NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Isaac rose to hurricane strength this afternoon and should make landfall on the Gulf Coast sometime this evening. It's nowhere near as powerful as Katrina, but the storm will test systems erected since Katrina, both physical barriers like flood gates and seawalls, and administrative and political changes.
And as Isaac arrives almost seven years to the day after Katrina, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu spoke for many when he described a high level of anxiety as residents remember what Landrieu called the worst day in our immediate history.
We'll go to New Orleans in just a moment and check in later with NPR's Debbie Elliot traveling on the coastline of Alabama and Mississippi. If you're in the path of this storm, what are you doing to get ready? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, China's foreign policy owes little, these days, to Chairman Mao. Vietnam no longer follows the precepts of Ho Chi Minh. Ray Takeyh asks why Iran still retains the revolutionary fervor of Ayatollah Khomeini. But first, Tropical Storm Isaac, and we begin with NPR correspondent Christopher Joyce in New Orleans. Nice to have you with us, Chris.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Hi, Neal, good to be here.
CONAN: And what does it look like now?
JOYCE: Well a bit rainy, a bit windy. It's just starting to get kind of nasty, but I would not say at this point it looks hurricane-style. But the city does seem to be pretty well-prepared, actually. Over the last day, I've been out and around a little bit, and, you know, while there is anxiety because everybody remembers Katrina, this city does claim to be, and I think people are fairly confident that it is, much better prepared because so much effort, so much money has been put into basically turning this place into a - you know, like a medieval walled city.
CONAN: And can you give us some examples of the construction that's been done?
JOYCE: Well, I mean. $14.5 billion worth of levee improvements. I mean, historically people will remember from Katrina that there were some tragic engineering failures. The 17th Street canal on the north side of the city was undercut by water and collapse and flooded part of the city. There were in fact numerous failures of levees for various reasons, and the investigation showed that really, you know, the Army Corps of Engineers had basically not anticipated having a Katrina-like event, and they weren't up to it.
So there are new floodgates all over the place. The levees have been reinforced with these things called T-walls, which are sort of concrete walls that go on top of the levee and are anchored underneath, inside the levee. To the east of the city, which was one of the places that really got hit because there's a big lake there, Lake Borgne, and tremendous surge, over 20 feet, 25 feet came from that direction. There is now, what the Army Corps is claiming to be, I think, their largest civil engineering project ever.
And they built an enormous 26 high wall with floodgates there to prevent that from happening. And so, you know, all around the city, frankly almost 360 degrees, there's been a tremendous amount of construction and improvement.
CONAN: As we know, Isaac will be a Category One storm when it hits New Orleans, Katrina, Category Three - much more powerful. But it often isn't the wind, it's the surge. So the timing of the tide matters a lot and how long the storm lingers and how much rain it dumps on the city. That matters, too.
JOYCE: Exactly. The rain is a big deal and the surge, as well. The surge now - I mean, the surge with Katrina was, oh, at various points up to 25 feet or so. They're predicting surge here possibly up to 12 at the maximum, so nothing quite the same. But nonetheless, you get areas where, you know, there are weaknesses, and you get a tremendous amount of rain coming in fast and hard.
And, you know, they're fairly confident that it'll hold up to it, not only because of the effort they put into it, but there was a hurricane similar to this one in 2008, Hurricane Gustav, that was a two when it hit then rapidly got weaker, but the same sort of thing: a lot of rain, a lot of water, a lot of surge. You know, and things worked fairly well, and that was only halfway through the upgrade. So that also has given people a certain amount of confidence.
CONAN: There were also some administrative problems, to say the least, during Katrina. Have those arrangements improved?
JOYCE: Well, the administration used to be of the levees. I mean, it was kind of Balkanized and the - you know, different levee districts had different jurisdictions and different management. That's been, sort of, organized into a single organization and a great deal more input from people outside of the politics, you might say.
There are citizen members of this organization, as well as a lot more scientists. And I think it's fair to say that it's a much more engineering and scientific-based operation now than it used to be.
CONAN: There's no mandatory evacuation order, at least right now. I guess we're not expecting one now. But residents outside the levee system are told to get to higher ground.
