Servant of Pod Vann Newkirk II: Floodlines Episode 23
Sun, 12/13 5:32PM • 29:01
people, katrina, pandemic, levees, talk, questions, disasters, new orleans, science fiction, flood, reparations, laughter, apology, newkirk, feel, hurricane, hurricane floyd, interview, happened, moment
Fred Johnson, Vann Newkirk II, Michael Brown, Le-Ann Williams, Garland Robinette, Nick Quah, Lieutenant General Russel Honoré
Vann Newkirk II 00:00
Katrina has always been on my mind. I am from eastern North Carolina. A hurricane and flood destroyed my hometown of Rocky Mountain, North Carolina in 1999 and put the whole thing underwater.
Nick Quah 00:19
In 1999, Hurricane Floyd made landfall in the United States, on the coast of North Carolina. The storm caused widespread flooding for weeks, killing 51 people and causing billions in damages. And a 10-year-old Vann Newkirk II witnessed it all.
Vann Newkirk II 00:36
And so when Katrina hit, six years after that, and seeing some of the same things I'd seen, even years after Hurricane Floyd, the fact that people on the Black side of town still had to draw contaminated well water years and years after the flood that hit Rocky Mount, seeing people exposed to biohazards, to contaminants in the water, seeing how the response seemed to be racially disparate, we'll put it. Those were things that had been on my mind for years, and it seemed like there were motifs in what happened in Katrina that could explain almost everything that put me at unease.
Nick Quah 01:32
From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: Vann Newkirk II and the unending legacy of Hurricane Katrina. Vann Newkirk II has been reporting on environmental justice and public health for years. Before releasing Floodlines with The Atlantic earlier this year, which focuses on Hurricane Katrina, he was covering the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, on Puerto Rico and its people. He's well-versed in what can go wrong before, during, and after disaster strikes. But even he was surprised by the response to the pandemic.
Vann Newkirk II 02:23
So the fact that America fumbled the response, and that all these elements of disinformation and politicization of what's going on, those things are not surprising. The depth of our failure is somehow surprising, even for me, as somebody who considers himself rather pessimistic; the really mundane ways that people completely botched this thing. They did surprise me. I'm a public health guy. That's my training. I have a Master's of Science in public health.
Nick Quah 03:02
And you worked for Kaiser at one point, right?
Vann Newkirk II 03:04
Yeah. So this is my jam, you know? [Laughter] People, you know, there's a generally high uptake of public health measures in the US. Smoking rates have gone down, drunk driving rates have gone down, people generally get vaccinated. Despite all the stuff that happens on the fringes, like the anti-vaccine movement, generally, people have been in good shape. And that's kind of been America's calling card in the world is, we've done really well getting rid of some of the ways that people most commonly die. And we've just not, we've not done any of those things in this pandemic. Any of the things that we like to say we're good at, responding to emerging threats, we haven't done it. I think one thing we should take away from Katrina is the fact that we do a really good job at taking care of people who we care about. And everybody else, the powers that be assess their worthiness, and if they are deemed unworthy, they get nothing. The extent to which people in power have been left vulnerable by some aspects of the pandemic is surprising to me. And the extent to which even they kind of espouse that "if I die, I die" philosophy about it all... I didn't expect that. But everything else has played along the basic lines of what we saw with Katrina. We saw, early on, people of color died the fastest, died the most, and had the highest burden of disease. If you follow the reasons why people actually suffer in any disaster, including floods, including epidemics and pandemics, it wouldn't be surprising to you at all, that Black, Latinx people had the most burden in this pandemic, because a lot of what we consider to be sort of new in a disaster, isn't really. You know, it's that people can't get to the hospital. They have to go to work, they cannot sit at home; essential workers, low-wage workers, are constantly in the line of biological hazard anyway. Those things played out absolutely predictably.
Nick Quah 05:18
So it's been 15 years since Hurricane Katrina. Why make this show now? And why as a podcast?
