Announcer: From New Orleans, five years after Hurricane Katrina, this is a special edition of MEET THE PRESS with David Gregory. Substituting today, Brian Williams.
.MR. BRIAN WILLIAMS: August 29th, 2005, Hurricane Katrina touches down on the Louisiana coast. The city's levees fail, the next morning nearly 80 percent of New Orleans is under water. A botched government response, a poor local evacuation plan, thousands are left without food, water, shelter or safety, trapped for days as the city is looted and its people suffer. Forty-one thousand people were heroically rescued by U.S. armed forces, many of them brave Coast Guard pilots, but almost 1,800 people are dead and the storm has left an estimated $75 billion in damages throughout the Gulf Coast. Five years later, what's changed and what hasn't? What lessons were learned? Is this city's recovery moving in the right direction? Joining us: Two of the area's notable political leaders, Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu and her brother, the newly elected mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu. Then, my interview with actor Brad Pitt, founder of the Make It Right Foundation, an effort to repair the devastated Lower Ninth Ward.
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MR. BRAD PITT: These people are pioneers. They're pioneers, and this is now the greenest neighborhood in the world.
MR. WILLIAMS: Plus, our special discussion with three men who've worked tirelessly to bring renewal and regrowth to the city they love: New Orleans native, star of the HBO hit series "Treme" and the president of the Pontchartrain Park Community Development Corporation, Wendell Pierce; longtime New Orleans journalist Garland Robinette of WWL Radio; and author of "The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast," historian and author Douglas Brinkley.
But first, and good morning from New Orleans for this special edition of MEET THE PRESS, we should set the scene here. If you know the town, we're in the former Bella Luna, now the Galvez Restaurant, a building halfway destroyed in Katrina. And it's part of the plotline here, it has come back, and these days is back and prospering as a restaurant. And here in our studio space we have nothing but Landrieus. With us, Louisiana senior Senator Mary Landrieu and her brother, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who took office almost four year--four months ago--I almost put you ahead of time.
MAYOR MITCH LANDRIEU: Yes, four years ago.
MR. WILLIAMS: And, Mr. Mayor, let's, let's mix things up right at the top here. We've come down here so many times in these past five years I could probably accept mail delivery by now, and you, you pick up on the local quirks. And when you say down here that Katrina was the worst natural disaster ever, usually you're not allowed to get that sentence out, and you're interrupted and a New Orleanian says, "Wait a minute."
MAYOR LANDRIEU: That's right.
MR. WILLIAMS: "The levees broke."
MAYOR LANDRIEU: That's exactly right.
MR. WILLIAMS: But then a Northerner comes back and says, "Yeah, but you're living below sea level, why is this America's problem?" So that's the first question to you, why is New Orleans America's problem?
MAYOR LANDRIEU: Well, first, two things: One, it is a historical fact that this was a man-made disaster. It wasn't a natural disaster, the levees broke. That's the reason why the catastrophe exists. The federal government was responsible for building the levees, engineering the levees, and consequentially, the federal government is responsible for repairing the damage that has been done, which has not been completed yet. That's first of all. Secondly, the city of New Orleans and all of the coastal parishes along the Gulf Coast have been at the tip of the spear for this nation's fight for energy security, economic independence, and its national security. We produced most of the oil and gas that this country uses domestically. We produce 30 to 40 percent of the fisheries. We produce the greatest culture that this country has ever seen. And so it's a, it's a strange question for us when people even ask us that. And by the way, I'll make two other points, we're not the only other place in America, must less the world, under sea level, and we've learned how to live peacefully in those places. And finally, there are clear ways to fix the problem, and we should get, get about it fast.
MR. WILLIAMS: I was at a dinner where you spoke last night, and it's kind of bracing, I've seen you--seen you speak a number of times and you've used the word "dire" to describe your own city. You've said you have the worst police department in America. You raised your hand, got the Justice Department in here to help fix it. And in your remarks, you often say, "I hope we make it. I hope we make it." Is that expectations adjustment by a veteran Democrat and a political family of this, of this fine soil?
MAYOR LANDRIEU: What, what it is, is a willingness to speak to the truth to this very simple notion, that success is not predetermined. There is nothing here that's broken that can't be fixed, but it won't happen on its own. It's going to require a huge lift by the entire country of the United States of America and people on the ground taking personal responsibility for themselves. You cannot take it as a fait accompli that the city's going to come back. We have great stories that have occurred over the past five years that will give you great hope about the resurrection and redemption of the city, and we believe that it's going in the right direction, but we have a long way to go.
MR. WILLIAMS: Senator Landrieu, before I begin with you, I want to show you a piece of videotape of another member of your family. The--a long time ago, a newspaper columnist affectionately called the Landrieu family the "Cajun Camelot," and that's the last time there was, first of all, a white mayor in the city of New Orleans before the current mayor, your dad, Moon Landrieu. What was it, 1970 to '78, a two-term mayor, former head of the Conference of Mayors, later secretary of Housing. Senator, have you searched your own soul and conscience to make sure--there was so much blame that went around after Katrina--that you bore none of it? How--have you sorted out just what it was that happened here?