JOYCE: Well, that's one of the interesting things about all this. When we talk about this being like a medieval city, you know, to keep invaders out - invaders being water in this case - but the people outside the city, you know, are basically left to their own devices, and there have been some evacuations of people outside the city.
And this brings up a topic that is a sore one, especially among environmental groups and people who are concerned with what you might call the natural protective system of the whole region, not just New Orleans, but, I mean, it's a lot of area that's below or at sea level.
Because so much damage has been done to wetlands, which act as a sort of sponge to absorb the shock and the surge of both wind and water, you know, these areas are extremely vulnerable and each - it's with development of waterways and industrial development, the wetlands have been disappearing. And as they go, you know, you can build up New Orleans, but there's less and less protection outside of New Orleans.
CONAN: Chris, we'll let you go and continue to cover the story. Thanks very much.
JOYCE: My pleasure.
CONAN: NPR correspondent Chris Joyce from our science desk, with us on the phone from New Orleans. If you're in the path of the storm, what are you doing to prepare? 800-989-8255. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. And Dorothy's(ph) on the line with us from Baton Rouge.
DOROTHY: Hi, we are getting ready. We've pulled in everything from outside, anything that could become a projectile in this kind of weather. We have got bread and canned foods and batteries and candles and anything you can imagine to get ready for a power outage. That's the biggest thing that can happen in Baton Rouge because Gustav about four years ago, we were out of power for eight days in our particular neighborhood.
CONAN: And it does look, just looking at the storm track on TV, it's, Isaac's coming right up the Mississippi Valley.
DOROTHY: Oh yeah, yeah, and the northeast side is the worst side to be on in these hurricanes. So we're battening down the hatches here.
CONAN: So you've had experience, and you've stocked up, and you feel prepared?
DOROTHY: Yeah, we do, we do.
DOROTHY: And we've got a full tank of gas in the car on top of it all, just in case we have to bail.
CONAN: And did you hit the ATM?
DOROTHY: Yes, we did.
CONAN: OK, good luck.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. The voice and name of Gwen Thompkins will be familiar to many of you, she reported for NPR for many years. She's a native of New Orleans. He neighborhood Pontchartrain Park, was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina. She moved back there last summer, now hosts the music Inside Out program on our member station in New Orleans, WWNO and joins us from her home, and Gwen, nice to have you back on the program.
GWEN THOMPKINS, BYLINE: Hi, Neal, how are you?
I'm great. The question is: How are you?
I'm doing pretty well, actually. I've got a pizza in the oven.
THOMPKINS: But I tell you, I love listening to Chris Joyce and Dorothy up in Baton Rouge because they're both right. I mean, this really is like a medieval, walled city now with big doors and stuff. And, you know, right down from my house actually there's a huge floodgate, and it's been closed since yesterday, and it kind of reminds you of, you know, something that the Greeks might have built, you know, against the Trojans or something.
Although Neal, you know, I'd like to say that New Orleaneans, we would have, you know, we would have found a way to make nice with the Trojans.
CONAN: It was the Greeks who were after the Tro - but never mind. As you get ready for the storm, though, I'm sure history provides you with an evident purpose to make some preparations.
THOMPKINS: Well that's true, you know, because in Katrina, obviously, I mean, as you said in your intro, our neighborhood was really hit hard, and we never, you know, flood. I mean, you hear this over and over again when people start telling you their Katrina stories: We never flooded, and then we flooded. Which we did.
And we got like nine feet of water, you know, and I live in a one-story house. So you can imagine. But this time around, yeah, we're all trying to be smarter and to stock up and stuff. But I'll tell you, Neal, my kingdom for a pack of B batteries because...
THOMPKINS: I've been looking, and I have gone to so many little hardware stores, and as soon as you walk in the door, the first thing the guy tells you is we're out of B batteries.
CONAN: I wonder, though, you of course live in that neighborhood. You tend to lose perspective a little bit. With the approach of the storm, do you look at the neighborhood in a new way?