Vann Newkirk II 05:26
To me, it had been going on two years after Hurricane Maria, I've finally been able to kind of sit back and get a little more perspective about why what happened in Maria stuck with me so much as a journalist. And I kept going back to Katrina. There were lessons there, there were stories there, that I believed were key to understanding why America kept replaying the same script over and over again in these kinds of disasters. And the stars just kind of aligned for me. The other consideration was, if you've ever heard people in New Orleans talk, it's a storytelling town. It's a place where I feel most stories are going to be aided by audio, and when we're probably... You can't do them justice without audio.
Nick Quah 06:26
So what were the key questions you had walking into New Orleans?
Vann Newkirk II 06:30
Obviously, I had questions about what actually happened, about the order of events, about how we even came to understand the story of the levees breaking, and why it seemed that there were so many half-truths about both the situation on the ground and the immediate aftermath, and the reason why the city flooded. But also, I wanted to take the question, and give it to people who I was interviewing, what questions do you believe have not been answered in reporting and documentaries about Katrina? And tried to structure our interviews around some of those unanswered questions that people themselves, who were in New Orleans, who were in the Gulf Coast, had.
Nick Quah 07:21
Almost like a collaboration.
Vann Newkirk II 07:23
Oh, yeah. And I think you can see it in the show.
Nick Quah 07:25
Vann Newkirk II 07:26
A lot of my favorite moments in the show are ones where, you know, nobody really has the answer, but we're figuring out together, and where I am just as in the dark as some of the people I'm interviewing, or where information from another interview may be germane to me talking to a person right there. And so I tried to make things as collaborative, as back and forth, and create a storytelling structure that was as flexible as possible to incorporate new information, new questions, and new modes of storytelling as we went on. The original version of the story was much more, I think, weighted towards the factual: understanding what happened, laying out the fact that this wasn't a natural disaster, and it was really heavily focused on the two weeks after the levees broke. But as we were interviewing people, we kept coming up to the realization that Katrina just wasn't over...
Nick Quah 08:34
Vann Newkirk II 08:35
...for lots of people, that the thing we call Katrina--a flood, it's not even really the hurricane--it's the day the levees broke.
Nick Quah 08:44
Vann Newkirk II 08:45
The thing people use "Katrina" as shorthand for is a day, a couple days, that they watched on the news. But for the people we talked to, Katrina was this set of odyssean journeys that were not over yet.
Nick Quah 09:04
Vann Newkirk II 09:05
And so we had to change the shape of the show to accommodate that.
Nick Quah 09:09
It feels like that is the key to a lot of big events that have happened in American history in general, right? Like, nothing ever ends.
Vann Newkirk II 09:19
Nothing ever ends. [Laughter] Well, yeah, I mean, it's something we're... I'm glad that reporting on the pandemic has gotten a little better at doing, is like, there's not going to be a neat end to this thing.
Nick Quah 09:33
Vann Newkirk II 09:34
This is a gonna be a generation-defining event, and that's how we should rethink all disasters.
Nick Quah 09:40
Vann Newkirk II 09:40
They're not points in time. They are expressions, often, of underlying issues, and those issues don't go away when the storm clouds go away, you know?
Nick Quah 09:56
After the break, how Vann and his team made the best-sounding podcast of the year. There are a lot of reasons I wanted to talk to Vann about Floodlines, but one of the main reasons is the scoring throughout the series, which includes award-winning trumpeter Christian Scott. It is genuinely one of the best-sounding podcasts I have ever heard.
Vann Newkirk II 11:00
Okay, so first of all, all credit to our Maestro extraordinaire David Herman. I definitely had some input, producers definitely had input in how the final mix and music went, but a lot of this felt like divine inspiration from David. So we went about this, I guess, the traditional way people score podcasts--we had a sound bed that we had together, of things that inspired us from New Orleans. We were coming up with our range of options for putting together a library, and then he comes up with this idea, like, "What about if we go with Christian Scott?" And, you know, okay, I like Christian. I love Christian. Is he going to agree to work with us? And he agreed, and Christian Scott's folks really gave us a good selection of sounds to choose from. I think, armed with that and our original idea of the soundscape of the thing, we really wanted to balance the general brooding, the foreboding of waiting for a storm to come, with pieces of music that would accentuate the lighter moments. That was really important to me.