SEN. MARY LANDRIEU: (D-LA): Well, Brian, first of all, no elected official could say that they didn't make mistakes. We all did. It was an extremely tough time. But I can say proudly that I helped to lead the effort to help the federal government respond more effectively. Now, we still have a long way to go and to try to tell the story that it wasn't a natural disaster, it was a man-made disaster and that the levees did break and that our coastal restoration efforts, while we had put them under way, needed to be accelerated. And the town can't just be protected by levees but by the coast. So I had been doing that for quite some time.
But the fact of the matter is many of us knew that Katrina and the levee break was an opportunity to transform this region and transform, not just the city, but St. Bernard and St. Tammany and Jefferson and all of the coastal areas that honestly sometimes, Brian, get overlooked by the national media that focuses on New Orleans. As proud as we are of this city and as extraordinary as it is, all of south Louisiana and all of the Gulf Coast is a very special place, and the federal government has underinvested in it year after year after year, whether it's education or health care. And, as the mayor said, the federal government has taken so much. For the last 50 years, the federal government has taken out of the Gulf Coast $165 billion in taxes that came from oil and gas off of our coast that went to the federal Treasury, to rebuild all places in America except the place that it came from.
So I have been a leading voice, I'm thrilled that Mitch has joined, and many others, in saying it's time, as my father said many years ago, for New Orleans, the region, Louisiana, and the Gulf Coast to get its fair share, and we most certainly intend to do that.
MR. WILLIAMS: Now I want to ask you about one of the many promises made after Katrina. I want to roll in a piece of sound from President George W. Bush after Katrina, speaking not far from here in Jackson Square.
(Videotape, September 15, 2005)
PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: And tonight I also offer this pledge of the American people: Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives.
MR. WILLIAMS: Senator, you heard it.
SEN. LANDRIEU: Yeah.
MR. WILLIAMS: Did it turn out to be hollow? Did it turn out...
SEN. LANDRIEU: It was.
MR. WILLIAMS: Do you think he was telling the truth then?
SEN. LANDRIEU: Well, it, it turned out to be a hollow promise, and I'll tell you why: Because the federal government didn't stay and do everything they could. The federal government didn't make it easy. They made it very, very difficult. Very specifically, when the mayors of New Orleans and my other mayors asked for funding to help rebuild, they were offered a loan of $5 million. The city's budget is $460 million. The mayor of New Orleans at the time was offered $5 million. That wouldn't buy them a, you know, loaf of bread for the week.
MR. WILLIAMS: And yet it's said, Mississippi made out like bandits. Just next door, they had...
SEN. LANDRIEU: Mississippi--but the fact of the matter is, Brian, that's not true, and we, we will document many things. Mississippi did not make out like bandits. And you're going to hear a lot about that in the next couple of years.
MR. WILLIAMS: There's a couple new documentaries out.
SEN. LANDRIEU: There's a couple of documentaries that are out. The Brookings Institute. But the fact of the matter is, is that, you know, we were given a very small portion of the funding relative to our disaster. We did the best we could with it, but the great thing is there are leaders on the ground, whether it's this mayor of New Orleans, Craig Taffaro in St. Bernard Parish, and others that are building schools, hospitals, and rebuilding our coast, and giving leadership here which is so important.
MR. WILLIAMS: Mr. Mayor, you have the, as long been chronicled, the highest murder rate in the United States. Would you yourself walk unaccompanied after dark in your own Seventh Ward?
MAYOR LANDRIEU: I do it all the time. And, and the answer is yes. And it's important that people know that, at some point in time, that the city is going to be safe. But it's also important to acknowledge, again, a speech I gave a couple of weeks ago called "Eyes Wide Open." The only way we're going to fix our problems is really to confront them. And as wonderful as some of the recovery has been in the schools and the healthcare clinics, things we'll talk about later in the program, it is also true that we have a police department that had lost its way completely. We also have one of the highest murder rates in the country. We have to deal with that problem.
Again, I should say this, that what New Orleans is going through now is not unique to us. Katrina and Rita didn't cause all of our problems. It certainly made them more evident. It certainly should be looked upon as being the canary in the coal mine for the rest of this country as it deals with the issues of health care, infrastructure and crime. We're suffering with many things that may--every major urban city is, but the immediacy of it has been brought to bear by Katrina and Rita. So that's why I called in the Justice Department, and they have responded wonderfully to ask us to completely redo the police department while we're focusing on getting in front of crime with recreation programs, critically important. But it's something that has got to get done because if this city is not safe it'll never be free and it won't grow back up. It's really important.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, let's talk about education for a moment. The Education secretary, Arne Duncan, famously said--and others have, have said it, though it sounds perverse when you hear it, "Katrina was the best thing that ever happened to the school system in New Orleans." And post-Katrina, here you are with, what, 60 percent charter schools, teachers union says, "Oh, that's great except they've tossed the teachers union out of all of those places, and you can't educate kids on, on charter schools alone."