THOMPKINS: Oh absolutely. It's - you kind of look at it as, like, I don't know, some kind of a surreal, like magic surrealism or something. I mean, just like Dorothy was saying, all of a sudden you look around your neighborhood, and you think what can fly. What can fly at me? You know? And so you start carting things around.
Yesterday I found myself cleaning out the drains, you know, along my street to make sure that when the water comes it'll actually drain out. You know, and then also, you know, there are a lot of - well, I don't know. Our neighborhood is about 75 percent back. So but, you know, there are a lot of empty lots here and a lot of empty houses - not a lot, but some empty houses, I should say.
And there are a bunch of houses that people are building, you know, so they're in various states of construction around here. So, you know, you worry about, you know, you worry about, you know, whether, you know, whether houses that get to become houses, how they're going to fare.
CONAN: Yeah, how the Tyvek is going to hold up in the storm.
THOMPKINS: I know, it's true, it's true.
CONAN: So are you worried?
THOMPKINS: Not yet. I mean, I have to say not yet. You know, just as Chris Joyce was saying earlier, you know, the storm is not anticipated to be, you know, particularly harsh. It's - you know, but, you know, hurricanes are always like this time of reckoning for us. You know, everything gets counted. You know, you count yourself: Am I going to stay? Am I going to go? Who - you know, if I do go, who am I going to take with me, which is a very serious discussion because, you know, some people you can't sit in a car with for that length of time.
You know, it takes a while to evacuate, and, you know, you just have to be with people you like, pretty much, you know. But that..
CONAN: I was just going to ask you to stay with us, if you will.
CONAN: We're talking about preparations of Isaac, now a category one hurricane, bearing down on the Gulf Coast and the city of New Orleans. Up next we'll hear from NPR's Debbie Elliot in Gulfport, Mississippi. If you're in the path of this storm, what are you doing to get ready? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan, it's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION; I'm Neal Conan. Isaac was upgraded to a category one hurricane around midday. A few hours before, President Obama warned residents along the Gulf Coast to take this storm seriously.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As we prepare for Isaac to hit, I want to encourage all residents of the Gulf Coast to listen to your local officials and follow their directions, including, if they tell you, to evacuate. We're dealing with a big storm, and there could be significant flooding and other damage across a large area. Now's not the time to tempt fate. Now's not the time to dismiss official warnings. You need to take this seriously.
CONAN: President Obama this morning at the White House. If you're in the path of this storm, what are you doing to get ready? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And let's get Nathan(ph) on the line, and Nathan's with us from Pensacola.
NATHAN: Hi, Neal, how are you doing?
CONAN: Very well, thanks.
NATHAN: Yeah, we are - well, we were in the - it was heading straight towards us for a while, and we've been evacuating. We've had voluntary evacuations of low-lying coastal areas, putting sandbags up, boarding up windows, especially because we've had a particularly rainy season. So whatever wind and rain we get it going to be damaging 10-fold to a lot of our low-lying areas.
CONAN: And what are people most concerned about? Is it the surge?
NATHAN: The surge on the beach. There's a lot of river properties, rivers that are getting rain and then overflowing and flooding into houses. Some of the stores that are in valleys or low-lying areas have already received a lot of damage because of rain earlier this month and earlier this year and getting even more damaged and then shutting down.
CONAN: And does it look stormy there in Gulfport?
NATHAN: Well, it's starting to. We - it's really windy right now, especially as you're crossing bridges and whatnot. But the rain, we can see it coming, and it's heading right for us.
CONAN: I assume - excuse me, you're in Pensacola. NPR's Debbie Elliot is in Gulfport. We're going to go to her in a minute. But Nathan, thanks very much for the call.
NATHAN: You're welcome.
CONAN: So Debbie Elliot, you are there in Gulfport, Mississippi. Of course we think about New Orleans, we think about Katrina, but that was an event that devastated the entire Gulf Coast to the east of that city, as well.
DEBBIE ELLIOT, BYLINE: I actually came ashore in Mississippi, and Mississippi communities were on the bad side of that storm. You know, that right side of the storm, if you will, the east side is where you get the highest storm surge. So these are communities that are still not, you know, rebuilt yet, to be honest with you, from Hurricane Katrina, and they are watching anxiously as another storm heads their way.
