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ON THE STORY

Correspondents Discuss Stories Behind the Stories of Hurricane Katrina.

Aired February 25, 2006 - 19:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


CAROL LIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: ON THE STORY coming up in just a moment. But first, a look at what's happening right now in the news. At least five people died north of Baghdad today when a car bomb exploded in the Shiite holy city of Karballah. More than 30 people were hurt.
The state of the world, well, is giving the oil industry the jitters. Crude prices bounced yesterday, 4 percent after a botched suicide attack on a Saudi refinery. Prices closed in New York just shy of $63 a barrel.

Actor Don Knotts is dead. He was best known for playing Deputy Barney Fife from the long-running "Andy Griffith Show." He had more than 70 film and television credits to his name. His last work was in last year's animated feature "Chicken Little." Don Knotts was 81.

Coming up next ON THE STORY, a look at the coverage of hurricane Katrina six months after the devastated New Orleans and parts of the Gulf coast were absolutely wiped out. And later on "CNN Presents," reasonable doubt. Can crime labs be trusted? A CNN investigation reveals serious flaws. That's coming up at 8:00 Eastern. That's what's happening right now in the news. I'm Carol Lin. Now to ON THE STORY.

ALI VELSHI, CNN ANCHOR, ON THE STORY: This is CNN and we are on the story. From the campus of the George Washington University in the heart of the nation's capital, our correspondents bring the stories behind the stories they're covering.

Susan Roesgen is on the story in New Orleans as residents and tourists want Mardi Gras as a celebration and a sign of hope.

Sean Callebs looks at how the city still struggles with basic services, even medical care.

Kathleen Koch shows us why the Gulf coast can be jealous of attention and aid going to New Orleans.

Internet reporter Jacki Scheckner will look for blogger reaction to how the whole region is faring six months after Katrina.

Tom Foreman is on the story of whether FEMA is any better prepared now for hurricanes.

And Dana Bash is on the White House story and political backlash over an Arab company taking control of key American ports, including New Orleans.

Welcome to our special look at New Orleans and the Gulf coast half a year after Katrina. I'm Ali Velshi and with me here, Dana Bash and Tom Foreman. All of our correspondents will be taking questions from our studio audience which is drawn from visitors and college students from Washington and across the country.

The Mardi Gras in New Orleans. It's another step along the reconstruction road, but maybe a reminder that it takes more than water and wind to erase centuries of tradition. Our Gulf coast correspondent Susan Roesgen is on the story of Mardi Gras and the comeback of those wild garish floats moving through the city. Here's her reporter's notebook.

SUSAN ROESGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Whenever out of town friends come to New Orleans, I like to take them here to Mardi Gras world where you can get so close to things that are actually on the floats. In the old days, they used to make these figures and the floats themselves out of paper mache. Today they're styrofoam covered in fiberglass. They actually make the floats here. They sort of change them up from year to year based on what each parading crew's (ph) theme is. You ever been on a Mardi Gras float? Come on, I'll take you up inside one. When the parades first started rolling 150 years ago, the only light came from torches they carried along side the floats. Today the floats have the most sophisticated fiber optics.

There's is big debate this year about whether or not we should even have Mardi Gras with so many people displaced by the hurricane. This was a city that was founded on Mardi Gras in the year 1699. And if we ignore our history, ignore the traditions here, then I think this city loses a part of its soul.

VELSHI: And Susan Roesgen joins us now from New Orleans. She is -- if we're lucky, she's going to get barraged again by beads any second now as the floats pass by. And Susan, after all these months of talking to you, it's heartening to see you and others in New Orleans having so much fun. I know we've got a lot of questions in the audience, so let's start right away. Your name and where you're from.

QUESTION: Lauren from Greenville, South Carolina. Do you think that the city of New Orleans is ready to have Mardi Gras or should they still be concentrating on helping those who are suffering as a result of Katrina

ROESGEN: Well, you know, that's been the big debate down here, but ready or not, it is here and the Mardi Gras weekend is upon us. And you know, it's true the city is still struggling. We're still trying to get back on our feet here and yet this is the joyful time for the city. This is part of our culture and many people say we have to celebrate it, we can't ignore it because this is who we are.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Let me ask you something, Susan if you can. This is Tom. You've had a lot of experience with plenty of Mardi Grases (ph). Is it a normal Mardi Gras? Do the people there feel this is really Mardi Gras or is it a brave show like you're making right now?

ROESGEN: Tom, you're right. Part of this of course is a brave show, but you know what, it's also therapy. This is group therapy. This is city therapy for us. Yes, we're still gutting our homes in many parts of the city. Yes we're still waiting for city services. Yes, we're still waiting for those FEMA trailers, but when you come to the parade route, it's a time to forget and to remember, to remember who we are, what this city is and what we want the city to be in the future.

