August 29th, 2008
09:52 AM ET

"Can you come to the Lower 9th, I found my mother's body"

[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.

Sean Callebs
CNN Correspondent

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.

Filed under: Hurricane Katrina • Sean Callebs
soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. Sam Costanza

    Perhaps, Nancy, but, if it were not for the ineptitude of the US Army Corps of Engineers, most of that flooding would NOT have happened. As someone who lost EVERYTHING in that debacle, I think that the government OWES us. In my case, I'd just be happy if they gave us a fair shake in the recovery. Unfortunately, all we've gotten from Washington is bureaucratic double-talk, and reasons why things CAN'T be done.

    40 years earlier, the Congress made a commitment to southeast Louisiana to provide Category 5 hurrican protection. Due to rampant government corruption (on ALL LEVELS), we've gotten a sub-standard Category 1 system, if the system is that good.

    The Katrina response is nothing new, but rather just highlighting all the things the federal government has swept under the rug.

    August 29, 2008 at 11:44 pm |
  2. Nancy

    What a bunch of bull....I am so sick up hearing about he poor people in Louisiana needing help. Back in the old days the government did not give you everything after a natural disaster. You and your neighbors go together, cleaned up, repaired or rebuilt. There was no standing around with you hand out waiting for someone to give everything to you........

    August 29, 2008 at 4:52 pm |
  3. Cynthia

    I hope that never again will such a tradegy happen again.

    August 29, 2008 at 1:35 pm |
  4. Jim

    3 Years & what has our CONGRESS been doing? taking vacations,
    passing USELESS legislation, Both Parties Both Houses are guilty
    & responsible for the mess we are in, What of those in the recent flooding of the Mississippi? CNN had great coverage WHILE the disaster was taking place but what is happening there today?
    Senator Obama last night spoke of " Being our brothers keeper"
    Tell Me Senator's Obama & McCain what you have sacrificed to help your own people for in the SAME book that Obama quoted last night
    it is also written-" Let he who has 2 coaqts give one to him who has none"-" WOE unto you who are rich, you have recived your consolation"
    The speach last night in Denver unless backed up by action is like putting a milk buckett under a Bull .

    August 29, 2008 at 10:14 am |
  5. Cindy

    I think that a lot of people have sunken into depression just like Jeff Chaz has. While everyone claims that NOLA is better the reality is that for the ones who live there that it isn't. Everything is sky high, people can't find jobs, crime is ridiculous, many have no where to live and nothing is being done to help them. That is extremely sad!! No wonder they are depressed!


    August 29, 2008 at 10:04 am |
  6. BC

    we can only hope they have learned from Katrina and will leave when the next one hits.

    August 29, 2008 at 10:01 am |
  7. brenda mcdonald

    Please , never a Katrina situation ever again..

    August 29, 2008 at 9:57 am |