Oprah in Houston

In August 2005, the world watched as Hurricane Katrina swept ashore and wrecked havoc on the Gulf Coast. In the days that followed, Oprah and her Angel Network team traveled to Louisiana and Mississippi to help those stranded by the storm. Almost six months ago, Oprah made a promise to always remember the people she met and the stories she heard. "I feel deeply that we owe it to every single family who has suffered to not forget and to not let them stand alone," she said.

With the help of correspondents Anderson Cooper and Lisa Ling, Oprah is making good on her promise. Here are the stories you need to hear.
Anderson Cooper

Less than 48 hours after Hurricane Katrina came ashore, Anderson landed in the Gulf Coast with a search and rescue team. He later joined Oprah's Angel Network team to report on the rising death toll and destruction in Waveland, Mississippi.

Although months have passed, Anderson says neighborhoods like New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward haven't changed much since floodwaters flattened homes and businesses in August. "There is no life here," Anderson says.

The Lower Ninth Ward was once a thriving, working-class community where families knew each other and most people owned their own homes, says Oliver Thomas, president of the New Orleans City Council. "There is a level of suffering that goes on here every day," Oliver tells Anderson. "I tell myself every day, 'I'm not going to cry when I come here to this place where we grew up...that gave us our life.'"

As Anderson walks through the homes that are left standing, the only reminders of the families that once lived there are personal items strewn across floors and canned goods in the cupboards. Although that is not what Anderson finds most disturbing.

"The thing that I find so haunting—there are these piles of debris, and you don't know what's under there," he says. "There could be a person under that, and someday, a bulldozer is going to come pick all that up and dump them. People are just going to disappear."
Larry Ingargiola, director of homeland security for Saint Bernard Parish

Another community devastated by Hurricane Katrina is Saint Bernard Parish, a suburb of New Orleans. Before the storm, more than 45,000 homes lined the town's streets. Now, only 50 homes are in livable condition, says Larry Ingargiola, Director of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness for Saint Bernard Parish.

According to Larry, only 20 percent of Saint Bernard residents had flood insurance when the disaster struck. Before Katrina, Saint Bernard had never flooded and was not located in a designated flood plane, Larry tells Anderson.

An insurance agent recently visited what's left of Larry's home and offered him $7,000 to repair the roof. "My house is totally destroyed," Larry says. "The only thing that's left is the roof...I'll have a new roof with nothing underneath it."

As Anderson walks the streets, he comments that Saint Bernard feels like a ghost town. For Larry, it feels like a nightmare. "Every morning I wake up, I say, 'Maybe this was a bad dream,'" he says.

Anderson tells Oprah that many people like Larry feel forgotten by their fellow Americans. "It seems like, to people [in the Gulf Coast], that the rest of the country has moved on," Anderson says. "But, when you go to New Orleans, when you go to Waveland, Mississippi, Katrina's winds are still blowing. I mean the storm is still all around...the disaster continues."
Anderson Cooper and the Herbert family

Anderson visits Our Lady of Guadalupe Church outside New Orleans for the memorial service of Ethel, an 82-year-old mother whose story gained national attention after a CNN special report.

In August, Ethel and her daughter Patricia were forced to evacuate their home when the floodwaters started rising. Patricia feared this day, she says. "I stayed up all night...as I was watching Katrina come in, I was praying," Patricia says. "I was saying, 'Oh lord, this may be the one.'"

Ethel's arthritis made it difficult to walk, so Patricia says she and her siblings loaded her on a hospital bed and began pushing her down Highway I-10 to escape the rising waters. "My momma...she had a look I would never forget," Patricia tells Anderson. "She was so scared—that look on her face was so frightening."

In the heat and confusion of the evacuation, Ethel's condition worsened and she had a stroke. Medical personnel rushed Ethel into a helicopter—without identification or any family members.

Ethel died two days later. Her children had no idea where she was.
Denise Herbert during CNN interview

For months, Patricia claims she and her siblings searched for their mother in morgues and nursing homes throughout the Gulf...hoping she'd be found alive.

Finally, they got their first break when Denise, Patricia's sister, broke down on national television. During an interview with CNN, Denise's plea for help caught the attention of Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, the governor of Louisiana, and a rescue worker who had helped treat Ethel.

Days later, the family learned that Ethel's body was in a morgue—unclaimed and unidentified for more than five months. "We had a loving mother—a caring mother," Ethel's son Dennis says. "There is no way we wanted to see our mother go the way she did."