MAYOR LANDRIEU: Well, let me, let me say this--and I know Senator Landrieu has had a lot to do with this particular movement. The fact of the matter is, whether they're charter schools or public schools, in the city of New Orleans we have the most innovative change that's going on in public education anywhere in America. In the last three years alone, our students' scores have gone up in every category, and it is, in fact, an amazing story. We--the other day the president announced, and Senator Landrieu changed the congressional act to allow this to happen, that we got actually a lump-sum funding, first time FEMA has ever been able to do this, to actually physically rebuild every school in the city of New Orleans. So it, in fact, is going to be one of the great stories.
Now, I wouldn't have said it the way the secretary said it. Some people say, "Oh, it was a great opportunity." I think that comes out wrong. I think it gave us the responsibility of building back something that should not ever have gotten to where it was before. It's a, it's a huge responsibility, and it's one that we should take very strongly.
MR. WILLIAMS: Now, Senator, we should note that you were talking about wetlands before talking about wetlands was, was in vogue. And, perhaps, though, you can explain the very confusing relationship between Louisiana and oil as we look at the once-beautiful wetlands with that now characteristic oil line that's to be found on all the grass. A lot of folks elsewhere in the country just assumed that the anger down here would come out of the oil spill, the fact that three months of oil is sitting out there in that water. A lot of folks assumed that the folks in Louisiana would be behind a stoppage until there could be a rule that if you can get oil a mile down, you should be able to stop it. What is the relationship between Louisianans, who love the great outdoors and have some of the great outdoors in all of the world, and the petroleum that comes out deep under the ground?
SEN. LANDRIEU: Well, first of all, Brian, please know that people are very angry about that spill, and very disappointed in BP, and very disappointed in the subcontractors as well, and are just furious about the oil. We want to keep our waters clean. We've tried to keep our waters clean all these years. But we do have a strong relationship with the oil and gas industry, not just big oil, but independents and the thousands of small businesses that we built that we're proud of that support that industry because the nation needs this oil. This nation consumes 20 million barrels of oil a day. It did the day before the Deep Horizon exploded, it does today. Now, we're going to transition to cleaner fuels. And by the way, Louisiana is well positioned to be part of the energy future, not just our past. But that's why people down here feel so strongly. We've been fishing in the same waters that we drill for oil. We've been navigating all of the commerce of--not only of this country, but of the world on those same waters. And yes, Brian, we recreate, we swim in those waters. And we believe with the right kind of balance in policy we can do it. So, yes, a pause was necessary. But a six-month moratorium has put a, a blanket of fear and anxiety, and it must be lifted as soon as possible.
MR. WILLIAMS: But has it hurt the industry as much as you feared?
SEN. LANDRIEU: Well, it's not--I'm not worried about hurting the industry. As I said, I'm not worried about hurting big oil, I'm worried about hurting Big Al's.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, right.
SEN. LANDRIEU: Because a sandwich shop closed last week. And that's who I'm fighting for. I'm fighting for small businesses. I'm not fighting for big oil. Don't be confused. And there are thousands of businesses in this state that are at great risk. Meanwhile, the country keeps guzzling the oil, but we're out of work down here. We need to get back to work to build this region, and we intend to do so. And the president has heard that message strongly and clearly from the people of this state.
MR. WILLIAMS: Mr. Mayor, was the administration slow off the dime when the spill happened?
MAYOR LANDRIEU: I don't think so. They were down here pretty quickly. And, of course, this was a much different disaster than Katrina was. I can honestly say that they've been working very hard at it. Unfortunately, you know, the focus gets taken off of where it should be, which is on BP. The fact that that spill could have occurred and that this company, one of the largest in the world, did not have a plan to cap that well or capture the oil or clean the coast is something that is problematic. Although we didn't like it, we accepted the fact that BP had the technical expertise to the extent that anybody did. We obviously feel now that the well is capped that the federal government needs to be very aggressive and really make sure that BP honors its responsibility to repair every bit of damage that was done.
MR. WILLIAMS: How should Ray Nagin's term as mayor be remembered, as history looks back on what happened here?
MAYOR LANDRIEU: Well, that's a, that's a very hard thing for me to opine about, you know?
MR. WILLIAMS: Try.
MAYOR LANDRIEU: We're going to let history--we're going to let history take care of itself. I would say this. You have not seen me talk much about what happened during the storm. That was a cataclysmic event. Who knows how to judge people that went through those couple of days? I will say...
MR. WILLIAMS: But you were in it, and now you have his old job.
MAYOR LANDRIEU: Yeah. I don't, I don't think generally that it was well done. But I would say this, that subsequent to the storm, putting the city in a position to recover, as it were, I don't think he did a good job. That's why I ran against him the first time, and of course, it's why I ran the second time. I really believe that this city can fix itself.
But I will say this, just to put an exclamation point on President Bush's statements a minute ago. There was huge damage, the damage was man-made. It was a result of the federal government's negligence. And not withstanding all the incredible things that the people of America have done for us, we have not received enough money to repair the damage that was done. And when we do, we will be able to rebuild the city faster.
MR. WILLIAMS: Senator, a question about where you perform your day job. What does it say about our country, if anything at all, that at Glenn Beck's rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial yesterday, he was able to attract a crowd, I've seen estimates 500,000. NBC News estimated the crowd at 300,000. A general tone of, of frustration and anger with the current size, scope and activity of government, and the desire to reinject God into American political discourse. What'd you take from that?
