Debbie Elliott

After a stint on Capitol Hill, NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott is back covering her native South.

From a giant sinkhole swallowing up a bayou community in Louisiana to new state restrictions on abortion providers, Elliott keeps track of the region's news. She also reports on cultural treasures such as an historic church in need of preservation in Helena, Arkansas; the magical House of Dance and Feathers in New Orleans' lower 9th ward; and the hidden-away Coon Dog Cemetery in north Alabama.

She's looking back at the legacy of landmark civil rights events, and following the legal battles between states and the federal government over immigration enforcement, healthcare, and voting rights.

Her coverage of the BP oil spill has focused on the human impact of the spill, the complex litigation to determine responsibility for the disaster, and how the region is recovering. She launched the series, "The Disappearing Coast," which examines the history and culture of south Louisiana, the state's complicated relationship with the oil and gas industry, and the oil spill's lasting impact on a fragile coastline.

Debbie has reported on the new entrepreneurial boom in post-Katrina New Orleans, as well as that city's decades-long struggle with violent crime, and a broken criminal justice system. She's examined the obesity epidemic in Mississippi, and a ground-breaking prisoner meditation program at Alabama's toughest lockup. She's taken NPR listeners on a musical tour of Memphis in a pink Cadillac, and profiled writers and musicians including Aaron Neville, Sandra Boynton, and Trombone Shorty.

Look for Debbie's signature political coverage as well. She's watching vulnerable Congressional seats and tracking southern politicians who have higher political aspirations. She was part of NPR's election team in 2008 and 2112 — reporting live from the floor of the political conventions, following the Presidential campaigns around the country, and giving voice to voters making their choice.

During her tenure in Washington, DC, Debbie covered Congress and hosted NPR's All Things Considered on the weekends. In that role she interviewed a variety of luminaries and world leaders, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She celebrated the 40th Anniversary of "Alice's Restaurant" with Arlo Guthrie, and mixed it up on the rink with the Baltimore's Charm City Roller Girls. She profiled the late historian John Hope Franklin and the children's book author Eric Carle.

Since joining NPR in 1995, Debbie has covered the re-opening of civil-rights-era murder cases, the legal battle over displaying the Ten Commandments in courthouses, the Elian Gonzales custody dispute from Miami, and a number of major hurricanes, from Andrew to Katrina. Debbie was stationed in Tallahassee, Florida, for election night in 2000, and was one of the first national reporters on the scene for the contentious presidential election contest that followed. She has covered landmark smoker lawsuits, the tobacco settlement with states, the latest trends in youth smoking and electronic cigarettes, and tobacco-control policy and regulation. NPR has sent her to cover a Super Bowl, the Summer Olympics, Bama football fans, and baseball spring training.

Debbie Elliott was born in Atlanta, grew up in the Memphis area, and is a graduate of the University of Alabama College of Communication. She's the former news director of member station WUAL (now Alabama Public Radio).

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Nickel Tour: Get To Know Great Tour Guides
9:03 pm
Tue August 13, 2013

The Vintage Cadillac With The Memphis Soundtrack

American Safari tour guide Tad Pierson stands beside his 1955 pink Cadillac. Visitors to Memphis can get a personalized tour that highlights the city's rich music heritage.
Debbie Elliott NPR

Originally published on Wed August 14, 2013 4:16 am

In the town where I grew up — Memphis, Tenn. — Tad Pierson has made a career out of his love for cars and American music by working as a tour guide. We meet in the grand lobby of the Peabody Hotel, the downtown landmark famous for its ducks and Southern elegance. But it's also considered the starting point of the Mississippi Delta, a region steeped in the blues.

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Code Switch
11:48 pm
Fri July 5, 2013

Remembering Birmingham's 'Dynamite Hill' Neighborhood

Three civil rights workers stand guard in front NAACP attorney Arthur Shores' house in Sept. 1963. The house was blasted by dynamite the night before.
AP

Originally published on Sat July 6, 2013 4:54 am

Long before the Civil Rights marches of 1963 thrust Birmingham, Ala. into the national spotlight, black families along one residential street were steadily chipping away at Jim Crow segregation laws — and paying a price for it. As part of our series looking back at the seminal events that changed the nation 50 years ago, NPR's Debbie Elliott paid a visit to Birmingham's Dynamite Hill.

