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The scene of the crime

Brian speaks to Gentilly resident Christopher Saucedo on Sunday. Photo by Subrata De, NBC News.

We arrived back in New Orleans on Sunday. If you think this city isn't nervous about hurricane season, consider this: a local police offer told me he purchased an automatic weapon and a thousand rounds of ammunition  yesterday -- when Ernesto's path and size were both uncertain -- because, as he put it, "I'm not going through another hurricane in this city with just my sidearm."

If you think these new airline security regulations aren't having an effect on citizens, consider this: after arriving in Louis Armstrong International Airport here in New Orleans yesterday, I purchased a bottle of water at an airport newsstand. The saleswoman told me she would have to pour it into a large Styrofoam cup (she pointed to a massive stack of cups behind her) if I still wanted to purchase it -- because "we can't have plastic bottles in the terminal." Upon hearing this, the woman in line behind me, perhaps knowing my line of work, said, "Can anyone explain to me, given our history and who we are, how we arrived at this point?"
In an instant, I completely understood what she was saying. We won World War II. This is the United States. How has it come to this? How did this happen? Who is going to use my bottle of Aquafina -- and how -- to act against this magnificent country of ours?

Both of these stories, separated by about 15 minutes after our arrival here yesterday, speak to the twin national traumas we have been through -- and that we are about to examine via twin anniversaries: the one-year observance of Katrina and its aftermath, and the 5-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

This visit, more than any over the past 12 months, feels strange. Huge portions of the city are unchanged. Renewal is evident but episodic and spotty. Sunday we found a car in the massive multi-level parking garage at the Superdome -- that has been there, locked and abandoned, for the past year. It is the very least of this city's worries. But it is a perfect example of the scope of the problem. How will anyone ever find the owner? Who will remove it? What becomes of it?
Everything here is a landmark of some sort, dating back to a year ago. Yesterday we drove by the stretch of sidewalk where we came across a body, baking in the sun, in the shadow of the Superdome a year ago... not the first we had seen, certainly not the last -- this one was memorable because of the children on bikes who had stopped to look it over.
While shooting videotape in the city yesterday afternoon, we smelled, while standing in one specific spot -- that smell -- the distinct odor of death and decay, the one that is instantly recognizable to those who've traveled to war zones, crime scenes or natural disasters. 

Last evening, two channels on the hotel cable system were running 9/11 anniversary programming. Three of them had Katrina-related programming of some sort. The in-house channel now runs, on a repeating loop, a guide to the 1-5 hurricane rating scale, and instructions on how to act if warnings are posted.
The sheer drapes were pulled closed when I checked into my room, and I quickly discovered why: all four panes of floor-to-ceiling glass are clouded... full of water vapor... as are so many of the windows in our otherwise-fine hotel. It's a metaphor, really, for the city outside those windows: it's functioning, even clean in spots -- but just behind a sheer curtain there is still real hurt and great damage.

Sunday night on one of the array of specials on Katrina, former FEMA Director Michael Brown said flatly, "We failed in so many ways, it's hard to take an accounting of all of them." He's right, and you can still see the results from where I'm sitting as I write this.
This week, beginning this evening, we will take stock. And tonight, at 8 p.m. Eastern, 7 Central, we will remember the first five days of Katrina. It is a documentary special that aired once, on the Sundance Channel, on October 27th of last year. It is raw and emotional and uncommonly first-person. I asked NBC to air it on the network and they agreed. We will devote the balance of the hour to those we met during Katrina and the issues it raised. Tomorrow I will talk to President Bush here in New Orleans, just as I imagine I might in New York, on the next awful anniversary we are due to cover in September. We will also report on all the souls lost in yesterday's commuter jet crash in Kentucky. Through it all, life goes on -- in between tragedies -- and we'll cover all of it when we join you from New Orleans tonight.