VELSHI: Let's go to the audience again. I've got another question for you. Sir, where are you from and what's your name?

QUESTION: My name is Rob. I'm from Davis, California and my question is, how is the city of New Orleans prepared to deal with the new racial makeup of the city?

ROESGEN: Well, that's a good question. I don't think we really know how we're going to deal with it yet. We do believe that the racial makeup is going to be considerably different. A lot of predominantly African-American parts of town were just wiped out by the flood. A narrow sliver along the Mississippi River was spared. That's predominantly white. And yet parts of other areas of town, both black and white were wiped out. It looks as if a large portion of the African-American community will not come back, but we really don't know yet and we're trying to bring them back. And Mardi Gras and the jobs that it brings is one way to try to bring some folks back, both black and white.

VELSHI: And Susan, that's part of the debate here because Mardi Gras has cost a certain amount of money. We'll hear more about this through the course of this show and we've heard about it. A lot of people saying why isn't that money going toward the essential services and the repairs. But this as a business correspondent, this is a city that has counted so much on tourism. And f that tourism doesn't come back, that's a lot of money the city doesn't get back.

ROESGEN: You're right Ali. You can look at it one of two ways. Yes, the city is spending a lot on police overtime as some of the police and the cleanup crews go past me here on the parade route. But at the same time, this is an incredible economic boost to the city. In a good year, pre-Katrina, Mardi Gras might bring in $1.5 billion. These are cab drivers driving tourists around town, hotels having people stay there, restaurants, this is a huge boost, a huge critical part of the New Orleans economy and we've got to have it to try to bring some of our revenue back.

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: But Susan, the reality is that New Orleans obviously is not what it was last year. So how are they actually handling the influx of people? Are they really able to put them in hotels and to deal with what we're seeing right next to you?

ROESGEN: So far, Dana it's been a smaller Mardi Gras and I think that has helped and we don't know really who all is in the hotels. We suspect some tourists but you know, primarily we've got evacuees, 7,000 FEMA evacuees in hotel rooms here. Their hotel stays have been extended now until March 15th. And we've got a lot of construction workers and other recovery workers. So there is a lot more traffic I noticed on the street this week, but it doesn't seem as if the crowds are that big. We'll find out on fat Tuesday just how big the crowds will be but right now it seems certainly manageable.

VELSHI: All right, another question from the audience. Your name and where you're from.

QUESTION: Hi. I'm Dana from Encino, California. I'm wondering, what has been the impact on school enrollment since schools reopened this semester?

ROESGEN: Well, you know, many schools have not reopened Dana and that's part of the reason that we don't so many marching bands along the parade route this year. We just don't have that many schools opened. We've got some charter schools now that have opened in New Orleans. Mostly we have plenty of classrooms available to handle any students who've come back, but we really don't have as many children back as we should have and a lot of schools just aren't open.

VELSHI: Susan, we've watched you, as someone who lived there and lived through the hurricanes. How much of this is a brave face and how much of this is just fun? Because I've spent many a Mardi Gras in New Orleans and it is just fun. Is it really fun this time around?

ROESGEN: It is fun. When you're here on the parade route, you can't help but get into it. I came over here. I was working on another story for Anderson Cooper's show next week and I came over here to do this taping with you and suddenly, my feet started moving. I started getting into the marching bands, start waving for beads. So you know, you can't help it. I mean this is part of New Orleans. This is what we love about New Orleans. This is what locals love about New Orleans whether any tourists come or not. We welcome you. We welcome tourists, but this is a party for ourselves that we would throw even if no one else came.

VELSHI: Susan good to see you. Back to the day when I used to go to Mardi Gras, waving really didn't get you all the beads, but you seem to be doing well. Susan Roesgen on the parade route in Mardi Gras. We re sticking with the hurricane story. Tom Foreman is back on the story of whether FEMA and the Feds are better prepared now than they were then.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI: CNN is on the story here at the George Washington University. New questions this week about whether the lessons of Katrina have sunk in. Tom Foreman is on the FEMA story. Take a look at his reporter's notebook.

FOREMAN: The real problem in covering FEMA is that everybody hears FEMA and they immediately think snoozeville because we've heard the story over and over and over again.