SEN. LANDRIEU: Well, first of all, God's been a part of--big part of this country since we began. I mean, this is a country built on faith and confidence in the Almighty. And you can see this region right here. So, I mean, Glenn Beck's idea's not new, it's been around a long time. And one of the reasons this region is surviving is because of our faith. What I think Glenn Beck misses is that it's not just talking, it's actually actions. It's caring for the poor, it's caring for the sick, it is, you know, using the power of government in a positive way to meet the private sector and the nonprofits and all of our people of faith to do right by the people. That's where Glenn Beck's wrong.
And I'll tell you another way Glenn Beck's wrong. He and his whole crew said that this city could be rebuilt by private effort alone. The government was terrible, the government couldn't do anything. Do you know how many houses all of the nonprofits have built? No more than 5,000 in five years. Do you know how many we lost? Two hundred thousand. So Glenn Beck has to go back and look at the facts because he is preaching a gospel that never has existed, doesn't exist today and never will. We follow the gospel, Mitch and I, of Jesus Christ. We know what to do. And so others follow other faiths, but the fact of the matter is God has been all-present. And you can ask anyone in New Orleans, when every government left, God was still here.
MR. WILLIAMS: Mr. Mayor, we can compliment you for opening train service again, because that whistle's going to be with us for the whole hour, just behind us.
MAYOR LANDRIEU: Well, I'll take credit for it.
MR. WILLIAMS: I have to say, as a confessed New York Giants fan who has come to love your city, I have learned that you can call the New Orleans Saints just a football team at your own personal peril.
SEN. LANDRIEU: Risk.
MAYOR LANDRIEU: That's right.
MR. WILLIAMS: Please tell--the toughest question I will ask you...
MAYOR LANDRIEU: Don't even think about it.
MR. WILLIAMS: ...will be to condense in 30 seconds what the New Orleans Saints and the Super Bowl victory mean to this city.
MAYOR LANDRIEU: It, it's easy. I can do it quicker than that. Resurrection and redemption, gone from worst to best. They proved to us that we could actually win. This town had been so used to losing, in every aspect, that when the Saints won, when they went back into the Superdome for that first night and beat the Atlanta Falcons, when they won the NFC championship, when they finally won the Super Bowl, it was a cataclysmic event for the people of New Orleans. And that's when people started saying, "You know what, we're going to make it."
MR. WILLIAMS: That was the sign.
SEN. LANDRIEU: And Chris Ivory's run last night said it all--or the night before last.
MR. WILLIAMS: I'm telling you, only sports fans welcome here in New Orleans.
MAYOR LANDRIEU: We like the Giants.
MR. WILLIAMS: To both--thank you very much. To both Landrieus, senator and mayor, thank you for coming to our table this Sunday morning.
MAYOR LANDRIEU: Thank you and welcome.
MR. WILLIAMS: And thank you for hosting MEET THE PRESS.
MAYOR LANDRIEU: And thank you for everything that you've done for us.
MR. WILLIAMS: Thank you, Mr. Mayor.
Up next here on MEET THE PRESS, my interview with Brad Pitt, whose Make It Right foundation is among those private efforts to rebuild and transform, in this case the Ninth Ward. And recovery, the future of the city as he sees it. We'll talk to Wendell Pierce of the HBO series "Treme." We'll talk to local New York's--New, New Orleans, rather--boy and I going to be in trouble now--radio host Garland Robinette and historian and author Doug Brinkley, as MEET THE PRESS continues after this brief commercial break.
MR. WILLIAMS: Our special edition of MEET THE PRESS continues live from New Orleans, including my interview with Brad Pitt, right after this brief commercial break.
Unidentified Woman #1: Look how hot he is? He's not waking up very easy.
Group of People: Help, help, help, help...
Unidentified Woman #2: Help, help, help, help...
MR. WILLIAMS: Still tough to watch, even tougher to watch after these five years. We're back with this special live edition of MEET THE PRESS here in New Orleans, five years to the day that Katrina touched down here.
This past Friday I spent some time with the actor and, these days, activist Brad Pitt. His Make It Right foundation is building affordable and storm resistant homes in the Lower Ninth Ward, three miles down the river here from the French Quarter, where we are, a place that five years ago really became a global icon for New Orleans. It was completely flooded and destroyed. The force of the water surged through there from multiple levee breaks, literally forcing houses right off their foundations. After the waters all dried up, all that remained in many spots were the cement front steps of what used to be folks' homes where generations of families were raised. I started our interview by asking Brad Pitt what it was about this city that kept bringing him back and inspired him to help in the effort to make it recover.
MR. PITT: There's a...
MR. WILLIAMS: Yeah.
MR. PITT: ...a feel and a smell and a sound that, that permeates this place that I just find intoxicating. And I love the people and I love driving through the neighborhoods and I love walking around the streets at night. And there's just some feeling of community and, and verve and excitement and color that I don't find anywhere else.
MR. WILLIAMS: Look at this new wall, which we watched go up. Do you look out there and worry? Or, because of the design, are your worries a little bit less founded?
