[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/08/29/art.katrina.bodies.jpg caption="Hurricane Katrina victims bring a boat to help ferry people past a dead body outside the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans 3 years ago"]
Editor's Note: Anderson Cooper 360° is in New Orleans tonight, as Tropical Storm Gustav barrels toward the Gulf of Mexico, expected to reach Category 3. We'll look at whether New Orleans is ready, after being devastated by Hurricane Katrina exactly three years ago today. Watch our special report tonight at 10p ET.
I went from living a mile above sea level, to living below sea level overnight. CNN moved our Denver Bureau to New Orleans to focus on the recovery. It’s provided a front row seat to what hopefully will be a once in a lifetime event. Rebuilding a major U.S. city. It’s the images that captured our attention as a nation. Desperate crowds at the Superdome, the Convention Center, and interstate overpasses.
But it’s the characters that I remember and it’s hard to believe it’s been three years. So much has been done, and sadly so little has been done.
One of the first locals I met was Jeff Chaz, The Bourbon Street Bluesman. He lost everything, including in his health, and his ability to find work at what he does and that is ease his fingers over the maple neck of his custom guitar.
I did a story with Jeff early in 2006 he had his sense of humor and optimism. We’d talk every few months and he slipped deeper in an abyss of emotional distress despite constantly doing what he could to find work. Last time we chatted he was depressed working as a maitre’de, his pre-Katrina life a distant memory, and every time I hung up the phone I wished there was more I could do.
Then there’s Robert Green. Robert called me early in 2006 as well, saying “can you come to the lower 9th, I found my mother’s body.”
That rocked me to the core. His mother was swept from her home during the storm and perished. He recognized the nearly-mummified remains from the dress she was wearing. CNN did a number of stories with cadaver dog teams as they searched for victims for months. Robert became a symbol for the lower 9th. He urged people to come back, and when Brad Pitt and his “Make It Right” foundation decided to offer affordable safe housing to residents who lost everything Robert became the guy.
But even this doesn’t have a fairy tale ending. Robert pleaded guilty to a loan fraud scheme that happened long before Katrina. Sad. It doesn’t diminish the suffering he still endures three years after the storm.
In Mississippi, Waveland Mayor Tommy Longo comes to mind. Waveland wasn’t a big town before Katrina. And it was basically wiped off the map after the storm. I mean gone. A 28-foot storm surge acted as a tsunami and devastated everything it its path. I have talked with the Mayor on and off since the storm. Each time I see him he appears to have aged so much. I guess dealing with FEMA and angry residents who want their lives back will do that. The first time I talked with Tommy he was sitting on a pile of debris. I asked if he could stand up and move to a different location because of the sun. In a slow, painful fashion he put got up and limped over. Only then did I find out he had knee surgery just before Katrina. And in the aftermath of the storm simply didn’t have time to do the rehab-so he suffered.
Further down on Highway 90 in Mississippi, Lee and Chi Chi Bryant. What a couple. They literally live right across from the gulf, and for months near the FEMA trailer in the sprawling front yard was a big hand painted sign that read, “ Lee and Chi Chi’s Pad.” They were the first couple in Mississippi to rebuild on highway 90 after the storm. Lee says the hurricane made him appreciate what he had before the storm and what he lost. So they rebuilt right on top of the slab of their old home. They didn’t elevate the house at all. They had no neighbors. But they had each other, and to them that was everything.
Every story, even those upbeat, are touched by tragedy. Everybody down here has a story. Seemingly everyone has worked so hard to recapture what they had. And the amazing thing is virtually all know that another punishing counter-clockwise spinning storm carving its way through the region could take it all away in a heartbeat.
Anderson Cooper goes beyond the headlines to tell stories from many points of view, so you can make up your own mind about the news. Tune in weeknights at 8 and 10 ET on CNN.
Questions or comments? Send an email
Want to know more? Go behind the scenes with