I was talking to a woman who lived in Biloxi today, who was on her porch about two blocks from the Mississippi sound, watching, and in front of her were three, you know, slabs where houses used to be that were wiped out by Katrina. And she said one of her biggest concerns was the dead tree, dead trees around, and should wind knock them and knock them into her house, she was a little concerned.
However, officials on this end are not as concerned as they are obviously over closer to New Orleans, not as many evacuations going on here.
CONAN: Have any kind of preparations been made on the order of those medieval fortifications we're hearing about in New Orleans?
ELLIOT: You know, a lot of people have boarded-up homes. A lot of businesses are (technical difficulties) and drove through Mississippi. A lot of people have homes boarded... (technical difficulties)
CONAN: And we're having some difficulties with the smartphone that we're using to be in touch with our correspondent Debbie Elliot, who's right now in Gulfport, Mississippi. We'll try to get back in touch with her and see if we can get something that's a little bit more secure. Are we back up? Debbie, are you there?
CONAN: Ah, we're going lo-fi.
ELLIOT: Yes, lo-fi on an old-fashioned Blackberry no less.
CONAN: All right, but I wanted to ask, I mean, does the coincidence of the anniversary, does it spook people?
ELLIOT: You know, I think it just is a bit ironic for people. People certainly understand this storm is not as powerful as Katrina, and that's something that we need to emphasize. It's coming in on an anniversary, but this is peak hurricane season. This is when the strongest storms tend to hit the United States coastline.
So people are, you know, they're remembering seven years ago, but I think they also see that this is quite a different storm. The concern here is mostly going to be with rain and high water and the storm surge. You're not going to have winds that are going to damage homes as far inland as they did during Katrina.
To pick up on something that Nathan said from Pensacola, this region, you know, while most of the country has been in drought, this part of the country has had a lot of rain. So people are already somewhat inundated. The ground is saturated, and a lot of water coming in from this storm is going to cause some flooding for people who live in low areas.
And already the water from the Mississippi Sound is starting to push up. Officials in Biloxi were closing Highway 90 as I tried to pass today because water had started to inundate the roadway. So those are the issues that people are dealing with here.
CONAN: One of the institutions sorely tested in Katrina was FEMA. Any indication of its preparation?
ELLIOT: You know, I have seen National Guard troops patrolling the streets here, moving into place. I've seen some power trucks moving into place. I've seen some flatbed trucks looking like they were loaded down with pallets of water and whatnot. So I don't know if those are people who were being ordered into place by FEMA, but I'm assuming so.
And FEMA officials certainly tell us that they are staged and ready, as do, you know, the private industries that will be responsible for taking care of power outages and the like. For the most part, though, it's interesting, there was - the same woman I spoke with in Biloxi talked about, you know, though, it's our responsibility. It's up to us.
You know, you've got to secure your home, you've got to get the batteries and water and these backup food supplies that you need to survive for a few days, be ready to leave as officials tell you to leave. You know, her message was you can't expect the government to do everything for you, you've got to take care of yourself and use common sense and get out of the way if the storm is coming.
CONAN: Debbie Elliot, we will let you get back to work covering the storm, thanks very much.
ELLIOT: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: NPR national correspondent Debbit Elliot with us from Gulfport, Mississippi. And Gwen Thompkins, our friend and former colleague, is still with us on the phone from New Orleans, at least we hope so. Gwen, are you still there?
THOMPKINS: Still here, Neal.
CONAN: And it's interesting, yes there's an element of self-reliance, but there are so many people we remember from seven years ago who were in positions of great vulnerability, who couldn't get out of the way, people who were in nursing homes, people who were in prisons. Those kinds of people, well, the government's got to step in.
THOMPKINS: Oh that's true, absolutely, absolutely. I mean, sometimes, you know, nature sometimes defies your best plans. I mean, that sounds very trite, but it is true. You know, in my neighborhood in particular, I mean, this is a neighborhood full of, you know, older people, people who bought on the GI Bill, for instance, and who have been living here for more than 50 years.