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The Salt
6:57 am
Mon June 17, 2013

Spoken Dish Asks Southerners: What Is Your Food Identity?

Cornbread in a cast-iron skillet. A taste of home?
Todd Patterson iStockphoto.com

Originally published on Tue June 18, 2013 11:11 am

Does cast-iron skillet cornbread, hot and crispy from the oven, transport you back to your grandma's kitchen? Do you cook with certain ingredients as a link to your roots in the South? If so, "A Spoken Dish" wants to hear your story.

The Southern Foodways Alliance is teaming up with Whole Foods Market and Georgia Organics in this video storytelling project as a way to celebrate and document food memories and rituals of the American South.

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Code Switch
1:11 am
Wed June 5, 2013

Fifty Years After Medgar Evers' Killing, The Scars Remain

Medgar Evers' widow, Myrlie, comforts the couple's 9-year-old son, Darrel, at her husband's funeral in Jackson, Miss., on June 15, 1963.
AP

Originally published on Wed June 5, 2013 4:20 am

For Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of slain NAACP leader Medgar Evers, the memories of 1963 are still raw.

Her family lived in terror behind the locked doors of their Jackson, Miss., home — a modest, three-bedroom, ranch-style house in one of the first new subdivisions built for African-Americans in Mississippi's segregated capital city. A back window in the tiny kitchen frames the backyard where Evers-Williams once grew rose bushes and a plum tree.

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Environment
1:38 pm
Tue May 28, 2013

Gulf Coast States Get Creative With BP Oil Spill Money

Tourists watch as workers clean oil from the sand along a strip of oil that washed up on the beach in Gulf Shores, Ala., in 2010 after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded off the Louisiana coast.
Dave Martin AP

Originally published on Wed May 29, 2013 6:29 am

Gulf Coast states are lining up to spend $1 billion from BP on coastal restoration. The money is part of BP's legal responsibility to restore the Gulf of Mexico's natural resources in the aftermath of the worst oil disaster in U.S. history.

But the nature of some of the state projects, including boat ramps and a beachfront hotel, is raising questions about just what counts as coastal restoration.

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Business
12:56 am
Thu May 9, 2013

Shell Digs Deep To Tap Into Lucrative Oil, Gas Reserves

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One reason the world is not yet running out of oil and gas is that energy companies keep finding ways to extract those resources from more and more difficult places, including far under the ocean. Royal Dutch Shell announced plans, yesterday, for the world's deepest offshore floating oil and gas facility.

NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

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Author Interviews
10:28 pm
Sun April 28, 2013

A Grieving Brother Finds Solace In His Sister's 'Small Town'

Brother and sister Rod Dreher and Ruthie Leming grew up in a small town in rural Louisiana. Dreher left the tightknit community to pursue a journalism career but returned home after Leming died of lung cancer in 2010.
Courtesy Rod Dreher

Originally published on Mon April 29, 2013 7:21 am

When he was a teenager, journalist Rod Dreher couldn't wait to escape Louisiana. Now he has found his way home again in grief — after his sister's death from lung cancer. It was "in light" of that tragedy, Dreher says, that he discovered the value of community. It's the subject of his new book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life.

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Environment
12:37 pm
Wed March 20, 2013

Massive Sinkhole In Louisiana Baffles Officials

After the collapse of a salt mine in south Louisiana last year, a 9-acre sinkhole has flooded the area. It also caused gas and oil leaks, and local residents are fed up.
Debbie Elliott NPR

Originally published on Wed March 20, 2013 1:43 pm

Louisiana officials are grappling with a giant sinkhole that's threatening a neighborhood. A salt mine collapsed last year, creating a series of problems regulators say they've never seen before, including tremors and oil and gas leaks and a sinkhole that now covers 9 acres.

Residents have been evacuated for more than seven months now and are losing patience.

Ernie Boudreaux lives in a trailer on Jambalaya Street in Bayou Corne, La. Strange things have been happening to his home, he says.

