It's been a difficult weekend for my family and for many other families in New Orleans. The so-called crime wave that hit the city during the start of this new year has been unsettling. As of Monday, there have been at least nine people killed in the last eight days. Correspondent Martin Savidge wrote a compelling story on the issue for Nightly News on Friday. But the problem has become personal for me, as it has for others who live here.
This weekend, Mayor Ray Nagin put it best when he said in a hastily called news conference that even one murder is too many. For a good number in this city, the one murder too many was the brutal slaying last week of Helen Hill. Hill was a talented, award-winning filmmaker. Her husband, Paul Gailiunas, is a doctor who dedicated his time to serving the poor. Together they moved back to this city after Katrina destroyed their home to raise their 2-year old son, and be a part of the city's recovery. Many people become a part of the city's rebuilding effort just by deciding to live here. According to the Times-Picayune, Helen and her husband were different. They collected food for homeless people, served indigent patients and in ways big and small served as an example to their community of what it means to help rebuild.
I spend quite a bit of time driving the streets of New Orleans and its surrounding parishes. It gives me a chance to look for signs and symbols of everyone's state of mind. While I typically note the looks on their faces, how many Saints jerseys I see, and even whether they're keeping their lawns up (whether in front of their gutted home or FEMA trailer), lately I've been paying closer attention to the bumper stickers on their cars. People may intend to use them as reflections of their individuality, but in fact those stickers tell you more about their common beliefs. A lot of them are predictably sports-related: "GO LSU TIGERS," "GO HORNETS," "GEAUX SAINTS."
But others are different. Let's start with "FAITH." What started out as a message years ago to fans to have faith in the once-beleagured Saints, now seems to have a new life as a message about people's belief in their now-beleagured city. There are other stickers that existed before the storm but have been embraced anew. When I first arrived here, I began to notice these: "NEW ORLEANS, PROUD TO CALL IT HOME." I'm told by folks that the slogan was created a few years back by some group looking to boost New Orleans' self-image. But a lot of those stickers seem to lack the nicks, dents and tears that a few years of driving and a major hurricane would inflict on them. Residents are buying them again, eager to renew their commitment to the city, in writing.
Ushers take a tour of the the Louisiana Superdome on Saturday, hoping to learn the changes before tonight's game. Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images.
Tonight, the New Orleans Saints return home to the Superdome for the first time since Katrina. And it's not just a source of pride for the team, it;s also become a source of inspiration for the city.
First, there is the dome itself. A year ago, it seemed irreparably damaged. Part of the roof had peeled away leaving the inside water-logged and moldy. Evacuees left behind 4,000 tons of debris and refuse as well as badly damaged seats, concession stands and suites. As for the dome’s image? Well, to this day, no one expects, or wants, the world to forget those pictures of human suffering. But tonight, a "new" Superdome debuts to a nationwide audience with an image everyone hopes will be just as memorable.
A day after watching former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani talk about how his city has changed in the five years since 9/11, it was fascinating for me to watch another mayor talk about the changes his city has undergone since its disaster.
Today, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin held a long-anticipated news conference to update citizens on the progress of his "100-day plan." Mr. Nagin made a major pledge upon his re-election to improve the city's quality of life within his first 100 days. But over the past few months, columnists, radio talk show hosts and citizens have taken the mayor to task for not defining his vision for the city's recovery.
Now that our two-day trip to New Orleans is coming to an end, I have time to share some photos shot by NBC News folks in the field.
First, the backdrop for Tuesday's broadcast... what used to be 2120 Tennessee Street, washed or blown into the 2200 block, in the Lower Ninth Ward:
Photo by Roxanne Garcia, NBC News
President Bush is airborne, and right now we are feverishly condensing a wide-ranging 25-minute conversation with the president (with stops and starts for cameras, logistics, venues, and the heat) into broadcast form. The term of art we use is "crash edit," and right now that's exactly appropriate. We covered a number of topics, from Katrina to Iraq to his own legacy... to his relationship with his father... to his summer reading list. The latter contains a surprise that surpasses Albert Camus' "The Stranger." The schedule for the president's time on the ground... and our time with him... was revised as late as 2 a.m. It was further revised when the president moved our interview up by an hour, on the fly, because of the heat of the day and the crowd waiting to see him and the first lady.