And then when the storm hit, when Katrina hit, you know, I mean, they found themselves on their rooftops, you know, having to be rescued by other neighbors, you know, who were coming by in boats. So, you know, you're - you know, Debbie's absolutely right, and the people that's she talking to there. I mean, you really do have to, you know, do something for yourself. But at the same time, you have to kind of hope at least that there is a hand outstretched from someplace if you run into trouble, you know.
And um, you know, and in the meantime, as I was telling you, you have to sort of - I mean, the thing about hurricanes, there are two things that you need to know about a hurricane. One thing is just like waiters, you want them to pass on the right.
THOMPKINS: Just as Debbie was saying. I mean, you don't want all that water coming at you. So if they pass you on, you know, I mean, to the east, or, you know, then you're fine, and the east means right. And then the second thing that you have to know about them is that they move like mummies. I mean, they're really slow.
You know, so for instance, like this one, Isaac, you know, Isaac was going at 10 miles per hour last night across the Gulf. So that gives you time to kind of figure out what you want to do and go over that decision over and over and over again. And if you tend to be a, kind of, a nerve-een(ph) then it drives you nuts, you know, because you're constantly thinking did I do the right thing, did I get everything that I need, that kind of stuff.
But you also have to figure out, like, how best can you prepare yourself mentally for these kinds of things because it is something that's going to be slow-moving, and then when it happens, you know, it's going to happen. And so you just have to be sure in your mind that you're around the right people.
You know, my friend, I have a woman friend down here in my neighborhood named Aretha(ph), not Aretha Franklin, but, you know, Aretha. And another neighbor came up to her and said look, if you evacuate, can you take my kids.
THOMPKINS: Because, you know, the guy just couldn't stand his kids anymore. And, you know, the truth of the matter is we love our loved ones, but they do drive you nuts sometimes. So Aretha has a pact of these folks, and, yes, she's going to take their kids if she decides to evacuate. But also you have to have your papers together, your insurance papers. I've got a little bag with my passport, some family pictures, you know, and my one prized possession which is, you know, my signed copy of Louis Armstrong's autobiography, you know, "Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans."
CONAN: Ziploc bags, Gwen, I think Ziploc bags, they're called.
THOMPKINS: And, sure, I've got Louis in a Ziploc bag, you know? What a wonderful world that is. Were there Ziploc bags back then when he was alive? No. But the thing is, you know, you - it's a reckoning. You figure out what's important to you, who's important to you and, you know, how to stay sane and how to stay alive.
CONAN: Here's an email from Mark: With a 6-month-old, we evacuated even though we live in a two-story uptown, which is not the most flood-prone part of NOLA. We're actually headed to St. Louis, about three days in front of the storm. We call it a hurrication(ph).
CONAN: The likely power outages and potential tap water issues were enough to push us out, and we did bring our dog with us. Let's see if we can go a little downriver from St. Louis, a little upriver from New Orleans, to Baton Rouge, and Christine is on the line with us.
CONAN: Hi, Christine. You're on the air. Go ahead.
CHRISTINE: I'm evacuating to Atlanta, not so much because of flooding for me in Baton Rouge, but because when Hurricane Katrina happened Baton Rouge just got inundated with people, and it really didn't handle it well, the influx of people. So I'm just trying to stay ahead of that storm.
CONAN: So you're not worried about the tide of water but maybe evacuees?
CHRISTINE: Yes, yes. And the possibility of not having power here in Baton Rouge because, as the previous caller said, when Gustav came through everybody was worried about New Orleans, but it's actually Baton Rouge that got hit worse, and we didn't have power for a week, so.
CONAN: And do you have the feeling that in the aftermath of, not only Katrina but, as you point out, Gustav, that the officials there in Baton Rouge have made adequate preparations.
CHRISTINE: I don't know what preparations - I don't know how you really prepare for - you don't know how many people are really going to come. I would hope that the preparations are a little bit better from Katrina and Gustav, but there's just no really way of telling. We just get flashes of schools closed and please stay inside, so, you know, I'm just trying to avoid that.
CONAN: So you're driving?
