure that every person had the means to escape. Remember what happens when responsibilities are ignored and bucks are passed - when the White House blames FEMA and FEMA blames the state of Louisiana and pretty soon no one's fixing the problem because everyone thought somebody else would. And whenever you're tempted to view the poor or the ill or the persecuted as 'those people' - people in their own world with their own problems - remember always your neighbors in places like the 9th ward; men and women and children who, just like you, wanted desperately to escape to somewhere better."

It will be interesting to hear how he frames what the White House and FEMA have done since he's taken office. Last week, the White House reminded the press of various post-Katrina efforts the Obama administration has undertaken:

Since taking office, the Obama Administration has cut bureaucratic red tape to provide residents of the Gulf Coast with the tools that they need to recover from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In total, the President, Vice President, Cabinet-level officials, and other key agency heads (FEMA, SBA, Navy, CNCS, NOAA) have visited the Gulf Coast more than 155 times. The Administration has eliminated red tape that delayed assistance, including obligating nearly $2.42 billion in Public Assistance funds for Louisiana and Mississippi that had been stalled for years. The Administration also has worked to improve overall disaster preparedness, response, and recovery, so that the Gulf Coast and all of the country will be more resilient and better able to handle future disasters.

While families have returned to area, houses have gone up, schools have reopened, and businesses have been rebuilt, there is more work to do. This Administration is committed to working with the people of the Gulf region to get the job done.

The release also included a link: http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/rss_viewer/katrina-rita_anniversary_fact_sheet.pdf.

But this speech today will be about more than Katrina. The President is expected to discuss the Gulf Coast economy and recovery from the BP oil spill. As much as anything else right now, the oil (and chemical dispersant) effect on the Louisiana fishing/shrimping industry is of huge concern here.

This will be the eleventh time I've seen President Obama speak, the third since his inauguration. He is always better in large settings than in small, I think. I've seen him in settings as large as his swearing in and the election night event at Grant Park in Chicago to a meeting with two dozen college students in Michigan. I always get the impression his energy and his connection to the audience is far more effective in a grand setting. (John McCain, I think, was the opposite; more engaging up close, not as much in a large setting.) Bill Clinton has the rare gift of being able to work large and small crowds into a relative frenzy.

Today's event is in a relatively intimate setting. I'll be interested to see how he fares (even with a friendly audience), especially on such a somber occasion.

Thanks for reading,. TA

Not a doubt about rebuilding

I am standing on Caffin Street in New Orleans' lower 9th Ward watching people celebrate.

Anyone who ever thought New Orleans and its people wouldn't rebuild, clearly doesn't know this city.

Much as Texans have a pride in their state that is unmatched in its zeal and intensity, New Orleanians are that way about their home.

It is probably fair to say New Orleans was a politically and socially dysfunctional town. But it relishes in its blemishes and faults and makes no excuses for them.

There are those here, as there are in a lot of places, looking for handouts. But the vast majority of working class and middle class adults here don't seem to want anything for free. They want to move on with their lives.

The city estimates 91 percent of those who left did come back. And given that the business and tourist districts suffered minimal damage five years ago, there was no doubt New Orleans would rebuild&at least not from anyone who knows the city and its people.

Wet memorial weekend

It is raining in New Orleans. It is appropriate, maybe, that the weather has turned sour on a weekend that serves as much a memorial s anything else.

We just spent an hour with a group of homeowners in Spring Lake. It is in East New Orleans and of the 200 homes here, 40 are abandoned. We spoke with the residents about their frustration over those who left, didn't come back, and can't let go. They each have different and interesting thoughts about what they'd like to see happen to the vacant homes. You'll get to meet them on Eyewitness News @ 6.

Now we're headed back to the lower 9th Ward to finish shooting a story for tonight @ 10PM. More on that later.

Thanks for reading. TA

FRIDAY

Still not over Katrina's aftermath

The wounds in New Orleans run deep.

After my six o'clock live shot, a man approached me and asked me, "Why does the media get enjoyment from talking about Katrina? Why are you so amused by it?"