So the challenge is finding a way to tell that story and make it matter to people. What FEMA does to get ready for this next hurricane season, how FEMA responds to other national emergencies is going to make a difference to other people living in this country right now. When you talk to the people who have to handle public relations for FEMA, the simple truth is they have a difficult job and they know they have a difficult job. What you have to do as a reporter is call these people time and again even when they don't want to hear your call. You have to let them know that you're going to be fair, that you're going to ask hard questions. Why should the American public believe you when you say FEMA will be ready? If you don't ask the hard questions, it looks like you're dodging the issue, they're dodging the issue and viewers know that.

You say you got snoozeville when they hear FEMA. Welcome to my world. I'm a business reporter. What was the answer when you said why should the American people believe you?

FOREMAN: David Paulson, the acting director of FEMA had a very good answer. He's a very likeable man. His answer was, I don't think they should believe him.

VELSHI: (INAUDIBLE)

FOREMAN: Who is going to believe FEMA now on their word alone? He said the proof will be in the pudding. Let's let the storms come in. Let's see if we handle them properly. That is an honest answer from a person in a political office. When you're a reporter, that's what you're supposed to be looking for. And that means even when they've been through everything FEMA has been with, you walk in, you fairly say, give me the answer. What is it?

VELSHI: Let's go to the audience. Sir, your name and where you're from.

QUESTION: Hi. Lauren (ph) from Washington, DC. My question is, with the hurricane season right around the corner, what steps have the government taken to prevent any further damage to an already crippled New Orleans.

VELSHI: It's a little more than three months before hurricane season starts.

FOREMAN: You know what, if you ask the people at FEMA or in the government, they'll tell you a lot of things they've done. They started rebuilding the levees. They've been replenishing the stores and supplies for things. They're improving their communication system. They're improving debris removal, all of those things. You ask people on the ground what they've done, local disaster managers and many of them will say not much. That's the problem. And this is where we're trying to get at the truth. One of the problems is the scope of this disaster is very big and what is true in one neighborhood in New Orleans may not be true in Bay St. Louis and it may not be true over in Alabama.

VELSHI: Your name and where you're from.

QUESTION: Hi. I'm Natalie from New Jersey. Do you think it would be more effective to entrust emergency relief to local, state or Federal governments?

FOREMAN: Local, state and Federal governments sure think so. I mean this is the thing. FEMA is announcing this big, big plan. And I've got to talk to a lot of people over at FEMA and there really are some good people over there and I'll tell you something that reporters don't get to say on the air much and that's what this is all about. There are a lot of people over at FEMA who are very embarrassed, they're hurt, they're worried about all the things you are and they don't know how to fix it in their own agency. They're trying really hard. But the bottom line is, what you have at the local level and state level is people who are still getting slapped down by people at the Federal level, case in point, the White House report this week, started off by slapping the locals again and saying it's your fault. You know what, we have FEMA, we have FEMA because we recognize that no state or municipality is supposed to be prepared for a giant disaster, even if they ran away and did nothing. The burden is still 65, 75 percent Federal because we've designed it that way.

BASH: What was interesting about that White House report is they didn't talk very much about FEMA, particularly looking back. FEMA, what? (INAUDIBLE)

FOREMAN: In the main body of this report, the main body of the report --

BASH: ... was a White House report done by the White House.

FOREMAN: Yeah, exactly, done by the White House.

VELSHI: Which came out somewhere between the vice president shooting someone and this mess that we're dealing with last week. So if any of you missed that report, you're pardoned for it.

FOREMAN: Michael Chertoff, the guy who's the head of homeland security, the guy responsible for everything you've seen for good or for bad, was mentioned five times in the body of the report, five times. How is that even possible? I mean this is the guy. They're not even talking about him.

BASH: And they did come out --

FOREMAN: I'm worked up about this.

BASH: Can you tell? To speak to that question, there were many recommendations to maybe deal with this better at a Federal level if there is the kind of disaster that we see, just, you know, eviscerates all the local and state --

FOREMAN: The odds are, this hurricane season is going to be better, because of mathematics, not because of what anybody has done. The odds of having a storm like this hit that way on a city like this are very slim, could happen, probably won't. So it will probably be a better year and that may be better for everyone, state, local, Federal, give everyone a chance to try to rebuild some kind of trust. I think the people at FEMA David Paulison and stuff, they want to do it. He's the acting director. We don't know who the real director is going to be and we still don't know if the people in the field, the people in the states feel that they can trust Chertoff the guy in charge of homeland security. As long as he's calling the shots and he's not being held to the fire over this, I think a lot of people out there are going to say, well until he's answered this, how can we believe FEMA is going to be that much different?

VELSHI: I think a bunch of people who are being considered for the jobs after watching Tom might take their name out of contention.