CHRISTINE: Yes, I am.
CONAN: Well, drive carefully.
CHRISTINE: Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. We're talking about preparations in the path of Isaac. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go to Milton, Florida, and David is on the phone with us.
DAVID: Good afternoon, sir.
CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAVID: Well, I was going to say my house was destroyed the year before Katrina by Ivan, and we ended up at my parents' house. And we were out of power for 42 days, and then next year, I ended up in Pascagoula when Katrina came through.
DAVID: And it was amazing to me just like now, the last four days they've been talking about New Orleans, New Orleans, New Orleans, and they did the same thing during Katrina that, you know, if it goes right up in New Orleans, like Katrina did, it's Mississippi that's going to get wiped out.
CONAN: Because it's - that's on the wrong side of the storm.
DAVID: Yes, sir. And that's - it always - it blew my mind so much, and it still does. They keep talking about, you know, New Orleans is going to possibly flood and this and that, and it's like, well, what about the state beside it that's really going to take the beating and the flooding and because Pascagoula was just - it was destroyed. There was nothing left.
DAVID: You know, you drive down the roads after Katrina and, you know, every pole was snapped, and it was just horrible. I worked there for almost four months before I went back home. And like I said, just watching the news the last couple of days, if the state goes, this New Orleans and the levees, and it's like, well, what about Pascagoula and Biloxi?
DAVID: They took every bit as much damage as New Orleans did.
CONAN: Well, I think a couple of thousand dead in New Orleans, though, but thanks very much for the call. We'll certainly be watching in Pascagoula.
DAVID: Yes, sir.
CONAN: Karen DeSalvo is a doctor in New Orleans. We spoke with her several times after Hurricane Katrina. She's now on leave from her position as a professor of medicine and vice dean for community affairs and health policy at Tulane University School of Medicine. She's currently health commissioner for the city of New Orleans and joins us now by phone from that city. And, Karen DeSalvo, nice to have you back on the program. I wish we were in happier circumstances.
KAREN DESALVO: I know. It's nice to talk to you, though.
CONAN: How prepared is the city's health system? What lessons learned after Katrina?
DESALVO: We have taken seriously our lessons learned in New Orleans since Katrina and Ike and Gustav and even a little bit what we learned from the BP oil spill and again last summer we had some rain. So, we are prepared actually. The system compared to prior events I find we're working much more in coordination. We're using technology a lot smarter, electronic medical records and have a much better sense of how to do redundant communication. So we're feeling good.
We have been leaning forward for days. The hospitals are strong and have the, you know, energy they need and the same thing with clinics and really the community. So much different picture than in the past.
CONAN: Resilience, though, after all of these events, are people getting psychologically worn out, do you fear?
DESALVO: Well, there's definitely been a heightened sense of anxiety, Neal, that there's, you know, the timing of this storm is not great. And with it being coincident with the anniversary and the people are just, you know, a bit worn out, plus it's been lingering. But people are, you know, they're doing very well. We've offered them resources and a call-in line if they need it. But this is a town of people who really know how to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. I know you know that, and I'm really proud of how much everybody is paying attention, right, and using that anxiety to motivate themselves to be safe.
CONAN: Karen DeSalvo, thanks for all your hard work. Good luck.
DESALVO: Thank you very much. Y'all take care.
CONAN: Karen DeSalvo from the New Orleans Health Commissioner. She joined us by phone from New Orleans. And, Gwen Thompkins, you're still with us?
THOMPKINS: Still with you.
CONAN: Still have just a few seconds left, but if you are, in the event, forced to evacuate, you take that Louie Armstrong book with you, OK?
THOMPKINS: I certainly will. I certainly will, and thank you so much for, you know, your interest and your care for this area of the country. Thank you.
CONAN: Gwen, as always, thanks very much. Gwen Thompkins, our former colleague and our friend, now works at WWNO as the host of a music program there. Coming up, while the U.S. tries to isolate Iran over its nuclear ambitions, Tehran plays host to the head of the United Nations and dozens of other world leaders. Ray Takeyh will join us to explain the history of Iran's foreign policy and why it thrives on conflict. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.