Nick Quah 12:23
One of those brooding pieces is called "Composition No. 19 (For 100 Tubas)," by Anthony Braxton.
Vann Newkirk II 12:30
There's the "100 Tubas," which shows up in Episode One when Fred is talking about the storm coming.
Fred Johnson 12:45
So we end up on the—some 10th, 12th floor, or whatever the case is. They having a hurricane party. I mean, they drinking their ***es off. I’m like, “No. No. Give me an O’Doul’s.”
Vann Newkirk II 12:59
The rain picked up late Sunday and never stopped. And in those high-rise buildings in downtown New Orleans, the winds started getting dangerous.
Garland Robinette 13:08
The wind started hitting, and it started howling a little bit.
Vann Newkirk II 13:12
That giant window behind Garland started rattling.
Garland Robinette 13:15
It sounded like whoop, whoop, whoop. Pop. Just exploded. And engineers came in, got me out real quick. Took me down a hallway. The station on the inside was just destroyed. Glass everywhere, furniture all—and they took me down to a closet. I broadcast all night from the closet.
Vann Newkirk II 13:50
So that, to me, is like the moment. When I heard it, I was like, "Oh my God, we got a show."
Nick Quah 13:57
So, Floodlines has a ton of moments that stuck with me, but I'm curious: what were some of your favorite stories or pieces of tape that were left on the cutting room floor?
Vann Newkirk II 14:08
Oh, there's a lot of them. Let me think. Well, okay, so, we used a very small sliver of the tape we got with General Honoré.
Nick Quah 14:21
Lieutenant General Russel Honoré 14:22
It takes a little time to do difficult ****. It takes a little longer to do ****ing impossible. But we gon’ do this ****. I mean, we did D-Day. We did Iwo Jima. This is the ****ing Army. We know how to do tough ****, but you gotta get the logistics set to get it done. You with me?
Nick Quah 14:44
That's General Russel Honoré, the commander of the task force that coordinated some of the military relief efforts.
Vann Newkirk II 14:51
Let's see. There was one moment, which ended up not being clear on tape, but we did actually tape him smoking four cigars during our conversation. [Laughter] Actually, I think the hardest thing to cut was, we went to the Lower Ninth Ward, and talked to a bunch of folks about what had happened, the trajectory of the neighborhood, and about the history of the neighborhood.
Nick Quah 15:24
Vann Newkirk II 15:24
And we weren't able to include those interviews in the final. You know, we went to places like The House of Dance and Feathers, we went to the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum; we went to all these different museums, all these different places, where people have done their best to preserve the history of New Orleans. I hope that the spirit of those places has made it through in the final product, but the tape didn't.
Nick Quah 15:52
So it makes a ton of sense that that would be a really hard cut to make, because it really shows this whole city lost its way of life for a while, and it's arguable if they'll ever get it back. In the last episode, you talked about the word "recovery." And I find that we don't really ever talk about the culture that's been lost when these disasters happen.
Vann Newkirk II 16:12
Right. So poet, intellectual, educator, activist, all-around just, you know, guy in New Orleans, Kalamu ya Salaam, he talks about what recovery actually would have meant. And it would be everybody having a chance to live better than they lived before the flood.
Nick Quah 16:35
Vann Newkirk II 16:36
And that conceptualization really stuck with me as a way to think about not just recovering after Katrina, but a way to think about all disasters, right? And...
Nick Quah 16:46
Vann Newkirk II 16:47
When you ask that question, you really get to think about like, what would actually have to go into it for that to happen? It wouldn't be enough to just move people back into where they were, just fix their houses; you would have to deal with the underlying issues that made them vulnerable to that flood in the first place. That made them so they had to spend weeks and months, across the country as evacuees, being called refugees, you have to deal with all those structures. And of course, that did not happen.