We'll go back to New Orleans and to the Mississippi coast and to a New Orleans blogger. Straight ahead, a political storm over the plan to give an Arab company control of the port of New Orleans and other entry ways. Our White House correspondent Dana Bash is back on that story after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI: CNN is on the story of the political brawl here in Washington over the plan to allow an Arab-owned company to take over operations at six major American ports. Now the story escalated over the week as both Democrats and Republicans raised objections and President Bush threatened to veto any congressional interference. Dana Bash is on that story. Here is her reporter's notebook.

BASH: By Monday morning, it became very clear that this story was moving and it was moving very fast. I realized in talking to senior officials inside the president's team that they didn't even know about it and then of course the president himself didn't know about it.

I was inside the White House at my desk just doing my work and I saw the e-mail come across from the Senate majority Leader Bill Frist essentially declaring war on the White House on this issue. It was when that e-mail came through, that everyone said wow.

He first, in a very unusual move, talked to reporters aboard Air Force one and there he said he would actually use his first veto ever in five plus years against legislation that would put this deal on hold.

Just to make his point very clear, he decide to come and talk to reporters on camera because it's one thing to say it and to read it. It's another thing to hear him and to see him and that's what the White House wanted to do.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If there was any chance that this transaction would jeopardize the security of the United States, it would not go forward.

VELSHI: I got to tell you, I was watching this thinking to myself, I know that a lot of the stuff we report on can get confusing from time to time. But rarely am I that puzzled. Were these folks talking to each other? Were the Republicans talking to each other? Was the president talking to his congressional leaders? This just seemed, wow! Is what you said in there. That's what is sounded like. BASH: Look, there's always drama when you like politics and you're covering politics. There was nothing like this that I have covered in a very long time because the answer to your question is no. They weren't talking to each other. That is the problem. The fact that, as I mentioned in there, the Senate majority leader, the Republican leader and the House speaker had to address this in public because they didn't get the information. They said, from the administration in private, just speaks to the major problem here which is that there isn't communication. That is, I think one of the things that's really driving us, that it's certainly it's about this issue, but it's bigger than that. This is five years of some frustration that's bubbling over and at a time when congressional Republicans have their own back sides to worry about. They're up for re-election and the president isn't and they need to separate themselves, especially on this security issue.

VELSHI: This has been a big, big issue and I'm sure a lot of people have a lot of questions on it. Let's go straight to our audience. Your name and where you're from.

QUESTION: Hi. Hi, I'm Lauren from Florida. And I was just wondering, is the port deal an issue that will just stay in Washington or will it catch on in the public?

BASH: It's actually been driven by the public in an amazing way. In talk radio, on blogs, but part of this is -- maybe it's democracy at work, because what members of Congress say that the reason that they're upset, many Republicans, is because they're getting this massive reaction from their constituents. And that's actually part of the issue here. Congress was home this week when it happened. They were home with their constituents and they were hearing this outrage across the board about -- very little bit of information that an Arab country is going to take control over the ports and they didn't have their talking points. They didn't have the information at the ready to say, well, actually it's more complicated than that. The kind of thing that the White House throughout the week started to say more and more, no, the security is still going to be with the U.S. government. No, it's not actually how you think it is. They couldn't answer the question because they didn't have the information.

FOREMAN: Dana, how did the White House not see that coming? Because I'll bet anybody out there, if you said to them tomorrow, you're going to announce that an Arab country is going to take over control of ports, whether it was a good idea or bad idea, you would have said, we better have something in line. How could they possibly miss this?

BASH: You just asked the question that I cannot tell you how many Republicans on Capitol Hill and around town asked the same thing. That was the question of the week. How can they not see this coming? Now, when you look into this a little bit more deeply, part of the reason is because there is a very specific process that approves this, this an acronym, that has become sort of part of the discussion, which is CFIA (ph) which I won't even get into, but it is an agency, 14 agencies that decide this and they do this all the time. They decide whether transactions should or shouldn't go. But this particular one should have raised red flags because of what you said. It is something that is an obvious political hot potato (INAUDIBLE)

FOREMAN: Isn't there an ocean of press people or anybody to look at this and said, this is going to be an issue?

BASH: Here's the thing. It's a secret process. It's classified. The people on this panel --

FOREMAN: It's not so secret now.

BASH: It's not so secret now, but exactly. But the people on this panel are political appointees. They are people who should have a political sensibility. Now you hear them come out, maybe we should have actually raised the flag. We should have said something to the White House. But that was a big problem, is that nobody who acts as a president's early warning system had said, hello, this is a problem, they didn't know about it.

VELSHI: Now here is the tough part. Dana is at the White House and has to deal with the same crew of people all the time. How do you not sit there and say what were you thinking? I heard your reports all weekend. I heard something I don't often hear from you, is a little shock about even you seem surprised how they handled this.