Anderson believes that it wasn't Ethel Herbert who was lost—it was the system that was lost. "We've talked to so many families who have been in that same situation...desperately searching," he says.
Anderson with Robert and his brother David

According to Find Family National Call Center, nearly 12,000 people were reported missing after the hurricane. Almost six months later, more than 2,000 of those people are still missing. Though the state of Louisiana stopped searching house-to-house on October 3, 2005, dozens of bodies have recently been recovered...many of them by family members of the missing.

When Katrina hit and the levees burst, Joyce Green's house was surrounded by water. Joyce and six members of her family—including her sons Robert and David—scrambled to the roof to escape the flood. "It looked like Lake Pontchartrain down here," Robert remembers.

The water rose so high that it lifted the house and swept it down the street. According to Robert, when the house finally crashed into a tree and ripped apart, Joyce fell through a hole into the water. Her son Jonathan was able to pull her out and resuscitate her, but she eventually died, Robert says.

"The last image I had of my mother was [of her] laying on her back with a leaf in her mouth. Dead from the water that went in her lungs," he says.

Robert's 3-year-old granddaughter, Shenae, also died in the floodwaters. "She was just too small to fight," he says. Shenae's body was recovered, but Joyce was lost in the debris.
David Green

After Joyce's body swept away in the floodwaters, Robert and his brother David made repeated calls to Louisiana authorities about organizing search parties. They say they even provided information—such as the exact location where they believed their mother's remains could be found—to help in the recovery. The state still wasn't able to locate her. "They said they were out here with dogs," David says. "They said they searched a 10-mile area."

David and Robert simply did not accept that their mother couldn't be found. "I just got to the point where I said, 'I don't think you're telling the truth,'" David says. "I said, 'Me and my brothers, we'll go find my mom. We'll do that since you all can't.'"
Anderson Cooper and David Green

The Green family returned to the scene of their family's trauma. They divided up the search area and within five minutes, they found Joyce's body. "I saw the brown of her skull, and I knew that was my mother," Robert says.

"We didn't have to move any wood. We didn't have to dig. We didn't have to use any of the equipment we brought to search with," David says.

Though this was a sad, emotional experience for the family members, it did provide closure. "That was the most important thing to us," David says. "Our mission was to come and get our mom."

Anderson says that Robert and David's story is so troubling because it's so common in the Gulf Coast. "Soldiers on the battlefield have a saying, which is, ‘Never leave a fallen comrade behind,'" Anderson tells Oprah. "There are front lines here in the United States. ... There are people who have fallen, who have not been brought back and have not been returned home."
Patrick and Sherry on 'The Scotia Prince'

The Scotia Prince, a ferry boat, sits idly at a dock in Saint Bernard Parish. It normally carries passengers from Maine to Canada, instead it is filled to capacity—all 320 cabins—with people left homeless by Hurricane Katrina.

Patrick and Sherry are among the 650 residents. In their cabin they keep their only possessions: a wool bedspread, two pillowcases and a teddy bear. "This is all I've got," Patrick says.

Residents of The Scotia Prince are left counting the days until FEMA stops paying for the boat to stay docked. Even when that happens, some say they still don't want to leave Louisiana. "I lived down here all my life, and this is where I want to be," Patrick says.
Anderson and Ann

Reporting from New Orleans's French Quarter, Anderson meets families who have been living for months in FEMA-provided rooms at the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel. On February 13, FEMA stopped paying for 12,000 homeless families to stay in hotels and temporary shelters. With no money and no place to call home, many were threatened with eviction.

Ann and her family—including two sons, two daughters-in-law and six grandchildren—have been living in the hotel since October 28. Since they don't receive aid money for food, meals are a particular challenge, Ann says.

In Ann's room six people, including three of her grandchildren, share a cramped space. Everyone sleeps wherever they can. The children play in the hallway or in the room. "It's a crowd but we manage," she says.

When they are forced to leave, Ann says she and her family will have nowhere else to go. They have an apartment waiting, but without plumbing or gas working, it's still days from being ready for them. "I'd better trust God on this one," she says.
Toni and her son

Toni, Ann's daughter-in-law who lives in another part of the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel, says that being stranded in the hotel has been difficult on her children. "We try to stay focused, we try to do the best we can," she says.