Nick Quah 17:19
So one of the last episodes of the show was this conversation with Michael Brown, the former FEMA chief who led the recovery and disaster management efforts.
Vann Newkirk II 17:28
In your mind, what was the worst thing?
Michael Brown 17:31
The levees would break. My press secretary was instructed, “You find every freakin’ outlet that I can talk to so that I can tell them that I think this is going to be really bad and that you need to get the hell out of dodge.”
Vann Newkirk II 17:48
You told them the levees [were] going to breach?
Michael Brown 17:49
No, I didn’t. Oh, no. I talked. There’s a fine line between—I’m never going to say to somebody “I think the levees are going to breach.” I’m not going to say that. I’m not going to—I’m not gonna panic people.
Vann Newkirk II 18:04
Would panic not have been a little bit... A little bit of panic been useful in this case?
Michael Brown 18:09
In hindsight, yeah. In hindsight. You know, now you’re asking me to look backward.
Vann Newkirk II 18:15
Well, that's the whole show.
Michael Brown 18:17
But, looking backward, I might have. I might have said, “I fear the levees could break.”
Nick Quah 18:26
So this really felt like the climax of the whole series. So I'm curious, what were you looking to get out of that interview?
Vann Newkirk II 18:35
Hmm. I was trying to understand the very basic question of... Okay, we have a federal government that, in all of our mythology about said federal government, can do whatever it chooses to do. This is the government that sponsored the Manhattan Project, the space race, that's done so many things in the American legend that were considered impossible, impractical, and to paraphrase JFK, they did them because they were hard, right?
Nick Quah 19:19
Vann Newkirk II 19:20
And so why was that just not on the table when it came to helping people, to saving people, during and after Hurricane Katrina? Now, I don't know if we got an answer that's going to satisfy everybody from that interview, but I do feel like talking to Michael Brown helped put some things into place for me. And also, again, I was taking pieces of this the whole time and asking people about interview questions that they want to hear answered. And I do think--you know, you listened to that episode--it meant something to Le-Ann, too.
Le-Ann Williams 20:01
I feel like it’s crazy. Like I’m like, it don’t. I don’t care about no apology, but y’all two, see—I’mma get y’all! Like him saying, “Le-Ann,” you know, “I’m sorry, Le-Ann. I’m sorry.” Like he right here telling me “I’m sorry.” I’mma get y’all two. Like the part when he was saying my name and talking to me made me feel like I matter.
Nick Quah 20:33
Yeah, I mean, she just got like... an acknowledgment, not necessarily an apology, but acknowledgement.
Vann Newkirk II 20:39
Right. Not an apology. [Laughter] So I guess, you know, that wasn't apology, it was qualified. But if she reacts strongly to being acknowledged, to having that qualified apology, just hearing somebody who was making these high-level decisions, who is the face of what went wrong, still, to lots of people in New Orleans, saying her name and acknowledging what she went through? That meant something.
Nick Quah 21:07
Yeah. What does proper acknowledgement look like? What does proper apology look like, in any of these regards?
Vann Newkirk II 21:16
That's something I think I'm still figuring out. I don't know that we have a lot of good templates for full-throated apologies from government.
Nick Quah 21:30
Yeah. I mean, there's the discourse about reparations, right? With respect to slavery.
Vann Newkirk II 21:34
Nick Quah 21:34
Vann Newkirk II 21:35
But I think that conversation about reparations is instructive.
Nick Quah 21:38
Vann Newkirk II 21:39
Because it makes clear that there has to be some attempt at redress, that there are two pieces to this that seem to be non-negotiable; and that's an actual acknowledgement of what happened, of taking responsibility for actions that led to that; and an acknowledgement of how it made a person, or group of people, a community, feel, how it materially affected them.
Nick Quah 22:09
Vann Newkirk II 22:09
And then, once you have those things in place, then that leads you to a place where you can begin the process of redress.
Nick Quah 22:17
Vann Newkirk II 22:18
Right? So if you acknowledge that you, your actions, caused a community to lose x billion, million, or a trillion dollars of wealth, or if it's something as simple as you acknowledge that your ineptitude or neglect caused somebody to lose a family member.