MR. PITT: Well, this was the first question we had to ask ourselves. Are we putting people in danger? We got to make sure that these things are, are done right. And so these homes are, are--they're elevated above Katrina flood waters. They are stronger. They're--they'll take a Category 4, and five times stronger than code, and they all have egress to get out on top. So, no, none of these homeowners will suffer the--those horrors.
The levee's an issue. I, I know it's better than it's been in some time. I worry about the other side. It's two feet lower. So this one's great, but what about the other side. You know? So I, I'm really not qualified to speak on the condition of the whole system. But safety here was one of our four main criteria. Safety. And, and that I feel, I feel very happy and secure about.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, that's the thing. I'm, I'm less qualified than you to talk about the safety of the system. And unless you're a civil engineer, you're not qualified. So all of us who love the place and all of the people who live here are kind of at the mercy of the Army Corps.
MR. PITT: Right.
MR. WILLIAMS: And hope and prayers and...
MR. PITT: Right. Right. And, you know, they've put in $15 billion to get it right. I don't know. It just, it just, the, the thing that I can't get over is if they'd just done it right in the first place. If they had just done it right in the first place.
MR. WILLIAMS: Yeah.
MR. PITT: That's where this name came from, Make It Right. That's what these homes--just do it right. BP oil spill, just do it right. Do it right in the first place instead of this obsession with profit margin. Just do it right.
MR. WILLIAMS: You must have been flattered that BP borrowed your, your slogan, Make It Right.
MR. PITT: Yeah. I found that a bit dastardly as well. A marketing...
MR. WILLIAMS: For the oil spill.
MR. PITT: ...dastardly marketing move, but, you know, it's, it's in character.
MR. WILLIAMS: Tell us more about the homes, because they're unique. First of all, driving in today, first time I've been to Lower Nine in a while, it's striking, and it's happy...
MR. PITT: It's happy.
MR. WILLIAMS: ...and it looks prosperous, more prosperous than it was. Obviously, it was important to you. You said, "If we're going to do this, why don't we start with a new design?" And, and tell us about that.
MR. PITT: Well, we, we thought, you know, we wanted them to be safe, of course. We wanted them to be--they had to be affordable. This is--they had to be built for a low-income family scenario. And then we wanted to embed high performance, this technology. We thought, if, if, if, you know, we got into the--into affordable housing and they're usually given the least, let's say the worst materials.
MR. WILLIAMS: Right.
MR. PITT: Let's say the cheapest materials. Let's say the most toxic materials.
MR. WILLIAMS: Right.
MR. PITT: Cheap appliances that run up their bills. Things that cause a bigger burden on the family. And we thought, "Well, let's see if we can make this place that suffered such devastation, let's talk to the community and see if they will invest in this idea of, of this green technology high-performance house." And I mean, these people are pioneers. They're pioneers, and this is now the greenest neighborhood in the world. That's not bad. I want to tell you, these homes--last, last month, these homes, every one of them but one was producing more energy than they were--than they were eating. So families were getting bills that were $8, $12, just processing fees to tell them they didn't owe anything for utilities. That's an amazing story. And there's no reason now to build any other way. There's just no reason. So I see this place as a template for the future.
MR. WILLIAMS: Our time with Brad Pitt on the top floor of one of the houses he is responsible for building there in the Lower Ninth Ward.
And joining us now to talk more about rebuilding and recovery in the Crescent City, longtime New Orleans journalist Garland Robinette, these days of WWL Radio, the Big 870; New Orleans native, star of the HBO series "Treme," and importantly, the president of the Pontchartrain Park Community Development Corporation, which we'll talk more about, Wendell Pierce; and author of "The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast," the definitive book on what we all witnessed happen here, historian, author Doug Brinkley.
Welcome to you all.
MR. GARLAND ROBINETTE: Thank you.
MR. WILLIAMS: For folks not familiar with the power of Garland Robinette; if you come here to New Orleans at midday and you see people just stopping and abandoning their cars, you see shipping traffic stop on the Mississippi, it's because they're listening to this guy who takes over the radio waves. Garland, until we recently aired our own...
MR. ROBINETTE: Who's going to believe that?
MR. WILLIAMS: ...until we--until we recently aired our own documentary on MSNBC and NBC News, you told me you'd been in a dark radio studio on generators, you, you hadn't seen a lot of the pictures. But now you, you think about this region so much, you've lived here so long, raised in the bayou south of here, four decades in New Orleans, looking back, what was it we witnessed here, what do you think went on those few days?
MR. ROBINETTE: To me, it was a Salvador Dali painting, it was just surreal. The United States of America couldn't take care of itself. I've been to Banda Aceh, I've been all over the world with a company that I owned, and I've seen how we respond to disasters. And the very thought that for five days they couldn't get here and do the job is just, to this day, is mind-boggling.
MR. WILLIAMS: Is it too easy to throw a label on it, stamp it racism, classism? I once asked President George W. Bush on board Air Force One, I said, "Mr. President, if this had happened in Nantucket or New York or Chicago," he interrupted me and said, "You can call me anything you want, but don't call me a racist." That was his response to that. What do you think was at work here?
