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New Orleans ‘like a tale of two cities’

In addition to marking the June 1 start of hurricane season, one of the reasons for our trip here this week is to check in on progress. Not every backdrop here is as bad as St. Bernard Parish, but where it's bad, it's awful. One way of measuring progress is to talk to one of the men who has been responsible for the recovery. Walter Isaacson is many things. He's an author and biographer, former editor of Time Magazine. He runs the Aspen Institute in Washington, but these days he's the vice chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. We sat down to talk about the changes he's seen.

Brian Williams: People ask, “What's it like down there?” What do you answer these days?

Walter Isaacson: These days it is like a tale of two cities, because there are parts of New Orleans that have really come back — they're very vibrant. Things are open again. And then you drive through the long, long blocks.

Williams: You were very angry a few months ago.

Isaacson: I was furious. So was everybody a few months ago — just as you were when you see the scenes of devastation and you keep waiting and you think, ‘How could they let this happen in America? How can they just leave people stranded?’ But now, I think it took us a while. I think it took all of us at every level a while, but we're working together, and it's kicked in.

Williams: Why did it take so long? Why was this such a well-kept secret?

Isaacson: I think it just took people by surprise. People were not paying attention. People were not focused.

Williams: You were the first person I heard in public life say that no discussion of the new New Orleans can be had until we talk about these levees, because you can't talk about a city that's going to be vulnerable in the bowl. Are you convinced that what the Army Corps of Engineers has done will be enough, sufficient to protect this place?

Isaacson: Absolutely. I think that the good, armored Category 3 levees mean that people will be safe. There may be some damage and flooding and really big storms where some water gets in, but you're never going to see this type of devastation again.

Williams: You're willing to stake your name and reputation on it?

Isaacson: I'm willing to stake my name, reputation, buy property here, have my family here. I'm going to come back home to New Orleans, and it's because I really believe in this city.