We will take a moment tonight to air tape of how we began the broadcast exactly a year ago. How little we knew then... about what was on the way.
We'll also have the other news of this day, but from where we sit -- the president's comments make up much of the news. A lot of people -- the best technical and editorial people in our business -- worked very hard today in the blistering heat of the wasteland that is this portion of the Lower Ninth Ward -- in order to bring you tonight's broadcast.
Tomorrow evening we'll be back in our home studio in New York. We hope you can join us for tonight's broadcast from New Orleans.
Photo caption: Brian and President Bush talk today at Musicians' Village in the Upper Ninth Ward. Photo by Subrata De, NBC News.
After Nightly News and after our prime-time special concluded Monday night, we drove back to our hotel. Which also happens to be President Bush's hotel. Big mistake. In the old days (as recently as when I covered President Clinton), it wasn't unusual for people to enter the lobby of a major metropolitan hotel (depending on configuration) and have no clue that the Leader of the Free World was upstairs ordering room service. In the old days, it used to be cool to let it be known you were staying "at HIS hotel." No more. In the post-9/11 world, the very last place you want to stay is the president's hotel.
When we arrived last night, we were stopped at a steel barricade, manned by Secret Service, Louisiana State Police and National Guard troops with dogs. I explained that we simply wanted to go to our hotel rooms, and that I was joining up with the president's traveling "bubble" in the motorcade, early tomorrow. That's when a tall guy, straight-faced and apparently born completely without irony... approached our menacing rental car. He resembled both rare drawings of President Tyler and photos of Tommy Smothers. Anyway, we were "instructed" by this straight-faced guy with a blue blazer, an earpiece and male pattern baldness, that we "are holding due to a movement."
We try to be very careful in choosing the street, neighborhood or building that serves as the backdrop for our coverage, especially on a night like this one, considering the size of the live viewing audience and the level of interest. We are sensitive to charges that media portrayals of New Orleans are all alike, and we are always actively looking for "mixed progress" neighborhoods where there is work underway, and where people have decided to put down stakes and stay. We are in such a neighborhood tonight -- but the view changes (as it does all over this region) seemingly every few feet. The odor on the street is staggering (they are STILL finding bodies at the one-year mark) and the drive into this neighborhood is depressing. A police officer remarked, "this neighborhood's gone." But not everyone. Tonight we'll try to highlight the good (recovery) with the bad (retreat) while surrounded by the ubiquitous destruction that the waters caused.
Someone much smarter than I once said: "You make a living by what you get, but you make a life by what you give."
I thought about that during a recent trip I took down south to Mississippi and Louisiana. I was traveling to shoot a Campbell Brown story that will likely air Tuesday on the anniversary of Katrina slamming into the Gulf Coast.
The story is a lovely one. I think it's our job, if even occasionally, to tell a story that describes the petals of Katrina and not just the thorns. God knows the thorns are plentiful and obvious and important. We won't learn how to not repeat the inexcusable mistakes of the disaster without the thorns, but it can't hurt to be reminded of the generosity of the angels who walk among us -- the petals. In this case, the petals are a few volunteers in Erie, Pa., who wanted to know what they could do to help.
Brian speaks to Gentilly resident Christopher Saucedo on Sunday. Photo by Subrata De, NBC News.
We arrived back in New Orleans on Sunday. If you think this city isn't nervous about hurricane season, consider this: a local police offer told me he purchased an automatic weapon and a thousand rounds of ammunition yesterday -- when Ernesto's path and size were both uncertain -- because, as he put it, "I'm not going through another hurricane in this city with just my sidearm."
If you think these new airline security regulations aren't having an effect on citizens, consider this: after arriving in Louis Armstrong International Airport here in New Orleans yesterday, I purchased a bottle of water at an airport newsstand. The saleswoman told me she would have to pour it into a large Styrofoam cup (she pointed to a massive stack of cups behind her) if I still wanted to purchase it -- because "we can't have plastic bottles in the terminal." Upon hearing this, the woman in line behind me, perhaps knowing my line of work, said, "Can anyone explain to me, given our history and who we are, how we arrived at this point?"
In an instant, I completely understood what she was saying. We won World War II. This is the United States. How has it come to this? How did this happen? Who is going to use my bottle of Aquafina -- and how -- to act against this magnificent country of ours?