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Abandoned in New Orleans

Down in New Orleans: Reflections from a Drowned City

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Scott Jagow: Tomorrow, it'll be two years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. The city is still a shadow of what it once was. Basic things most of us take for granted seem like luxuries in New Orleans. Things like sewer service.

Billy Sothern: Recently when we had a forecast of coming rain, I went outside my house and I had to pry open my own drain on my street because the city doesn't provide those basic services that people need. So in order for me to have a street that would clear where the rain wouldn't flood my home, I needed to pry up a 100-pound sewer grate and get into the sewers myself.

Jagow:Billy Sothern has lived in New Orleans for six years. He's just written a book about what life has been like the past two years. Billy, you were telling me several stories like this. Where is the government? What's the problem?

Sothern: I think the local government alternates between total incompetence and utter and complete corruption. And I think that degrades our sense that government can be there to help us because for so long they've failed us. And then on the national level, we have people running who are cynical about its capacity to do anything for us, but the problem is that our problems are too big for anything else to address these issues.

Jagow: So what about the business community in New Orleans? Is the business community helping out?

Sothern: I'm originally from New York, which has a sort of dynamic and powerful business community, so by contrast it's always seemed to me that the New Orleans business community was sort of anemic at best. The economy is so exclusively focused on tourism so we don't have the same massive corporations that can lend a big helping hand that places like New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco might.

Jagow: Right.

Sothern: I think that in the end, the real can-do spirit has come from individuals who've taken the initiative themselves to rebuild their homes and to rebuild their communities.

Jagow: Billy based on what you've seen over the last couple years, you know New Orleans had to kind of start over. What do you think has worked and not worked?

Sothern: It's very difficult to look across New Orleans and find many things to give us reason for optimism. One of the most discouraging things has been the lack of real consistent federal funds for individuals to rebuild their homes, where anyone who wants to rebuild, who can afford to rebuild is left to do so without any real promise about the future of their investments and where there's a real distinct possibility that in a few years, they still won't have any neighbors, nor will they have garbage service, nor will they have 911.

Jagow: Well Billy you've lived in New Orleans now for about six years. How long do you think you can live in that city with the way it is, having to, you know, dig up your own sewers?

Sothern: About New Orleans, I have the fervor of a convert. I have no intention of leaving New Orleans and I have every intention of doing everything I can to try to push that the recovery happens here to make this a more just and safer city for the people who live here. The streets remain so unsafe that people don't leave their homes at night, but I think from my perspective and the perspective of the people who live here who are dedicated to the city, we're not going to let things like that drive us out. We're going to insist on a better, safer, more just city.

Jagow: All right Billy Sothern, his book is called "Down in New Orleans: Reflections from a Drowned City," thanks for joining us.

Sothern: Thank you.

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