MR. ROBINETTE: I don't have the expertise, sociological understanding to be able to say, but when I watched your report, I had never before seen the helicopters going over the convention center from day one, and at the Superdome. Superdome has two helipads, the convention center has an empty lot. You can see those people as president of the United States or Brownie or whoever you are, you can't deliver water and, and MRIs? It, it still didn't make any sense.
MR. WILLIAMS: And as you look around your beloved city these days, it's interesting to, to hear people answer the question, "How's New Orleans doing? How's the recovery coming?" How do you answer that question?
MR. ROBINETTE: I think we're doing better than we've ever done. I give you two words that I think is our hope, it's called Mitch Landrieu. I think he's doing a terrific job. We got a police chief with a PhD. We got tons of young people, entrepreneurs coming in here. I, I think we're on the way. We've got a lot of problems to fight. The irony is, to me, I think we're the canary in the gold--in the coal mine for the rest of the country. The rest of the country doesn't understand 30 percent of their energy sitting on wetlands, as it goes away, "America, you're in much bigger trouble than we were, and you refuse to look at it."
MR. WILLIAMS: As we introduce Wendell Pierce and the work he's done in this city, I want to take a look at a piece of videotape. This is Wendell Pierce arriving at the family home and realizing it's been flooded, decimated, looted. It's a shell of its former self.
MR. WENDELL PIERCE: So that's the house. We still own it. It's still our home, and we'll clean it up and rebuild it if we're allowed to, if the neighborhood is inhabitable, and life goes on.
MR. WILLIAMS: That's from the HBO documentary "When the Levees Broke." Wendell, Pontchartrain Park, it's next door, just across the tracks, and I--and I'm sorry you have to look at that piece of videotape again, because it's tough for everybody.
MR. PIERCE: Oh, no. No, it's been a roller coaster. Yes, it is.
MR. WILLIAMS: It's just across the tracks from an equal and opposite development, but how are they different, the two places?
MR. PIERCE: In which development?
MR. WILLIAMS: Pontchartrain Park as--Chantilly West, isn't it, that it's right across from?
MR. PIERCE: Gentilly Woods?
MR. WILLIAMS: Gentilly West, right?
MR. PIERCE: Yeah, it's all--it's all one area, which we now called Pontilly. It's a--Pontchartrain Park is a neighborhood that grew out of the civil rights movement. It was the only place where blacks could purchase homes after post-World War II, you know, segregated New Orleans. And so, out of something ugly, my parents' generation and those pioneers of the civil rights created something beautiful, a neighborhood that was a thousand homes around a historic golf course designed by Joseph Bartholomew, who did most of the courses in New Orleans but, because he was African-American, he couldn't play on them. But what they did was they made a bucolic neighborhood that everyone has a desire to be in, and it became an incubator for talent, you know, first...
MR. WILLIAMS: And it became a model. The crime rate way below the city average.
MR. PIERCE: Right. Ninety-seven percent home ownership, less than 10 percent...
MR. WILLIAMS: Poverty rate way below...
MR. PIERCE: ...poverty, which in the city had like 28 percent poverty. An incubator for talent. First black mayor, Dutch Morial, his son Marc Morial became mayor, now National Urban League president, and our own EPA administrator right now, Lisa Jackson, who is around the corner from our demonstration homes, which are, you know, League-certified platinum now with geothermal and solar, solar power. So it was a place that my parents, the Moses generation, handed off to us, the Joshua generation, and gave us a foundation to go out and be successful men and women in the world. And when I came home that day and, and saw it destroyed, I thought it was dead and gone forever.
MR. WILLIAMS: And you come back here, you're an actor, you've got, you've got series and, and films going on, you're not a developer; but you come back and see the inequity of the kind of scattershot recovery effort and you went to work.
MR. PIERCE: Yeah, what happened, Brian, and what's happening now here in New Orleans, what's on display is the greatest demonstration of the American aesthetic in a generation since we rebuilt Europe with the Marshall Plan. Because we are doing it from the grass roots up, and that's the thing--that's the story that has to be told. Because people are taking the time to step back, reflect on their complicity and the dysfunction that was happening prior to the disaster and during the disaster and after, and they said, "What is going to be my contribution to the dysfunctional dynamics that are here and changing the paradigm?" And that's the call to action that people heard and said, "I'm going to step up to the plate," across this city, "and we're going to exercise our right of self-determination and rebuild it ourselves." And that's the, the, the germ of Pontchartrain Park Community Development Corporation, its past and present residents who came together and decided to create their own development corporation and rebuild homes. But not just infield homes, to replace them, but better. We wanted 21st century solutions, so that's why we decided to make sure that they were lead-certified, silver, gold and platinum, solar and geothermal, just like Mr. Pitt's homes. We dare say that we would put them right up next to his.
MR. WILLIAMS: And this is how New Orleans rebuilds itself.
Doug Brinkley, you've spoken about and, as I said, written the definitive history of what we all witnessed here. You've also gotten into a little bit of a scrape with a local columnist. When you talk about the New Orleans psyche and a, a, a kind of syndrome in this city, what is New Orleans when you're asked for a definition?
