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CNN Heroes: Coming Back from Katrina

Aired August 15, 2010 - 19:30   ET



ANDERSON COOPER, HOST: Welcome to New Orleans. I'm Anderson Cooper.

For months now, the oil spill has dominated headlines. But tonight, we're here to discuss another disaster that hit New Orleans five years ago, Hurricane Katrina. The images are ones that we'll never forget.

People stranded on rooftops begging for help. Thousands forgotten outside the convention center waiting for buses that took days to arrive. Bodies floating in the streets.

Five years later, nothing done by man or nature can destroy the spirit of New Orleans. Nothing can keep this great city down, and that's not how it works here. That is simply not how people think here. This city is back and it's back because of the people here and around the country who have come here to help.

Tonight, some examples, some heroes. CNN heroes "Coming Back from Katrina."

We begin with a top 10 CNN hero from 2008, his name is Tag Agoglia. He is the founder of the First Response Team of America, which provides immediate emergency aid to areas hit by disaster. And he does it all for free.

Five years ago, he helped clean up after Katrina and now he's back with a new mission, to clean up oil.

TAD AGOGLIA, CNN HERO: Right now, we're in the marshlands of southern Louisiana. What we do every morning is we travel through the wetlands, which is about 6,000 acres, to the Barrier Islands. The Barrier Islands is right on the gulf coast, right on the ocean. And it's the first area where the oil will come in and it's really the area where the oil needs to be caught first. This is where commerce takes place for people to fish.

This is so much of what Louisiana represents. The beauty and we have to try to protect it. This is a different kind of disaster that most of us here in the United States have not seen before. And it's destroying our land in a way that we don't know, really, what's going to happen.

When a hurricane comes in, it can be cleaned up. Oil is not that easily cleaned up. Oil could stay around for decades. When Katrina hit, I was a contractor that was hired to come in and clean up cities. When I came two or three months later and saw the destruction that remains, I wondered what it would have been like if I had been there on day one. I realize that no longer was I going to respond to disasters two or three months later. I was going to respond immediately. And help people that were in need.

I found founded a nonprofit called First Response Team of America and we respond to natural disasters all over this country and we bring in specialized equipment and experienced team members and technology that are needed on day one.

We wanted to respond to the gulf coast area because the oil spill was so huge, also, we knew that the people here were already suffering from what happened in Katrina. Just pulling up to the barrier islands, this is where we stage ever every morning.

Every day the tides bring in more oil, fresh oil and we've got to stay on top of it. We got to work seven days a week, day and night, to get these beaches cleaned up. We brought in equipment that is able to the suck up large amounts of oil very quickly. This is the first man-made disaster that we've ever responded to.

And at first, I was really taken aback by how it affected me. I didn't realize how emotional it would be to see our homeland and our beaches being negatively affected by this oil. And to begin to see the wildlife affected and the water affected. This is tough. We've got oil right in the middle of hurricane season.

I feel like a lot of the folks down here were just beginning to recover from Katrina. To have enough for the fight but it's tough. And we hope that we'll be able to add some strength for them to keep going.

We're really proud to be here and I think that everybody has a contribution to make in this life. Everybody has something to give. This just so happens to be what I had to give and never think that you don't have something to offer this world. Whether it's the United States or Haiti or anywhere in this world, the one thing that everybody can contribute to this life is simply showing kindness to your neighbor.

We're determined to find the solutions, to help each other and to begin again.

COOPER: When we come back. We'll revisit a woman and her team of heroes who are helping to re-build St. Bernard Parish.

LIZ MCCARTNEY, CNN HERO OF 2008: It looks like we're pretty far along. So we'll go inside and check it out.

COOPER: One home at a time and helping people bear up to the stresses and strains that still linger five years after Katrina.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) COOPER: You're watching "CNN Heroes Coming Back From Katrina." This is St. Bernard Parish. It's an area that was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina five years ago and it's being brought back to life by some remarkable people. The St. Bernard Project have rebuilt some 270 homes using volunteers who come over the years from all around the country.