I told him that I wasn't amused, that I had family impacted by the storm, and that I found nothing funny about Katrina or the resulting floods. He told me that he'd rather be in Iraq or Afghanistan than live through another lawless post-Katrina New Orleans. He told me he wanted to forget about it.

Then a woman approached us and told me that she was a Katrina survivor and clearly wanted to tell me her story. She averted her eyes when she talked, but she recalled with clarity her fear. She told me about sleeping with a baseball bat, afraid that thugs would break into her home. She admitted looting a grocery store for food. The more she talked about it the more quickly she spoke, the more she fidgeted. She told me and the other man that she didn't want to forget.

I listened to them both for a half hour before returning to the live truck.

One wanted to forget. The other did not.

And that is the oddity of this anniversary/remembrance/commemoration of what happened on 8/29/2010 and the ensuing days. Some want to remember. Others want to forget.

The talk radio shows here are overrun with callers wanting to share their stories. I can imagine there are just as many who have the radio off. They've hidden their remotes and won't watch the ubiquitous coverage on television.

That is what happens with tragedy. And that's what this was. No hyperbole.

People cope in different ways. Some act, some talk, some try to forget.

And some listen.

No ordinary restaurant

It's just before 11am in New Orleans sixth ward. It is sunny, hot, and bayou humid. But there is a line of people on the corner of St. Anne's Street that stands a dozen deep. They are waiting for Willie Mae's restaurant to open. And the second it does, they file in for what some food critics have called the best fried chicken in America.

But this is not just a restaurant. It is much more than that to this still recovering part of New Orleans.

Photographer Darnell Walker and I will eat some lunch... and share a bite (or soundbite) with you on Eyewitness News at 4pm.

A different meaning of 'back to school'

We've spent part of our morning at the MLK charter school in New Orleans lower 9th Ward.

Before the storm, there were six schools in this community. Now there is one.

MLK is a K-12 charter school with 800 students. There is a waiting list of 500. It is a remarkable story that we'll share with you at 6PM. You'll find out why the students say this is a home as much as it is a school.

A tale of two cities

New Orleans is, to steal from Charles Dickens, a tale of two cities.

There is the French Quarter and St. Charles Avenue, which sparkle with the charm of a pre-Katrina, pre-flood New Orleans. And there is the 9th ward, and the 7th ward, and other residential areas that are still struggling to recover.

Today, on Eyewitness News, we will share with you a myriad of stories about the New Orleans that is working to recover. From a restaurant owner, whose business is better than ever, to a group of volunteers rebuilding houses five years after Katrina (K5 or K+5 is what they call it here), we will show you how life has improved and how it hasn't.

We'll also introduce you to a group of Crescent City residents who've dedicated their lives to holding the Army Corp of Engineers responsible for what they call "the federal flood of 2005." We spent two hours with them Thursday night, and some more time with them this morning. They are passionate in their beliefs and do not trust the new levees built to replace the ones that failed five years ago.

And we'll take you to a school in the lower 9th ward. MLK Charter School is one of the few schools in that devastated part of New Orleans that rebuilt and is thriving. You'll note the attached pictures of another 9th ward school that is boarded up. The last date posted on its announcement sign is August of 2005. It sits in the middle of a neighborhood.

The city has offered bus tours to the media to help us gain a fair and broad perspective of New Orleans in 2010. We've not taken the trip. Instead, we've walked the streets and talked to homeowners and residents and activists who remember 8/29/05 like it was yesterday. And despite the pain it's caused them, they refuse to forget it.

There is no way we could possibly tell you everyone's story or touch on every aspect of what is a truly unique American City. But we can tell you that those who call New Orleans home have seen the worst of times and look with unyielding optimism toward the best of times.

See you on the air, live from New Orleans, today at 4, 5, 6, and 10PM on Eyewitness News.

I'll post pictures and more thoughts today, tomorrow, and Sunday.

Thanks for reading. TA

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hurricane, louisiana, local, tom abrahams
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