BASH: I was surprised because they were surprised. Really I was reflecting what was going on behind the scenes. They didn't realize this was going to happen. Also, because I was talking to people in Congress as well as the White House and I also knew that they were trying to get the information from Congress to the White House and it took a little while from their perspective to get is it through to them.

VELSHI: This thing definitely took on a life of its own, didn't it?

BASH: Yes.

VELSHI: All right. We're going back to New Orleans. Sean Callebs is on the story of how residents and visitors may be whooping it up at Mardi Gras, but some vital services are a long way from normal. First we're going to stay on the story in the Gulf coast, in Washington and elsewhere. Take a look.

PAULA NEWTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The target a cash warehouse, the victims, the warehouse manager and his family. All are held at gun point. Back at the warehouse, 14 security staff are overpowered by six masked gunmen and as much as $75 million is loaded on to this transport truck.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: For centuries, Caireens (ph) have cherished their birds, symbols of freedom and mobility in a cramped city. But now that bird flu has come to Egypt, they've become symbols of disease. Infected birds have been culled. The virus has shown up in almost half of Egypt's 26 provinces. HUGH RIMINGTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: These are the neighbors of the village wiped away last week (INAUDIBLE) . The widowed mother of three has seen with her own eyes how this village can be changed in moments to this, a malevolent moonscape which swallows life and only reluctantly gives back even the bodies.

CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: More of ON THE STORY in just a moment.

But first, a look at what's happening right now in the news.

New Orleans is putting on a brave Mardi Gras face, as you can see. They're having a lot of fun tonight. You're looking at a live shot of Bourbon Street. Two parades, though, stepped off today, but another was scheduled for tonight. It had to be postponed because of the threat of bad weather. But it looks pretty dry out there now.

Now, the FBI is not yet linking a bizarre discovery at the University of Texas to terrorism. A student found a powder that at least one test indicates is ricin. That's a poison used as a biological weapon. The Army is conducting follow-up tests.

Police arrested more than a dozen people at a neo-Nazi march and rally in Orlando, Florida today. Most of the arrests came when fights broke out between marchers and protesters from a predominantly black neighborhood.

And be sure to watch a special edition of "CNN PRESENTS: CAN CRIME LABS BE TRUSTED?" a CNN investigation looks at the science behind forensics. It's coming up at 8:00 Eastern.

That's what's happening right now in the news.

I'm Carol Lin.

Now back to ON THE STORY.

ALI VELSHI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We are ON THE STORY at the George Washington University in heart of the nation's capital.

And our Sean Callebs is ON THE STORY in New Orleans.

He's reporting that six months after Katrina, basic services are still thin.

Here's a look at Sean's Reporter's Notebook.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

SEAN CALLEBS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, traditionally, every year the hospitals in this area see a big spike in business during the Mardi Gras celebrations. Doctors are very concerned about that.

The New Orleans convention center.

QUESTION: So, no drug allergies? CALLEBS: Not days after Katrina, not weeks after the storm punished the city, but today and what passes for an emergency room for the city's poor.

And I talked to the physician running this facility. He told me people coming into this area are literally taking their lives into their own hands. That's the kind of quality of health care people are getting here, not because doctors don't care, not because they're not doing everything they can, but this is the way life is in New Orleans at this point.

It's really amazing how we even found this story. We went to Tulane University Medical Center, that reopened its emergency room. We came down here just to show people what else was available in the city and we were shocked. I mean I've been here for months now, and to come in and see dusty, musty military surplus tents serving as the -- as the place where people come to get medical care is staggering.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

VELSHI: Sean Callebs joins us now from New Orleans -- Sean, good to see you.

And I think you and Tom Foreman are in contention for having lived in the most places in the country.

You've lived in so many places and you've been in New Orleans for a few months. So this is your first Mardi Gras and you've seen what's happened in the last few months.

Tell me your impressions right now.

I mean obviously when you see things like that tent hospital, that's got to be shocking.

CALLEBS: You know, it is a tale of two cities. We heard Susan talk about it just a bit ago.

Really, the area where the parades wind through down here on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, it is among the 20 percent of the city that wasn't punished by floodwaters, that didn't see scores of homes devastated.

So what people are seeing really isn't a very accurate picture of what this area looks like.

If you go a few blocks that way, a few blocks that way, a few blocks that way, you see massive debris fields. You see homes that are simply devastated.

And this coming week, for example, we know that the state medical examiner, as well as the New Orleans police -- fire department and other emergency crews are going to go back through the remnants of homes in the 9th Ward once again looking for bodies, six months after this hurricane.