Nick Quah 22:37
Vann Newkirk II 22:38
Then you can begin to sort of figure out, how do I make good? How do I make amends on that hurt?
Nick Quah 22:46
Yeah. How much hope, as an individual, do you have of ever seeing that?
Vann Newkirk II 22:53
We're having conversations today that the mainstream wasn't having 10 years ago, in terms of how to ameliorate harm, in terms of why we even talk about reparations. And, I don't know, maybe some of that sensibility is leaking into how we do politics, and how we structure policy. So I'm not quite hopeful, but I'm not quite pessimistic either.
Nick Quah 23:25
Vann Newkirk II 23:26
I believe in people. I believe that human experience, human history, has always taught that if people exist, there are always going to be people who are moving for right, and good, for liberation, for the things that I consider are the marks of pious or moral living in the world. There has never been a moment, even when you think about the days in the deepest, darkest middle of chattel slavery in America... People who were enslaved, threw off the yoke, rebelled, violently sometimes, sometimes they shirked their work. You know, sometimes they did smaller acts of resistance. They did that every day, in a time where it was not clear that their children and their children's children would not live the same way they did. Even then, they still rebelled, and organized, and rose up, so that, to me, is I can never rule out movement on that level. On the other hand, I also know people, and I know that power doesn't stop moving to make itself more powerful, and that it's very difficult to get rid of entrenched power, and also understand that power and money are perhaps the most concentrated than they've ever been in human history right now. So I have to sit with those two assessments of human nature and figure out what goes between them.
Nick Quah 25:03
So what's next for you?
Vann Newkirk II 25:05
Most of my attention is in the obvious places: politics in a pandemic. I'm boring like that. [Laughter] But I'm also dedicating a lot of neurons to thinking about what I believe to be is a follow-up project to Floodlines, and to the work that I've enjoyed the most, which is thinking about disasters as ultimate expressions of enduring human inequality. And so I'm thinking about that a lot with this moment and climate change. It feels like all these different little things are popping up across the world that are making us feel like it's post-apocalyptic or whatever. But to me, they're all part of a whole.
Nick Quah 25:51
So I read somewhere that you're interested in science fiction. Is that also in your future?
Vann Newkirk II 25:56
I would love to. And I've written some things--of various quality. [Laughter] And that's all I'll say about that.
Nick Quah 26:06
What's your favorite science fiction media?
Vann Newkirk II 26:09
If it's got a spaceship in it, or... [Laughter] It's a 50/50 chance that I'll read it. But I'm really into, right now... I'm going back and reading--re-reading--N.K. Jemisin's books. The Fifth Season, I've read it so many times, but it feels so... It feels almost like an Oracle to me, in understanding a lot of the questions that I have about inequality and climate change.
Nick Quah 26:36
Vann Newkirk II 26:37
It's a good place to start, if you're into it.
Nick Quah 26:39
So what is it about science fiction that speaks to you?
Vann Newkirk II 26:43
To me, the ultimate lesson of science fiction is that no matter our level of technology, the basic questions of who you are and who we want to be are going to be the same. And so, most good science fiction, whether we consider it dystopian, or utopian, or somewhere in between, is trying to apply the same social, economic, sociological questions we have today and figure them out in a world that's way more advanced than ours technologically, right? The question of AI is when we think about that, seems like it's a Terminator problem, or a Matrix problem, but it's a Facebook problem, you know?
Nick Quah 27:30
Yeah. Yeah. [Laughter]
Vann Newkirk II 27:31
And then today, AI itself is a question about existing human bias.
Nick Quah 27:38
Vann Newkirk II 27:39
You know, and Waterworld is a movie about inequality. [Laughter] So that's what I like about science fiction, is it's a way to get people to think about these issues that are really so political today, and trick them into believing they're not political.
Nick Quah 27:56
I look forward to reading your science fiction book one day, and I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me.
Vann Newkirk II 28:01
Thank you so much.
Nick Quah 28:13
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show is produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Alpert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.