MR. DOUGLAS BRINKLEY: Well, first off, it's--you know, when we're looking at this fifth anniversary, we have to remember Mississippi got whacked, too, and...
MR. WILLIAMS: Absolutely. We mentioned that at the--at the top of the broadcast.
MR. BRINKLEY: Yeah. And...
MR. WILLIAMS: Terrible destruction. I passed over the state of Mississippi.
MR. BRINKLEY: Yeah. And, and so yesterday with Congressman John Lewis, we went out to places like Waveland Bay, St. Louis, and trying to honor what happened out there, too. Here in New Orleans, it's--you're--we're sitting in a great history center. Mississippi River, we're looking at a steamboat right here, Nicholas Roosevelt first came down; the Cabildo is right across the street from you, Louisiana Purchase transfer, Plessy vs. Ferguson case held; Walt Whitman conceived "Leaves of Grass" right here. This is a great historical city and it has to be proud of its history.
But too often the politicians here have been corrupt. You had Bill Jefferson, that's a congressman during Katrina, is in jail. Edwin Edwards in jail. There are toxic superfund sites that are buried here between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, it's called Cancer Alley. When you love your state and you love your country, you have to be good conservationists and good stewards. And I feel Louisiana turned--became treated like a third-world place because people wanted to make money and they didn't do the tough things that needed to be done to save the wetlands. It's been a lot of talk for generations. And I think President Obama's coming here now, and this community has to be loud, and they have to--they, they can't be shy. We have to speak out and say, "We must save America's wetlands." If not, you're just saying, "Go, Saints. Go, Bourbon Street," and you're watching your environment collapse.
MR. WILLIAMS: Garland, when we went to Mississippi many times, Waveland, it's easy to see and understand what happened there. It just got--it got swept--it got wiped clean. Here we had the, the complication of 80 percent of this city under water. We have the, the, the only game in town protecting this city, and that is the system of, of levees and flood walls. The actor and activist Harry Shearer coming out with a new documentary he's going to show tomorrow, selected cities around the country and then hopefully on cable TV, all about the Army Corps of Engineers. You've been talking about the wetlands, thinking about the wetlands for years. Is it going to be perversely that the BP money may fund, because of oil in that water, may fund this Marshall Plan that Doug Brinkley's talking about?
MR. ROBINETTE: Personally, I think it's our only chance. I think with the ineptitude of government to realize--and, and forget New Orleans and Louisiana. Your security, America, your gas at the pump--every time we have a slight hurricane your, fuel goes up. If we have a big one that wipes out all the wetlands, you're going to pay $5 a gallon to begin with. But the president doesn't pay attention to it, Congress doesn't pay attention to it. And the fact of the matter is, without us--go back--we are the canary in the coal mine. If we go, you're in deep trouble just economically and securitywise. But just like New Orleans would not listen to that--I did 16 documentaries from 1970 to 1986, and I was Mr. Gloom and Doom. I'm Mr. Gloom and Doom again for the country. And once again, when you and I go to dinner and we talk to people about this, there's a dull glaze that goes over their eyes. I don't know why the human animal isn't interested in survival.
MR. WILLIAMS: I want to break that dull glaze by--and this is an essential part of this coverage, I believe, reminding people what it was like back then. Here is a clip from MEET THE PRESS the Sunday after Katrina that was beamed around the world. The president of Jefferson Parish, Aaron Broussard, pleading with Tim Russert and the authorities who might be watching television to send help.
(Videotape, September 4, 2005)
MR. AARON BROUSSARD: Nobody's coming to get us. Nobody's coming to get us. The secretary's promised, everybody's promised. They've had press conferences. I'm, I'm sick of the press conferences. For God sakes, shut up and send us somebody.
MR. WILLIAMS: Aaron Broussard on live television.
And here's something else, a gentleman named Tony Zumbado, a longtime veteran NBC News cameraman. I was last in Haiti with Tony. We've been all over the world. He's here with us in this city on this trip. Tony went down to the convention center and just using his personal decency went on television in front of a live camera to break the news to the country what the federal government was seemingly unaware of, the fact that people were dead and dying and abandoned without food, water or care at the convention center because they did what they were told, they went there to seek shelter and help. Tony Zumbado on live television.
MR. TONY ZUMBADO: I got to tell you, I thought I seen it all. I've never seen anything in my life like this. These people are very desperate.
Unidentified Woman #1: Those police officers pass us up.
Unidentified Man #1: No food.
Woman #1: We tried to stop them and...
Man #1: No water.
MR. ZUMBADO: These are the families who listened to the authorities. They were told to go to the convention center. There's nothing offered to them--no water, no ice, nothing for the last four days.
Unidentified Woman #2: We have not eaten. We have not had anything to drink.
MR. ZUMBADO: The sanitation was unbelievable, the stench in there.
Unidentified Man #2: Nobody tried to do nothing for this man's mom.
MR. ZUMBADO: Dead people around the walls of the convention center, laying in the middle of the street where they died, right there in a wheelchair.
Man #2: National Guard did not do nothing.
MR. ZUMBADO: I just tell you, I couldn't take it.
MR. WILLIAMS: Tony Zumbado at the time, five years ago.