They expect to find somewhere between 60 and 100 bodies buried in the debris out there.

It is just -- it's hard to believe when you see what's going on behind me and then you talk to people who are still looking for loved ones now.

So, you know, it's been so long and it's very, very difficult.

VELSHI: Sean, let's get right to the audience.

We've got -- we've got a question here.

I guess you might have to speak up so that he can hear you.

TIA: Hi.

I'm Tia (ph) from Iowa.

And I was wondering, during the congressional hearing with the secretary of Homeland Security, many senators were concerned with the number of trailers in Arkansas that were not getting to the New Orleans residents.

Do the New Orleans residents know about these trials? And what are their reactions?

CALLEBS: Oh, yes. They know about it, that's safe to say. That's a story that really, Susan has been pushing for some time. And it's staggering.

If you look at that -- the area, 11,000 trailers. What the GAO report says those trailers are basically in horrible disrepair. Some of them may never be able to be used. And, also, they're actually mobile homes, not trailers. There is a difference. And apparently those mobile homes aren't even certified to be in a flood zone.

You know what? All of this area is a flood zone. So what are they doing there? Why aren't they being moved down here?

We understand a few hundred of those trailers are going to be moved down here in the coming weeks.

But you know what? People down here are so fed up with it. I heard Tom give a very good defense of FEMA and the way they are trying to take on just an amazingly difficult task. But people down here, a lot of them have had it. You know, they don't want -- they don't want to depend on the federal government anymore.

And now there's all these recommendations from the White House about ways to improve a response to a disaster.

I talked to Warren Riley, the police superintendent here, just a couple of days ago, and he says they can say whatever they want, we know we have to take care of ourselves if this ever happens again.

VELSHI: Another question from the audience, Sean.

IAN WORTHIN: Hi.

Ian Worthin (ph) from Washington, D.C.

I was wondering if the U.S. government was investigate in green design or other sustainable development in the rebuilding of New Orleans.

CALLEBS: You know, there's a lot of talk about the sustainable development and the way now that they have a chance to put the pieces of the puzzle back together. We've heard a lot, perhaps, about the amount of silt that traditionally washed down the Mississippi River. But over the years, the Corps of Engineers has done a lot of work to make it more suitable to barges and other river traffic.

Well, the production of that silt basically did away with the buffer that traditionally protected Louisiana from punishing hurricanes that blew into this area. A lot of people now, they're learning a great deal the hard way. And people say no matter what it takes, if we're going to rebuild -- and anybody you talk to here, they certainly want to rebuild this area -- they say we're going to have to do it in better fashion to take advantage of everything that we have learned.

VELSHI: All right, Sean, if you can avoid getting carried away by what seem to be growing crowds, stay with us for just a second.

We are going to be asking our audience right here whether they think they're getting a full picture of New Orleans and its troubles.

And we'll be checking in with our Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner, and a New Orleans blogger for reaction on the story online.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI: You are ON THE STORY. Tell us what stories grab your attention. Email us at onthestory@cnn.com, I'm going to ask our audience here about news coverage of New Orleans. But first let's go ON THE STORY online with our Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner. While New Orleans roars back with Mardi Gras, Jacki what are you seeing online?

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET CORRESPONDENT: The question we wanted to ask is are we paying enough attention to New Orleans and are we paying it the right kind of attention? The person to ask is someone who lived there. We're joined by Dale Hrebik who teaches English at Loyola University. And he has a blog called Floodandloathing.blogspost.com. He recently blogged about how much he loathes the mainstream media coverage of New Orleans. Dale, back that up for us. Where are we going wrong?

DALE HREBIK, FLOODANDLOATHING.BLOGSPOT.COM: Before, during or after the hurricane.

SCHECHNER: Let's start with now and work our way back, if we have to. HREBIK: Now there is a real feeling that media is portraying New Orleans as very polarized, as split between Black and White, poor and rich. And the one got devastated and the other is fine. Clearly, the story is more complicated than that.

SCHECHNER: After Hurricane Katrina, CNN has a bureau in New Orleans and we staffed it with reporters like Susan and Sean. I would imagine with Mardi Gras you're getting a flood of journalists in now. Is there a little frustration and anger on the part of people down there at the new flood of journalists who don't really know the area?

HREBIK: Absolutely. Considering the floats that I saw go by, making fun of the media. There's plenty of frustration. There's also a real concern that Mardi Gras is going to be portrayed as a big party, which is part of it. But there's also the history and culture, and music and traditions, all of that is very much part of Mardi Gras and we're concerned that instead, it's all going to be look at the drunks on Bourbon Street. That's actually the tourists, not us

VELSHI: Dale, Jacki, hang on a second. On one level we've got the question of the type of coverage and another the volume of coverage. I want to bring the audience into this for a second and take a quick show of hands right here. How many of you think New Orleans has received too much media coverage? And a show of hands from those of you who think it hasn't received too much coverage? All right.