The organization was founded by a woman named Liz McCartney. When Katrina hit she left her life in Washington, D.C. and moved down here to help rebuild homes and lives. For that dedication and work she was the 2008 CNN hero of the year.

MCCARTNEY: So there's definitely a lot of devastation around here but there's also some really beautiful parts. If we just walk up to this, you can check out the Mississippi River and the skyline of downtown New Orleans. It's just a really beautiful spot.

You know, it also just reminds me of one of the many important reasons to rebuild New Orleans. When Katrina hit, we were living in D.C.. Zach, my boyfriend, we came to New Orleans to volunteer and when we got here we were totally shocked by the physical devastation.

We decided that we had to come back and do something. We knew that more than anything people needed to get back into their homes so we started the "St. Bernard Project." We rebuild homes. To date, we've done just about 300 houses. We've got more than 50 under construction. We're in (INAUDIBLE), this area that had probably six feet of water in it.

The whole interior of their house had to be gutted. It usually takes anywhere from eight to 12 weeks of volunteer labor to do the bulk of the work and the homeowner can move in.

Hi. How's it going?

The St. Bernard Project would be nowhere without our volunteers. We've had over 24,000 in the last four years. Our goal is to get those last 1,000 families out of FEMA trailers and back into their homes.

This is Aaron and he's in charge of rebuilding this homeowner's house. Can you take me on a tour?

AARON: Sure. Knowing that I'm there like helping to restore some dignity to their lives. That's really a great reward and that's what keeps me here.


KEITH FLORANE, HOMEOWNER: I got in touch with the St. Bernard Project and when they showed up, they showed up with a truckload and sheetrock and materials and the first day the volunteers came, I just like, balled.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, they get to get back into a home. But I think the relationships are such a significant part of it. FLORANE: You just don't understand just how much all you'll helped out.

MCCARTNEY: So we're in the Lower Ninth Ward right now and this on the right is the Martin Luther King School. It's the only school that's been reopened in the Lower Ninth Ward. We're going to be building some new homes just adjacent to the school.

Right now, the average rent for a one bedroom is twice as much as it was before the storm.

We're creating new homes from the ground up and we're selling them to low to moderate income families and it's actually cheaper to buy a house than it is to rent one. It's important to build new homes in the Lower Ninth Ward because so many houses were damaged.

The majority of them had to be bulldozed and now there's lot of empty lots here. I'm excited to think that this empty lot will be a beautiful home that a family can move into. It will be affordable and it will be a place that people are proud to call home.

This is the group room in our Center for Wellness and Mental Health. We intentionally opened up the center in this space that doesn't feel like a doctor's office but more like a community space where people can come and get well.

We realized that life was going to be tough once they were back in their houses so we decided to provide really high-quality free mental health services. About three months ago, we had another disaster in the gulf and we decided that we couldn't just sit by and not do anything.

So we've launched our oil spill response. That's focusing primarily on providing mental health services to people in the fishing communities.

YVONNE LANDRY, ST. BERNARD PARISH RESIDENT: My husband is a fisherman here in St. Bernard Parish. I found being around the other ones, dealing with the same things that I'm dealing with, that was therapy for me. Just hearing that I'm not the only one out there that has the same problems that I thought I did.

MCCARTNEY: The country needs New Orleans to be back. We want to create and we want to be a strong place. We want to be the place to live in the U.S. in the next couple of years. There's a lot going on in this city and it's really feeling strong and ready to totally transform.

COOPER: Rebuilding your life is not easy. For some, the strain shows. That's why Liz McCartney and her group started a mental health clinic here in St. Bernard Parish. Joycelyn Heintz is the clinic manager. I spoke to her a short time ago.

In terms of mental health issues, what have you seen in the last five years since Katrina? JOYCELYN HEINTZ, ST. BERNARD PROJECT: I've seen the ramping up of the mental health issues that anxiety, PTSD, depression, and with the last couple of years. I think the first couple of years it was survival mode. Trying to get back into your homes. When you have your mind focused on other things than, you know, you're not dealing with yourself.