Wendell, it's a tough question. That's tough to look at. It's...
MR. PIERCE: Yes, it is.
MR. WILLIAMS: It's yesterday, really, and it's been five years. The children and relatives of the people at this table, I'm going to go ahead and guess, would not have gone a week without water or food because their dads, their dads' companies would have found a way, as NBC News did, as NBC News did, to get us supplies in the central business district. They found us in Metairie in the parking lot of a used car dealer, and they made sure we had something to drink. What's the difference? Why didn't it matter to someone? Why wasn't someone able to, to get supplies and get those folks out?
MR. PIERCE: I think the thing that you have to remember is that we have to understand that the disaster lifted the veil of issues of race, of issues of class, not only in this city, but in the country. If we're to move past it and truly be a part of this wonderful recovery that we're feeling, we can't look at it through rose-colored glasses. It is not an indictment of any one person or whatever, it's an indictment of us all. We have to look at all of the issues that caused the fermentation of that poverty. One of the things that we can't lose sight of is the fact that many New Orleanians heard that call from Garland Robinette on their transistors radios in the hinterlands of New Orleans, and we tried to make a Dunkirk run to that convention center--white, black, rich, poor--because they had the humanity within them when they saw those images and when they heard those voices cry out. This was an abject failure and incompetence of our government. No one's feet have been held to the fire because of it. We can sit here and debate the pathology of what caused it--racism, classism, a lack of respect for New Orleans and this region. But does that matter if we don't hold anyone accountable and if we forget the incompetence that was displayed during that week? We have to hold people accountable. If we're not going to go back and hold those people accountable, make sure that we held--hold people accountable now as we move forward. And if we're truly to move past this, we have to look at ourselves and see what is our contribution to this dysfunctional dynamic, and how can we change the paradigm, the dysfunction of class and racism, the dysfunction of education, which is the root cause of all of this. It's easy to play the blame game, but I would rather take that energy and effort and let's put solutions on the table. That's what I tell my community all the time. We have done more from the grass roots up with nongovernment organizations and with charities, with Ponchartrain Park Community Development Corporation and Make It Right and Catholic Charities and Rebuilding Together...
MR. WILLIAMS: The Musicians' Village, Harry Connick Jr.'s...
MR. PIERCE: ...Salvation Army. We have...
MR. WILLIAMS: Yeah.
MR. PIERCE: We have all of those people who've come together. So let that be an example to government of how people of all stripes, of all classes, can bring solutions to the table.
MR. WILLIAMS: Doug Brinkley, what happened to that national conversation we were all supposed to have about what was exposed by Katrina?
MR. BRINKLEY: Oh, we got amnesia. People forget quickly. You've stayed with this, Brian, since day one, and everybody here loves you for that. But a lot of the media just goes away. They come back for fifth anniversaries. You know, when I was watching that--and I was here during the storm and saw all of this. It's just, it's--it became the moment where we--where New Orleans, the--which is--there are no--there's only Entergy, one Fortune 500 company here. If you go up to Minneapolis, St. Paul, there are 20. So there's not a lot of private sector money. We're not a rich city. And so the--Katrina kind of ripped the lid off of a community, and it showed poverty, it showed schools that didn't work, corrupt police force. This happens in too many of our urban areas. And we haven't really taken it--tackled it. In many ways, people have tried to say it's just a New Orleans problem. I think what Garland is saying, we're--it could be you tomorrow. If there were a natural disaster or an engineering failure--there's a story in today's New York Times about bad infrastructure in this country. And so we've got to save our great city. This--New Orleans is loved all over the world. You just say it, and people think of it as, as Rome or as, you know, Rio or something. It's one of the great cities, yet our country seems indifferent to it. And we have leaders like Mary Landrieu--incidentally, Governor Blanco, during Katrina, is the one who eventually got the buses to get those people out of the convention center. And she's the one who got the Superdome refixed, but she's also not given credit for that.
MR. WILLIAMS: Garland...
MR. PIERCE: You also have to remember, with those people, we, here at New Orleans, we have to give them an opportunity to come home, too. And there's been an effort of those who don't have their best interest at heart that want to keep them out of the city. And so I just wanted to make sure that we know that there's a, there's a large section of New Orleanians who haven't had the opportunity to come back.
MR. WILLIAMS: Radio guy, last word. You know 20 seconds when you hear it. Is the glass half full or half empty for your hometown?
MR. ROBINETTE: Definitely half full. I think we're coming back better than we were before. Different, but better.
MR. WILLIAMS: To my friends, Wendell Pierce, who always plays the guy trying to, to borrow cab fare on the great series "Treme," thank you.
MR. PIERCE: Yeah.
MR. WILLIAMS: To Garland Robinette, to Doug Brinkley, the great historian, we'll have to leave it there for now. Thanks to all of you for joining in this discussion.
We're back from New Orleans right after this.
MR. WILLIAMS: And before we go, a programming note. I will have an exclusive interview with President Barack Obama here in New Orleans this afternoon. You can see it tonight on "NBC Nightly News," the Sunday edition.
That's all for today. David Gregory will be back here next week from Washington. And remember, if it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.