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U.S.
12:01 pm
Mon February 25, 2013

Alabama Divided As Court Prepares To Hear Voting Rights Challenge

A young demonstrator is attacked by a police dog in Birmingham, Ala., in May 1963. Scenes like these helped usher in the nation's landmark civil rights law, the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday over a key provision of the law.
Bill Hudson AP

Originally published on Mon February 25, 2013 2:23 pm

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court takes up a challenge to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The law's future is to be decided in a case from Alabama, the very place the statute was born.

Shelby County, Ala., is fighting a section of the law that requires states and localities with a history of discrimination to seek federal approval for any changes to election rules.

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Around the Nation
7:53 am
Tue February 12, 2013

Mardi Gras Merriment Beyond Bourbon Street Festivities

A reveler dances with a young girl during the Courir de Mardi Gras in Mamou, La., in 2007.
Josh Noel MCT /Landov

It's Fat Tuesday, the final day of indulgence before the fasting and penance of Lent begins. While the revelry in New Orleans tends to grab the spotlight, you can find some fascinating Mardi Gras traditions elsewhere.

From chasing chickens in Cajun Country to catching MoonPies in Mobile, communities all along the Gulf Coast have their own way of marking Carnival season.

The Fatted Ox

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Around the Nation
2:43 pm
Tue January 29, 2013

Drought Causes Ripple Effect Along Mighty Mississippi River

International ships call at the busy Port of New Orleans. It's a major shipping convergence point on the Mississippi River. Ships come upriver from the Gulf of Mexico with imports from abroad, and barges come downriver, bringing U.S. goods for export.
Debbie Elliott NPR

Originally published on Wed January 30, 2013 3:30 pm

The persistent drought is raising questions about how the Mississippi River is managed — both upstream and down.

While cargo traffic upriver has gotten lots of attention, the drought is creating a different set of problems downriver at the mouth of the Mississippi, where saltwater has encroached.

An old-fashioned staff river gauge behind the New Orleans district office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shows the Mississippi is running just shy of 6 feet above sea level at the river bend.

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Race
10:41 pm
Sun January 20, 2013

Myrlie Evers-Williams To Deliver Inaugural Invocation

Originally published on Mon January 21, 2013 5:01 am

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And the widow of a murdered Mississippi civil rights leader will help open the inaugural ceremony today. President Obama selected activist Myrlie Evers-Williams to deliver the invocation. She's the first woman and the first layperson to have the honor.

NPR's Debbie Elliott has this profile.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Evers-Williams' prominent role in President Obama's second inauguration comes in the 50th year since NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers was shot to death outside his family's home in Jackson, Mississippi.

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U.S.
12:34 pm
Fri January 11, 2013

Cigarette Makers Frustrated As Product Approvals Stall

A clerk prices cigarettes at Discount Smoke Shop in Ballwin, Mo. The Food and Drug Administration, which must approve all new tobacco products or any changes to existing brands, has not cleared any products since assuming that responsibility in 2009.
Jeff Roberson AP

Originally published on Fri January 11, 2013 2:28 pm

It's been only a few years since Congress granted the federal government the power to approve how tobacco products are made and sold in the U.S.

The Food and Drug Administration's new Center for Tobacco Products, established under a 2009 law that gives the agency jurisdiction over tobacco, must review all new cigarettes or smokeless tobacco, as well as any changes to existing brands.

But the agency has yet to clear any products under the new system, and some cigarette makers are frustrated by the backlog of applications.

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U.S.
12:13 pm
Mon December 17, 2012

Federal-State Tug Of War: Drawing The Lines In Immigration Overhaul

Maria Lola Melisio, 18, entered the U.S. illegally with her mother when she was 7. Now she's an undocumented resident living in Alabama, which has one of the country's toughest immigration laws.
Debbie Elliott NPR

Originally published on Mon December 17, 2012 2:19 pm

Inside a modest storefront in Loxley, Ala., 18-year-old Maria Lola Melisio points out the Mexican spices and other products for sale in her mother's market.

"There are the leaves where you make your tamales — you roll them up in that," she says.

Melisio has long dark curls and is wearing a houndstooth scarf in support of the Alabama Crimson Tide. When she was 7 years old, she entered the U.S. illegally from Mexico with her mother, and still has a scar on her back from crawling under the border fence. It's a story she's kept secret until now.