COOPER: You said that working, helping to rebuild other people's homes actually helped you deal with some of the issues you were facing in the wake of Katrina?

HEINTZ: Definitely. With me being around volunteers and being around positive people, to be able to share my story with them, that was my therapy.

COOPER: So you're doing outreach to fishermen's families?

HEINTZ: We are. We started with focus groups letting them know what kind of services we had but being available to let them tell us what they need right now. Right now -

COOPER: What is it they need?

HEINTZ: Right now, their focus is on their children, it's summertime. And they want to take their children's minds off of not being in the water. Right now, we're doing the fun camp.

COOPER: I talked with some fishermen who said there's some sense of helplessness. You know, you just see this oil out there and there's often - unless you're actively working and cleaning up, which a lot of them want to but haven't been hired to, there's a sense of there's not much you can do.

HEINTZ: There's still lots of cleanup and it's sad that people are working for the people that hurt their culture, their heritage. And they have to work to be able to get money.

COOPER: Do you still find there's a stigma with people not wanting to come forward and seek out mental health counseling.

HEINTZ: The fishermen are saying, you know, they're not ready for it. But I think with working through the wives and the children, the men will finally, you know, open up and say, "you know what, I need it, too."

COOPER: In terms of mental health professionals around, there's been a real dip and a real lack of mental health professionals to help people here?

HEINTZ: Yes. We have two psychiatrists in the parish.

COOPER: There's only two psychiatrists -

HEINTZ: Two psychiatrists in the parish.

And then we have our two psychiatrists in our clinic. And we offer free services to people that don't have insurance.

COOPER: What do you hope happens over the next year?

HEINTZ: I see having the wives interested and giving back to their own community. They don't want a handout. They want to be able to do something and give back. And I think the main thing is to be able to teach them how to give back into their own community.

COOPER: Up next, a CNN hero. With connections to the soul of this city, the music. See how this jazz drummer inspiring more than a 100 kids to stay off the streets and stay connected to their roots.

Also, meet an extraordinary woman who is putting education first in New Orleans.


COOPER: The Lower Ninth Ward was one of the hardest-hit communities in all of New Orleans and progress here has been incredibly slow and it's hard to see. This is the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology.

It's the first school to reopen since Hurricane Katrina in the Lower Ninth Ward and amazingly, it's still the only public school in the entire Lower Ninth Ward. Dr. Doris Hicks is the CEO and the principal of the school and she has become a great example of the resilience and strength of the people in this community.

This is still the only school in the Ninth Ward?

DR. DORIS HICKS, CEO, MARTIN LUTHER KINGS JR. CHARTER SCHOOL FOR SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY: Absolutely. This is the only one. And from what I understand, it may be the only one for a while.

COOPER: And originally, before Katrina, you were what, kindergarten through sixth grade.

HICKS: Before Katrina, we were pre-kindergarten through sixth great. After Katrina, the first couple of years we were pre-kindergarten through eighth grade and we were hopeful that another school because before Katrina, there was six schools in our area. When we found out there was not a high school on the horizon and we lobbied the state to add the high school.

COOPER: What sort of an impact does having this school here have in this community?

HICKS: This school has revitalized the community. This is the beacon of the community. This is home for me. I knew that the students needed us. They needed to continue their education and that's why we had such a strong desire to come back.

COOPER: It's now become a charter school and about half the public schools in New Orleans are charter schools.

HICKS: Absolutely. COOPER: What is the importance of that? Why charter schools?

HICKS: Well, after Katrina, the state decided to take over failing schools. So we decided to have a charter. You have your own board and you can plot your own course.

COOPER: And test scores are going up a little bit?

HICKS: Yes. Test scores have gone up. But, of course, we don't gauge academic success purely on test scores. We gauge it on the attendance every day. When we see the kids, our students increasing. That's a good thing.

COOPER: I love this portrait of Dr. King.

HICKS: Yes, that was painted by some of our after school students. And we reflect on that portrait and others all the time. We are very hopeful now. It's been a journey. It's been a struggle. And it still continues to be a struggle for many of us.

