Lolis Eric Elie is a native New Orlinean and metro columnist for the Times Picayune. His beat now extends to covering the New Orleans diaspora and so he’s also seen the post-Katrina story from the outside in. He explains why the narrative of Big Easy rebuilding
is not what it appears to be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lolis Eric Elie is a metro columnist for The Times-Picayune. His beat now extends to covering the New Orleans diaspora, so he also sees the coverage from the outside in. Lolis, welcome back to the show. LOLIS ERIC ELIE: Oh, it's a pleasure being back, Brooke. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, when we were there a year and a half ago, there was a lot of talk about The Times-Picayune becoming reinvigorated, more like a scrappy alternative paper, more responsive to all New Orleanians, not just some of them. Has that continued? LOLIS ERIC ELIE: You know, it would be an overstatement to stay that everybody loves us now. But the truth is, particularly in those days after the storm, folks found that The Times-Picayune was the best source of coverage because the national media often missed the kind of details that only local folks familiar with the area could provide them well.
Additionally, despite the fact that The New York Times, National Public Radio and several other news sources have done a good job of maintaining coverage of New Orleans, we have been the most consistent and we've been the one with the clearest local focus. BROOKE GLADSTONE: How has your job in particular changed since Katrina? LOLIS ERIC ELIE: Well, I often ask myself when there will be a month in which the words "Hurricane Katrina" do not appear in my news column. I've taken to talking about the failure of the federal levees rather than Hurricane Katrina as a description of what happened on August 29th and the description of what caused the damage.
But the truth is, either I'm talking about lawsuits that are pending against the Corps of Engineers, talking about attempts to get passage through Congress of a bill that would allow for the investigation of what happened on August 29th, 2005, or I'm writing stories about people who are still being affected by the storm and its aftermath. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's examine this change of terminology. You say you don't refer to Hurricane Katrina any more when referring to the disaster but to the failure of the Army Corps of Engineers. This is a very, very important distinction and it affects the whole narrative. Could you lay that out? LOLIS ERIC ELIE: Well, there really are two narratives that people have gravitated toward in explaining what happened. One of them is that the people of New Orleans and our presumably corrupt politicians did a terrible job, and had we done a better job then we would not have had the kind of problems we had.
A corollary to that narrative is the idea that because of climate change and the poor positioning of New Orleans, there's really nothing that can be done to save the city, and the wisest thing is for all of us to move.
If you look at the homes along the Mississippi Gulf Coast that were flattened as a result of the hurricane, you see the kind of damage that wind can do. If you look at what happened to the City of New Orleans, most of what you find is flood damage. Most of what you find is rising waters created by the failure of the floodwalls designed to protect the city.
The Corps of Engineers failed to follow even its own guideline in the construction of the levees and floodwalls that were supposed to protect the city. BROOKE GLADSTONE: As you've written, Hurricane Katrina wasn't supposed to be more than a category-two storm when it hit New Orleans. The levees and the floodwalls were supposed to withstand a category-three storm. And the Corps acknowledged that their system was badly designed and badly built, a catastrophic failure according to the commander of the Corps, Lieutenant General Carl Strock. LOLIS ERIC ELIE: The anecdote you relate about the admission of the Corps really gets at the heart of what our problem has been with media coverage. On the first day of hurricane season in 2006, the Corps releases its report that it itself had commissioned, and even in this sort of self-analysis it admitted a whole lot of fundamental problems.
Well, that was a big news story the day after it came out. Within the week in news shows, it was dead. The agency responsible for levees and floodwalls and dams and bridges all over the country, when they admit catastrophic error that results in the loss of human life, we think that's a big story. I can't figure out why the rest of the country doesn't find that to be that important.
Don't even worry about us in New Orleans. Worry about your own flooding potential in Sacramento. Worry about the other kinds of projects that endanger you, whatever bridge you have to cross, whatever dam you rely on for protection in whatever part of the country you live in.
I mean, a lot of our frustration is that the country seems to think we are a charity case. And our point is, well, wait - the United States Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for this devastation. If they drove a Mack truck through your living room, they wouldn't say, well, we're going to be nice and pay for it. You know, that ain't the way it works. BROOKE GLADSTONE: I know that you wrote in February, Mardi Gras time, that Hurricane Katrina seemed to confirm, perhaps forever, the sense that New Orleans is a foreign place attached to the United States by geography but distant from it in every meaningful way. By that, do you mean that the rest of Americans seem to see this as foreign aid? LOLIS ERIC ELIE: You can't forget about all the folks who have come and are coming to New Orleans to help and who are indeed frustrated by the inaction of federal government. But because of assumptions about New Orlineans being lackadaisical and party-hopping and so forth, there's a sense that we don't deserve more because we have not taken responsibility.
And that means is that when commentators - and for the most part they've been right-wing commentators - suggest that we are unworthy of assistance, that immediately fits into a conception about who and what we are. And therefore it becomes easy for the country to write us off. BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you think hasn't been covered? What's the story that still isn't being told? LOLIS ERIC ELIE: The great thing about American media is that most of the stories get told, but unless they are told repeatedly, unless you have one media outlet breaking a story and another one attempting to come up with a better day two story, the stories aren't important.
I cannot think of anything that has not been reported, but it does not get analyzed and it does not get viewed in the context of the national implications. So I suppose I would say that what has not happened is a discussion of the lessons to be learned for the rest of the country. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lolis, thank you so much. LOLIS ERIC ELIE: Brooke, it's been a pleasure, and thanks for your continued interest. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lolis Eric Elie is a metro columnist for The Times-Picayune. This is On the Media from NPR.