"It's a glint in somebody's eye. It's a feeling. It's an emotion. And If I can put that happiness back into somebody else's life, then it puts happiness into mine." -- Ricardo Pustanio, Mardi Gras artist
We met up with Pustanio this week as he placed the finishing touches on Mardi Gras floats for the Krewe of Mid City. He believes Mardi Gras is a welcome distraction for residents who continue to struggle with rebuilding their homes and lives. This year's carnival season is expected to be larger than last year's, when the city was forced to scaled back the festivities following Katrina. Prior to the storm, Mardi Gras generated approximately $1 billion for the city's tourist economy.
Photo by NBC's Bruce Bernstein.
"To me, the streetcars are the heart of New Orleans and without the streetcars... there is no New Orleans."
-- Clarence Glover
25-year streetcar operator
We met up with Clarence, affectionately known as "Glover" to his co-workers, along the Canal Street line last week. Before the storm, Glover worked exclusively on the picturesque St. Charles Avenue line. But Katrina left that area's intricate web of power lines tangled and torn. There's been concern about the amount of money and effort it would take to restore it. Already, the city's transit agency has laid off hundreds of workers and cut dozens of bus lines, but now the federal government has agreed to kick in millions in loans and subsidies to keep mass transit rolling and get the historic St. Charles line back on track by the end of 2007. That's good news for Glover, who has been spending his time training other operators. He's looking forward to greeting you somewhere down the line in New Orleans.
Photo of Clarence Glover by NBC's Bruce Bernstein.
"New Orleans is a gumbo of Voodoo and Halloween."
-- Jerry Gandolfo, aka "Mr. Voodoo"
Spiritualists, Voodoo practitioners and the owners of "little shops of horror" are all welcoming New Orleans' second favorite holiday (behind Mardi Gras, of course). Among them is Jerry Gandolfo, who runs the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum. We stopped in this week to see what kind of business he's been scaring up. Tourism has been sluggish this fall and Jerry hopes Halloween raises his business from the dead. But don't be mistaken, his museum is more than just a tourist trap. A good number of voodoo believers and practitioners stop in to call upon the spirits to intercede on their behalf. They pick up Voodoo dolls, Gris-Gris bags, pray at the Voodoo altar and of course pay homage to the 19th Century Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau.
Jerry hopes you'll fall under New Orleans' spell and help bring tourism back. But if you can't make it, you can still be here in spirit. You may spot Jerry tonight on Nightly as Mike Taibbi reports on the business of Halloween. Or... click here to get a first look at an episode of "Sci-Fi Investigates," which visited New Orleans this summer to report on the city's mysterious Voodoo culture.
Photo: Voodoo dolls on display at the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum. Photo by Steve Majors.
"Rats are survivors. Rats are people animals. They follow us. We support rats."
-- Joe Yurt, Director of Rodent Control for New Orleans, aka "The Pied Piper"
I spoke with Yurt recently while researching a potential story about the rodent problem emerging in the city in the year since Katrina. Rats are only one part of the problem. Snakes, squirrels, raccoons and armadillos are among a number of wild animals that moved into parts of the city when people moved out following the storm. However, Yurt explained to me that as people returned to their homes, they encountered new neighbors who have been waiting for a steady food supply. The only good news in all of this? Business is booming at private pest and rodent control companies.
Photo caption: One of the rats captured by Rodent Control. Yes, it was as big as a rabbit. Photo by Steve Majors.
"OHHHHH, TEAM, BREAK IT DOWN! OFFENSE! BREAK IT DOWN! DEFENSE! BREAK IT DOWN! HURRICANES! SPELL IT OUT! H-U-R-R-I-C-A-N-E-S! CANES ON THREE, CANES ON THREE! 1,2,3, CANES!"
Those were the sounds of the South Plaquemines High School football team on a recent Friday night during their first game of the season. This "Friday Night Lights" moment was not unlike thousands of others playing out in small towns across the country. But it differed in one respect. These players were making a comeback a year after Katrina destroyed their homes, school and community. You can see Martin Savidge's inspirational story on the Hurricanes tonight on Weekend Nightly News.
"You can't have a major urban center if you don't have schools that are working, if you don't have hospitals that can run, if you don't have electricity you can count on. Everybody's still in limbo and that's a pity a year after the storm."
New Orleans resident and author
I spoke with Doug Brinkley last week in the Ninth Ward. He is the author of the "Great Deluge," which chronicled Katrina and its aftermath. Although he notes the enormous amount of progress, Brinkley expresses concerned about the future of the Ninth Ward and the city itself. He believes New Orleans can maintain its status as a major American city, but only if more basic services are available to residents who wish to return.
Photo caption: Doug Brinkley talks to Steve in the Ninth Ward. Courtesy of NBC News.
"This was my apartment right here. Ain't too much to see (now) except an empty slab. That's the only thing I want to know: What are they going to do with this land? Are they going to rebuild it or just let it go?"
Steven Smith returned to New Orleans this week from Houston to look at what remained of his apartment complex. He's one of several former residents we've been talking to this week as we prepare stories for the upcoming anniversary of Katrina. As we walked the muddy field where it once stood, he talked about his desire to return permanently to his hometown. Smith lost nearly all his belongings in the flooding that followed Katrina. He's eager to come home to his old neighborhood because he says he's had a hard time finding an affordable apartment in other parts of the city.
"We're not moving as fast as we need to be moving and there's days I feel we didn't do as well as we should have done today. I think with any recovery process, you need to remember, it's not an event, it is a process."
Federal Coordinator, Gulf Coast Recovery
I spoke with Don Powell a few weeks ago during one of his scheduled tours through New Orleans. He seemed pleased to see large sections of the Ninth Ward cleared of debris and signs of rebuilding in Lakeview. At each stop, he took time to speak with homeowners and construction crews and ask them their opinion of the recovery effort. Powell admitted it might be difficult for people to see progress everywhere, but said there were signs that the recovery was on track.
Photo caption: Don Powell tours parts of New Orleans in late July. Courtesy NBC News.
"While we're making it much better and stronger than it was before, it's still not ultimate protection for the city of New Orleans."
Director, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Task Force Hope
As NBC News gears up for the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we're interviewing several officials who play key roles in the ongoing recovery. I recently spoke to Dan Hitchings, the director of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Task Force Hope, who is heading up efforts to repair New Orleans' damaged levees. We discussed the progress at the three sites where the Army is trying to strengthen flood walls, install flood gates and prepare pumping stations. In the year since the levees breached, the Corps has been dogged by questions about their original design. Hitchings reassures residents that the flood protection plan has been improved, but warns the system is still not strong enough.
Photo caption: Dan Hitchings talks to Steve about the levees. Courtesy of NBC News.
"I am less trusting. If a person says they're going to do something, I don't really accept it. I have people double-check it and kind of dog it until I'm satisfied that it's actually done. I think I'm a little rougher around the edges, a little less tolerant of lots of things that happen around me."
Gov. Kathleen Blanco, D-La.
Starting today, I plan to offer a new "Faces from the Gulf" daily until the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29. Last Friday, I spoke to Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco at the governor's mansion in Baton Rouge. You'll probably see portions of the interview this week or next on various NBC News broadcasts and MSNBC-TV. We talked a great deal about the upcoming anniversary. One of the questions I asked was how the last year changed her personally and politically.
Photo caption: Gov. Blanco talks to Steve Friday in Baton Rouge. Courtesy NBC News.