COOPER: Why isn't more being rebuilt IN THE Lower Ninth Ward?

HICKS: Well, that's the $64,000 question. In New Orleans, we are asking that. We have had a lot of community meetings with officials and we are asking that.

COOPER: Five years after Katrina, what is the lesson? What's the message from here, from your vantage point?

HICKS: Five years after Katrina, the message that I would give is that individuals have to decide that they are going to do what they have to do to get things done. Whether it's schooling, whether it's houses or whatever.

You got to understand, our school wasn't due to come back until someone came said 2012, 2013. And we decided we are not going to look at that.

The city of New Orleans in many ways and in many communities is back. I mean, the spirit, many of the people have returned. But obviously, a lot of communities are still facing huge challenges. And this probably -

HICKS: And we are. We are facing huge challenges. It was a struggle for us to get our school. But we were determined by any means necessary that we are coming back. We are very, very excited about what we are doing.

COOPER: It's clear, there hasn't been enough progress here in the Lower Ninth Ward over the last five years. But as Dr. Hicks pointed out, the sense of community here is still very strong.

All right. Let's meet another educator now. His name is Derrick Tabb. He is a drummer with a famous Rebirth Brass Band. He's also a top 10 CNN hero from 2009. He's helped countless kids reconnect with the culture of New Orleans by learning to play a musical instrument. This, of course, is the birthplace of jazz. Recently, Derek took us to a place that inspired his program that apparently he hasn't visited since it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

DERRICK TABB, 2008 TOP 10 CNN HERO: Right now, you're in the world famous Sixth Ward. A part of the Treme area is famous because of the musician that come through. Pre-Katrina in New Orleans, we had a lot of middle schools and high school marching bands. One of the school that stood out was Andew J. Bell, where I attended.

After Katrina, it just really never came back. We left it as you can see, it's all abandoned and ruined. This is where we used to practice at with the band. I used to march out here. It's where we got our marching lessons at. The kids got into the music program because they didn't have anything else to do and it kept them off the streets.

Most kids pick out the school by how good the band is down here in New Orleans. Right now, we are about to walk into the world famous Andrew Bell Band room. This is actually my first time in this band room since right before Katrina. It's a little heart breaking, you know, to have a program that was so well organized and now nothing. It's kind of depressing.

Seeing this building today inspired me to say all the kids not going there, I want them by me. They want to learn music, I want to give it to them.

Now that we're warmed up. Are you ready to play?


TABB: Band, are we ready?


TABB: Are we ready?


TABB: One, two, on the bass drum play.


TABB: I want to be able to see future band directors, future musicians, you know, I want to see a lot. I demand a lot out of them. I want to see a lot. Thinking so much of them and them wanting to do it. That give them the pride when they want to succeed.

You all remember (INAUDIBLE), folks, huh?


TABB: All kind of new doors have opened up for us. The actor, Tim Robbins is inspired by the program. He called up and it was like, "hey man, how can I help? Can I do a fund-raiser for you? It was like wow.

Well, man, clean up crew.

TIM ROBBINS, ACTOR: This organization has a goal of taking someone in middle school that could potentially head down a road that is destructive and put them on a road to a college education. Self- confidence and leadership.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Music is the way to express yourself.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ever since I've gotten into the music program, I have maintained a 3.5 and 6 average.

ANI DIFRANCO, MUSICIAN: New Orleans has a spirit that's just unstoppable. You know, I think the soul of the country is somewhere down here in the blood and guts. The art that emanates out of here is important. So I think supporting New Orleans is supporting American culture.

TABB: That's not from New Orleans. Know this, that people from New Orleans are not going to give up and coming back strong. The kids are going to be bigger in everything because of the stuff that they have to go through. The struggle they are fighting, they are going to be very big. They will be very strong.

COOPER: Well, that's it for our report. But it's certainly not the end of our story here. Five years after Hurricane Katrina, and this city still faces many huge challenges. But its culture, its spirit, its people have come back. Five years after Hurricane Katrina and this city, these people here have not forgotten what happened and neither should we.

Thanks very much for watching this special. I'll see you on "360."