So, about 70/30 of those who think it hasn't been too much. Let me ask one of you. Sir, you had your hand up about it having received too much coverage. Stand up and tell me what you think about that very quickly.

QUESTION: I'm Pete Monroe (ph), Charlotte, North Carolina. We have family in Ocean Springs, Mississippi and Biloxi. People have not seen what has happened to those areas in Gulfport. They were totally devastated by the hurricane, not the flood, but the storm surge, the wind and the damage four and five miles inland are destroyed and entire cities are gone. And you don't hear a lot about them. I think they need to spread that coverage out to see the entire story down there..

VELSHI: Let's see if Sean Callebs is still there. Sean, you are the example tonight of the juxtaposition of two stories. We can hardly hear you when you've got that microphone in front of you. Yet you're telling us about death and destruction a few blocks away, and this gentlemen is talking about even further beyond than that.

SEAN CALLEBS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I hear what he's saying, but in the past month I've been to Waveland (ph) twice, Biloxi once, Pascagoula once and Gulfport once, and every time I go there, people say hey, we thought you guys forgot all about us. For months it did not get the coverage that this city did. For a lot of different reasons.

The way this area was hit, the levees going down, but the fact this area is so vulnerable. But you're right. From the people in Waveland, I heard horrific stories, as the storm surge came in, people jumping out of second floor windows, floating, grabbing on to trees and hours later the surge going back out. I hear what he's saying.

VELSHI: Let's talk to somebody who felt they don't think New Orleans has had too much coverage. Sir, I think you were one of those. Tell us what you think, briefly?

QUESTION: Six months after the hurricane occurred and there's still a lot of tremendous amount of problems going down there, a lot of finger pointing at different levels of government. I think people in Louisiana need to know we haven't forgot about them and the government knows we haven't forget it and the heat's still on them.

VELSHI: Dale, are you still with us? This gentleman is talking about accountability. He said the presence of the media there means that it doesn't get -- doesn't leave the limelight. How does that sit with you?

HREBIK: Well, we definitely want to keep New Orleans and the entire Gulf Coast in people's minds, because New Orleans can rebuild, Gulf Coast can rebuild, but we can't do it by ourselves. And if the rest of the country forgets about us, then we won't be able to rebuild.

VELSHI: Jacki.

SCHECHNER: Well, one of the things that Dale and I talked about, is how when people call him from outside New Orleans, they say oh, so it's getting better down there. I think there is a kind of a disparity between what we're hearing offline from the blogs and what we're hearing in the media. Part of what we're trying to do is wrap that up and bring it together. Ali.

VELSHI: Thanks so much for being with us. Dale, thanks for being with us. Thanks also to Sean Callebs in New Orleans.

Kathleen Koch is back where she grew up along the Mississippi Coast, where she had a special vantage point for her home town Mardi Gras parade. She's back on that story right after this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KATHLEEN KOCH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Mardi Gras in Mississippi is a real family event. It's not bawdy. People don't get drunk. It's just a home town family celebration.

They really needed a break from digging in debris and gutting their houses.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI: CNN is ON THE STORY here in Washington and in Mississippi. Our Kathleen Koch was one of the first to spread the word that her home town, Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and wide areas of the Gulf Coast had been clobbered by Hurricane Katrina. This week, she received a special honor.

She was Grand Marshal of the Bay St. Louis parade. Check out her notebook.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KOCH: I think my role as a reporter is to try to help people understand what the citizens of this community are going through. People are finally getting the message that it's not only New Orleans, that the Mississippi Gulf Coast was simply devastated by the forces of Mother Nature. There's been very little change.

What's different right now, there is some joy. Mardi Gras has really infused this community with a special spirit. It's something that they look forward to. I mean it's such an integral part of people's lives.

We had this parade on Friday with the whole community throwing the beads. It's something to smile about. Means so much to them. It maybe is a little thing but it's meant a lot. I can't imagine never covering anything that is more important than this. It's not nearly over for anyone here and it won't be over for such a long time.

I'm in it for a long hall. CNN is in it for the long haul. Somebody has got to stay here with these people. We can't forget them.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

VELSHI: Kathleen Koch joins us, an emotional time for you, Kathleen. Tough to do your job and feel everything you're feeling about your own history there?