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Business
2:43 am
Thu November 29, 2012

Contract Ban, Civil Litigation Add To BP's Woes

Originally published on Thu November 29, 2012 4:18 am

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The multinational oil firm BP is being taken to account for the massive 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Yesterday, the Obama administration banned BP from any new contacts with the federal government, citing, quote, "a lack of business integrity" related to the spill - that after BP admitted criminal wrongdoing in its recent settlement with the U.S. Justice Department.

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The Two-Way
9:22 am
Thu November 15, 2012

BP Settlement Of Little Comfort To Some, A 'Down Payment' To Others

June 2010: A boom floats in the water as contract workers from BP use skimmers to clean oil from a marsh near Venice, La.
Win McNamee Getty Images

Originally published on Thu November 15, 2012 1:36 pm

There's mixed reaction this afternoon to the news that BP has agreed to a deal with federal authorities to pay $4.5 billion in criminal and civil penalties related to the 2010 Gulf Oil spill.

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Election 2012
12:40 am
Wed November 7, 2012

Democratic Candidates Do Well In Sunshine State

Originally published on Wed November 7, 2012 5:31 am

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Five hundred thirty-eight electoral votes were up for grabs on Election Day. President Obama has won, so far, 303 of them, a comfortable majority. Mitt Romney has 206. Twenty-nine are still unaccounted for - the electoral votes of Florida. Too close to call there. Less than a percentage point divides the candidates. But down the ballot, Democrats did well. The party retained a Senate seat and picked up a few key congressional races as well. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

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Election 2012
3:08 pm
Tue November 6, 2012

Independent Voters Could Be Key In Florida

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And now on to the biggest state that is really a contested battleground. I mean, we assume New York and California are barely contested by Republicans and Texas is assumed to go to Republican.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Texas, yeah.

SIEGEL: But with 29 electoral votes, Florida is always a state we look at. And our own Debbie Elliott is in Tampa at the Republican Party event there. And, Debbie, who are the key constituencies in Florida who are thought to be the ones who will decide who wins this day today?

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Election 2012
5:03 am
Tue November 6, 2012

Ohio And Florida: Checking In With Two Key States

Originally published on Tue November 6, 2012 7:18 am

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning. People have been joking for weeks that the candidates are actually running for president of Ohio. That's how vital the state is, but here's a reminder about the electoral map. It is at least theoretically possible for either candidate to lose Ohio and still reach 270 electoral votes by winning some combination of other states. Many of those combinations include Florida.

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Election 2012
3:51 am
Tue November 6, 2012

Update From Fla.: Poised For Challenges

Originally published on Tue November 6, 2012 7:18 am

It's at least theoretically possible for either candidate to lose the vital state of Ohio and still reach 270 electoral votes by winning some combination of other states. Many of those combinations include Florida — infamous for voting irregularities in 2000.

U.S.
12:04 am
Fri November 2, 2012

Ala. Racist Language Measure Draws Unexpected Foes

Alabama's Constitution still includes language referring to poll taxes and segregated schools. Voters are poised to decide on an amendment to excise the outdated lines, but some African-American leaders in the state are opposing the change.
Dave Martin AP

Originally published on Fri November 2, 2012 8:20 am

State-mandated segregation is a thing of the past in Alabama, but the state's antiquated 1901 constitution paints a different picture. On Tuesday, Alabama voters will decide whether to strip language from the state's governing document that calls for poll taxes and separate schools for "white and colored."

In 2004, voters rejected an amendment to purge those remnants of Jim Crow from the constitution by fewer than 2,000 votes.

'We've Got To Move Forward'

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Statewide Races
1:18 am
Sat October 27, 2012

The 'Ten Commandments Judge' Wants His Seat Back

Former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, known as the "Ten Commandments Judge," makes an appearance at a Tea Party rally in Mobile. The Republican is running for chief justice again despite being removed from the office nearly 10 years ago for defying a federal court order to remove a massive Ten Commandments monument from the Alabama judicial building.
Debbie Elliott/NPR

Originally published on Sat October 27, 2012 4:26 pm

Republican Roy Moore, Alabama's controversial "Ten Commandments Judge," is back on the ballot this year, running for chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court — despite being removed from that office nearly a decade ago.

