Video: New Orleans Perspective
updated 9/16/2005 9:23:33 AM ET 2005-09-16T13:23:33

In a televised speech to the nation on Thursday evening, President Bush presented an extensive plan to rebuild areas affected by Hurricane Katrina, in particular the city of New Orleans.

The speech included an assessment of the current state of the affected areas as well as a vision into the future of a new and revitalized New Orleans.

Reporting from New Orleans, NBC Nightly News anchor and managing editor Brian Williams joined Joe Scarborough to assess Bush's plan against the backdrop of the current realities on the ground.

To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

JOE SCARBOROUGH, HOST:  New Orleans will rise again.  There‘s no way to imagine America without the Crescent City, so says President Bush, who told the nation he is prepared to spend more than $200 billion to rebuild that city and the entire Gulf region.  But will the American people be ready to pay the bill? 

Brian, you have followed this president for quite some time.  You are down there on the ground.  How do you think he fared this evening? 

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC ANCHOR:  Well, Joe, I am going to point to the analysis of others, as I always try to stay out of the opinion business. 

I can tell you how strange it was being on the ground in a desolate American city.  Our camera crew here reported the lights came on in this section of downtown 30 minutes before the president‘s motorcade drive by.  A lot of notable buildings got power back tonight.  The helicopters are overhead, yes, but we can also hear alarms from the building that got power back.  It‘s kind of left over from the onset of the storm. 

To be in this city, where people died in the United States for a lack of food and water, while the president spoke from this city words of hope and contrition was a very strange and extraordinary feeling.  Remember, we have got a curfew.  The streets are still under de facto martial law.  You see Humvees full of soldiers, heavily armed, drive by, along with police every so often.  It is still very eerie here, Joe. 

SCARBOROUGH: Brian, talk about it.  This has been—not to personalize this too much, but it has been a personal journey for you.  You have been on the ground from the very beginning, like you said, reporting from a major American city where young children died of dehydration out on sidewalks.

And now you have got the president of the United States delivering a speech to the nation from Jackson Square, an area largely untouched by Katrina‘s devastation.  Did you find that an ironic choice? 

WILLIAMS:  I will say some of us in the media were chattering about the choice of backdrops, not that you want perhaps total devastation, but maybe a midrange desolation behind the president. 

If we were coming here to New Orleans to do a “Nightly News” centered around the city, that might have been one of the locations we chose as, in the parlance of our business, a beauty shot.  There are few better-looking backdrops in this city.  It‘s their candy store.  It‘s their president.  They chose the backdrop for a message presumably of hope. 

I can say, Joe, this.  We decided to come cover this hurricane.  The difference about this storm was, it was headed right for here.  And this is a bathtub, and we can look out at the Mississippi at ships at or above, as you know, eye level. 

We rode out that storm that day with those people in the Superdome.  Not all of them lived.  And I have said this before on the air.  I hope the lesson of this is not that my son and daughter at home have been assigned a different value as humans in the United States than their equivalents here in New Orleans.  I would certainly like that not to be true about the country I was raised in, that I have prospered in, and that I love. 

SCARBOROUGH: It‘s been such a disturbing, I think a disturbing journey for all of us.  But, again, Brian, you have been down there on the ground from the very beginning. 

I remember watching that first night when you were going into the Superdome.  And my wife turned and looked at me and said, what is he doing there?  And she said that, because everybody on the Gulf Coast knew that this was something that was going to happen eventually.  It was going to be extraordinarily dangerous. 

But, now you have had a view of this place that millions and millions of Americans can‘t even begin to imagine.  Can you tell us, three weeks later, how New Orleans is faring, compared to that night, what it went through while you were down there, and what you saw upon your return? 

WILLIAMS:  Well, that‘s a great question.  It could take me the rest of the night.  And I know we have to run some commercial spots to pay the lighting bill. 

I will tell you, that night, we used the words shelter—we used the words shelter of last resort.  We didn‘t know how true we were, did we, that night about the Superdome. 

Those were mostly absolutely wonderful, peaceful people who sat in a lot of groups, took care of each other, kept moving peacefully as the roof opened and they got rained on in this indoor stadium. 

Of course, gangs, you had a bad element in there, as you would with a gathering, a super-hyped-up gathering of 14,000 people.  Came back here tonight, interstate highway strewn with mattresses, the detritus of a de facto refugee camp on the interstate that they are planning on opening in, what 24 to 48 hours. 

The mayor is giving out zip codes, where people are going to start coming back this weekend.  They were reading them aloud on local television tonight by zip code.  French Quarter is a week-and-a-half, two weeks away from opening up, according to the mayor. 

I don‘t see it right now.  I am not a civil engineer.  I am not the mayor.  I am not with Homeland Security.  I do know I saw what I saw.  A lot of our memories and a lot of our videotaped images, we are not going to share, because they don‘t belong at the dinner hour or any hour in American homes.  You can guess the rest. 

But I will tell you, there‘s a lot of toxicity in what entered this city.  Every gasoline tank and every car has been emptied, underground oil tanks.  Every transformer contains PCBs.  They went over.  You name it, it‘s in that water.  That‘s a big problem here in this city, Joe. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And I am afraid it is going to take years for this city to recover. 

You know, we got hit by Ivan a year ago, and we still have—have places that are reduced to rubble in, again, a very small area, nothing like New Orleans. 

Final question.  Again, I know that you don‘t run an op-ed page, like I do here.  So, I don‘t want you to give your opinion on it.  But I am curious.  Any initial reaction from the people there that watched the speech that know New Orleans, residents, how this speech, how the president‘s approach, will sell, the people from St. Charles Street that he brought up, St. Bernard‘s Parish, which was so ravaged by this storm? 

WILLIAMS:  Cynical view is, the people who needed to hear the speech the most won‘t see it.  Their homes have been wiped away.  Some of them are living outside this region with relatives, and perhaps they will. 

David Gregory pointed out tonight, contrition is a new language for the Bush White House, a point he has made twice before on “NBC Nightly News.”  Remember John Dickerson‘s famous question about the president‘s regrets that went unanswered.  I think people here don‘t want to lose the bayou neighborhoods.  They don‘t want to lose the Cajun neighborhoods.  Remember, that‘s where the music and the spirit start.  If you can make it there, then you make it at the Quarter. 

If you are good, then you go into the brand-name bars and become famous some day.  So, perhaps that would be the tragedy.  I hope we can pay the bills for this massive, massive rebuilding effort.  And I don‘t think we Americans have any idea how large the scope of it is yet. 

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