Their problems even extend beyond the difficulty of living for months in a small room with no resources. "My daughter was just put out of school because she didn't have the right color uniform shirt," Toni says. "I can't afford a $25 uniform shirt."

Toni says the experience has left her emotionally drained. "I go in the bathroom and cry. I kiss my babies and I cry. I have a twin sister I call and cry to every single day," she says.

People may wonder why Ann, Terry and Toni don't leave New Orleans and start a new life somewhere else. Ann says she feels that staying in the city is important. "This is my home," she says. "I have been here all my life, and all I've known is New Orleans. ... I want to put my family back together."

After Anderson interviewed Ann, her prayers were answered. The Astor Crowne Plaza agreed to house her family for another three days until their apartment would be ready.

Many families aren't as fortunate. Anderson predicts that many people will end up in shelters or will have to depend on relatives for help. FEMA is now offering rental assistance to those who want to move back to New Orleans, but apartments are scarce and rents are "sky high," he says.
Oprah and Anderson Cooper

Temporary housing is a blessing for many survivors of the storm, but many wonder if and when their homes will be rebuilt. Unfortunately, there's no easy answer.

"There's a lot of plans, there's not a lot of action," Anderson says. "There's a lot of committees...there's not a lot of decisions that have been made."

Anderson says the rebuilding efforts are complicated by political, racial and economic issues. Until these issues are resolved, Anderson tells Oprah, people won't know if they can rebuild their homes because their entire neighborhood may still be condemned.

Oprah believes that the world is looking to America to put these kinds of issues aside and step up as a nation to help those who need it most...and Anderson agrees.

"We are judged by how we treat the least fortunate among us," Anderson says. "We are judged—and should be judged—as a nation and as a people by how we care for our fellow citizens. We need to take a hard look at ourselves about where we are now, and what we're doing...and if we're doing enough."
Lisa Ling in Pass Christian, Mississippi

Lisa Ling, an Oprah Show correspondent who reported alongside the Angel Network team in September reported alongside the Angel Network team in September, returns to the region to see how communities are coping. She travels to Pass Christian, a Mississippi town about five miles from the ocean. Surveying the destruction, Lisa points to a home crushed beneath a fallen tree. A marking on the home indicates it was inspected by government officials on September 5, 2005...but it seems no action has been taken since that time.

Lisa is advised by officials not to walk on what used to be people's front lawns because of unsafe E. coli contamination. Yet the people of this community are living in trailers and tents on that same contaminated property.

She points out the rubble, debris and litter everywhere, including a refrigerator with decayed meat still inside. "I can't even describe the smell," Lisa says. "That can't be safe for the people who are living here. It's a really dangerous place."
Tracy Partridge, a second grade teacher at Delisle Elementary

In Pass Christian, just about the only structure that survived Katrina is Delisle Elementary School. According to Ramona Berry, the principal at Delisle Elementary, 86 percent of her students, as well as many of the teachers, are living in temporary housing.

"I just never would have thought that five months later things would still be like they are," Tracy Partridge, a second grade teacher at Delisle says. "Here I am, a Mississippi school teacher, and I'm on welfare."

Some of that temporary housing in Pass Christian is in a place called "The Village." The people living there, Lisa says, refer to it as "Tent City."
Lisa Ling with Ginger and Ben Robinson, residents of 'Tent City'

There are more than 100 people living in "Tent City." The makeshift camp has no bathrooms. Residents must use Port-o-Potties and take showers outside. During her visit, Lisa reports that it's infested with gnats and mosquitoes—stagnant water remains in the middle of the camp weeks after the last rainfall.

Ginger and Ben Robinson, and their children Kelsey and Chelsea, call "Tent City" home. Ginger describes their living situation "as a challenge." All four of them share the same room.

Ginger says the residents of this makeshift community feel abandoned...like so many other survivors. "It feels like you're going to be here forever," she says. "No one really thinks about Mississippi."

Though the conditions at "Tent City" are far from acceptable, an approaching deadline leaves residents even more concerned. On March 15, Lisa says, the camp will close and they will be forced to leave.
Unused FEMA trailers

Not far from "Tent City" are trailer parks full of unused FEMA mobile homes. Sandra, Lisa's guide through Pass Christian, says they've been there since shortly after the storm. "'Tent City' would be able to fit in those trailers," says Lisa.