KOCH: Very tough. Actually, we moved locations. We're now in Gulfport, Mississippi. This is like home too. When I worked at WLOXTV down the road, this was where I came as I went to work every day. I had dinner tonight at a Mexican restaurant down the road that I thought was flattened by the hurricane. It's open, it's run by the same folks I went in and had dinner with, Martha, who still runs the place after 20 years.

Tough to still do your job as a reporter. But there's these little victories when you see these little sparks of hope in the rubble.

FOREMAN: Kathleen, let me ask you something. This is Tom. One of the things that I find hard about this, having lived in New Orleans and knowing the same areas you are. I don't know the Gulf Coast like you do, but spent time there as well. How do you overcome, for you, the part of you that just wants to give up, that makes you just want to sit down, like reporters do, like you do sometimes, and just say it's too much, it's too hard?

KOCH: Because the people here, Tom, won't give up. I interviewed one of my high school classmates, Diane Edwards Bourgeois (ph) on Friday, and I walked with her through the rubble of her home, and it was right down the road from where I grew up on South Beach Boulevard where my house is just a slab.

I was becoming overcome by what she was telling me. She has nothing left. She will reach for an object, and it's not there and she realizes I have nothing left anymore. And I reached out and I hugged her, but no tears came from her. My eyes were welling up. She said what's the point of crying, it doesn't change anything, we just have to move forward. It's the spirit of people here that keeps you going.

VELSHI: Wow, question from the audience. Your name and where you're are from.

QUESTION: I'm Crystal Moriano (ph) and I'm from San Bruno, California. And I was wondering, in reference to Katrina, how much has public morale improved since then?

KOCH: Public morale has increased a lot. In my town, in Bay St. Louis and all up and down the Gulf Coast, the morale has been amazing. It's been incredible. I've been down here since the storm hit with a variety of producers who keep going, what's wrong with these people. How can they be so optimistic? Don't they see what's around them?

On the Mississippi Gulf Coast it's a very different sort of mentality that you see in other parts of the country, even in Louisiana. They say God helps those who help themselves. We're all new this together. We've all lost everything. Disaster levels the playing field. We have to keep going together. What's the use of sitting, crying and ripping your hair out doesn't change anything. We got to keep going.

Morale is amazing from the start and continues to be.

BASH: You did a really nice hour on your home time and going back. Talk about what that was like. We saw the emotion on your face, certainly throughout that hour. Talk about what that was like. You're trained as a reporter, you're trained to be separated from the story as much as you can. Obviously, you didn't even try. There was no point. Right?

KOCH: It's a personal story. There's no way it couldn't be a personal story when you walk through the rubble of the town you grew up in. You're standing in a slab, and it's the house where you lived. How can you not show your emotions.

But, again, as we've gone through this, what's been amazing this week has been the gratitude, the outpouring. As I was in the Mardi Gras parade riding as Grand Marshal, which is something I never would have imagined I would ever do, people coming up to me not so much wanting beads, wanting toys, just saying thank you, thank you, over and over and over again.

Here I was worried that the documentary wouldn't do justice to their courage and suffering, and the complexity of their experiences. They just kept saying thank you, you've told our story to the country and maybe now they'll begin to understand. It was an overwhelming experience. VELSHI: Kathleen, we're grateful you continue to share that experience and continue to know how to share your emotion and still do your job. Thanks so much for being with us from Mississippi. Kathleen Koch.

Coming up, I'm going to ask my colleagues for what they predict for next week's ON THE STORY. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

FOREMAN: Keep yourself ON THE STORY at CNN.com. Our Web site tells you about the panel, the topics and how to get tickets to join our audience. Let's take a quick look ahead ON THE STORY. I'm going to ask our panelists what they're working on next week. Dana, what do you think you've got next week if you could possibly predict?

BASH: I was going to say, if you would have asked me two weeks ago I never would have predicted that the vice president would accidentally shoot a man or this past week that the president would have political war with his own party. I essentially give up. The president is going to take a trip overseas to India and Pakistan.

VELSHI: What do you think?

FOREMAN: I'm going to look out my window. There's always some kind of nuttiness going on over there. I tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to cook up the jambalaya and crank up the Neville Brothers and celebrate Mardi Gras. You ought to do it too.

VELSHI: He wins.

I was going to try to top that. I'll be in Santa Barbara doing something I enjoy doing every year. I'm going to be going to an entrepreneurship competition where MBA students all get together and come up with ideas that we're all going to talk about 20 years ago. That's what I'll be doing.

Thank you to all my colleagues and our fantastic audience here at the George Washington University. Thank you for watching ON THE STORY. We're back each week, Saturday night and Sunday afternoons.

Straight ahead, a check on what's making news right now.

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