"With lots of trailers left over," Sandra adds. "That's part of the frustration here. People don't know that these trailers aren't rolling out of there [one] behind the other."

When Lisa and Sandra try to investigate one of the FEMA trailer parks, a security guard at the gate informs them it's a "closed government site." Lisa asks to speak with someone in charge, but she and Sandra are turned away.

"We've just been with hundreds of people who are living in tents, and they're wondering why they can't get trailers," Lisa says. "It's just infuriating."

Lisa continues to search for answers. She says she called FEMA to ask about the empty mobile homes she saw sitting near Pass Christian. "They said, 'Look, we're trying as hard as we can, ... it's not like we just give these trailers and distribute them openly,'" she says. "They're dealing with it on an individual basis."
Sandra, a resident of Long Beach, Mississippi

In Long Beach, Mississippi, Sandra, a school principal, mother of two and pillar of the community, takes Lisa on a tour of what remains of her town's commercial area. Sandra explains that 95 percent of the city's businesses have been completely destroyed.

Next, Lisa and Sandra visit a typical neighborhood—including the spot where Sandra's house used to stand. Now, all that remains is the foundation. "All my husband and I could think about is, 'Where are my kids going to live?'" Sandra says.

The devastation is so severe—Sandra's once familiar home and neighborhood block are now completely unrecognizable. Pointing to her property, Sanda says, "One of the hardest things is I still have to make a mortgage payment on this every month."

What does Sandra want people to know about her town? "There are no restaurants open...there are no grocery stores open," Sandra says. "People don't know that even the areas that have been 'cleaned' or 'cleared' are still contaminated."

"I think everybody here feels forgotten," Sandra says.
Linda, a resident of Gulfport, Mississippi

Lisa travels to Gulfport, Mississippi, where she visits an apartment complex damaged by Katrina. Despite the conditions, Lisa learns that 25 families are still calling it "home." She meets Lily, one of the residents who has been living next to an open sewer for months. Lily says the "terrible," unsanitary living conditions have taken a toll on her health. "I went to the doctor and they said I had an infection on my lungs," Lily says. "And then sores got all [over my head]. I think it's from all the debris." Despite these conditions, Lily says she has no other place to go.

Another resident, Linda, has been living without a roof, plumbing or electricity since the hurricane struck. At 60 years old, Linda has been using a bucket as a toilet for more than 5 months.

Like her neighbor Lily, Linda has nowhere else to live. She tells Lisa that her hope is that she'll eventually be provided with a trailer from government agencies.

"This place disappeared off the radar screen," Lisa says. "It's just this forgotten place."
Anderson Cooper and Lisa Ling

Lisa admits that when she first found out she was being sent to Mississippi on special assignment, she was a little disappointed. "I wanted to go see New Orleans," she says. "I hadn't been there since right after the hurricane struck. I didn't know what to expect when I got to Mississippi."

When Lisa arrived, she knew why she had been sent to these coastal communities. "It is so much worse than I ever imagined," Lisa says. "It is truly as though it's just frozen in time."

After Lisa left Mississippi, she says she couldn't stop thinking about women like Linda and Lily and the other survivors she met along the way. "I was haunted, and it was very emotional for me, especially after I got home," she remembers. "It's hard to go back to a normal life knowing that Americans are living this way."

Anderson thinks FEMA is overwhelmed by the challenge ahead. "They have done a lot," he says. "It's not as if they're evil people. They are trying hard. ... But, it is this huge bureaucracy that doesn't seem able to think outside the box ... and [according to officials] they're not ready to cut through red tape to get these trailers in play."
Anderson Cooper, Lisa Ling and Oprah

Every Hurricane Katrina survivor has a story, and every story is different, but Anderson believes all the survivors have one thing in common—resilience.

"The people are waking up every day not knowing what the day will hold, but they're putting one foot in front of the other, and they're moving forward," Anderson says. "They're trying to rebuild their lives, and we can all help."

Anderson says these coastal communities need volunteers, but they also need tourists to help rebuild the local economies.

Lisa thinks it's important for all Americans to travel to the Gulf Coast and see first-hand how Katrina has destroyed a piece of the nation. "Americans really need to see this," Lisa says. "It's not a war zone. This is a natural disaster that has struck part of our country, and it could happen anywhere. It could happen to any one of us, at any time."
FROM: An Oprah Special Report: The Katrina Stories No One is Telling
Published on February 21, 2006


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