In a state as red as they come, he is facing last-minute Democratic challenger Bob Vance, who is reaching out to moderate Republicans turned off by Moore's politics.

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Race
10:30 pm
Sun September 30, 2012

Integrating Ole Miss: A Transformative, Deadly Riot

Meredith, center with briefcase, is escorted to the University of Mississippi campus by U.S. marshals on Oct. 1, 1962.
AP

Originally published on Tue October 2, 2012 7:07 am

Fifty years ago — Oct. 1, 1962 — the first black student was admitted to the University of Mississippi, a bastion of the Old South.

The town of Oxford erupted. It took some 30,000 U.S. troops, federal marshals and national guardsmen to get James Meredith to class after a violent campus uprising. Two people were killed and more than 300 injured. Some historians say the integration of Ole Miss was the last battle of the Civil War.

It was a high-stakes showdown between President Kennedy and Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett.

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Election 2012
12:06 am
Wed September 26, 2012

Obama, Romney Campaign In Must-Win Ohio

Originally published on Wed September 26, 2012 5:36 am

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has delivered a constant stream of criticism of President Obama, but he still confronts Republican voters who haven't heard enough.

GREENE: On a hidden videotape revealed this month, Romney was asked why he didn't hammer President Obama harder. He explained that he's trying to win over people who voted for the president in 2008.

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Politics
10:32 am
Wed September 19, 2012

Deep South Democrats Seek Path Back To Relevance

Albert N. Gore Jr., a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, speaks at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss., on Aug. 2. Gore is running against incumbent Republican Roger Wicker. He says there should have been younger people interested in taking on Wicker — "but they didn't want to fight."
Rogelio V. Solis AP

Originally published on Wed September 19, 2012 3:09 pm

It can be lonely being a Democrat in the Deep South. Just ask Steve Wilson.

The young lawyer was a first-time delegate at the Democratic National Convention, but it's not something he brags about back home in Meridian, Miss.

"I don't talk about it," he says. "It's the elephant in the room, so to speak. Most of my friends are Republican, I think, but I just don't bring it up."

That climate can make it hard to recruit viable Democratic candidates in the Deep South — once a solidly Democratic region that is now reliably Republican.

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Around the Nation
1:52 am
Tue September 4, 2012

CarolinaFest Greets DNC Delegates To Charlotte

Originally published on Tue September 4, 2012 7:38 am

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

You may have heard some street noise behind some of Mara's interviews there. That was the sound of CarolinaFest. Charlotte gave Democrats a taste of the South there yesterday.

People outside gave NPR's Debbie Elliott a taste of what they're thinking.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: What better way to kick off a political convention than a Labor Day street festival?

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCHING BAND)

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Dead Stop
10:58 pm
Sun September 2, 2012

A Resting Place For Hunting Hounds In Alabama

Franky Hatton and Cletis pose in front of the gravestones of Hatton's champion coon hounds at Coon Dog Cemetery near Cherokee, Ala.
Debbie Elliott NPR

Originally published on Mon September 3, 2012 1:15 am

Seventy-five years ago, Key Underwood and his raccoon-hunting dog Troop had a connection. Years of training and a deep relationship make human and canine a seamless hunting unit. The two can share a special bond.

So when old Troop died, Underwood buried him on the crest of a hill hidden away in the lush countryside near Cherokee, Ala. It was Underwood's favorite hunting spot. He marked the grave with an old chimney stone he chiseled with a hammer and screwdriver.

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Around the Nation
1:43 am
Wed August 29, 2012

Isaac Rains On Gulf Coast On Hurricane Katrina Anniversary

Originally published on Wed August 29, 2012 11:04 pm

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

People naturally focus on New Orleans, a great American city that is below sea level in many places, but you cannot understand the full effect of the storm without moving along the Gulf Coast. Mississippi, for example, has faced high water, tropical storm-force winds and pounding rain. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF WIND AND SURF)

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: As Isaac moves ashore near the mouth of Mississippi River in neighboring Louisiana, outer bands of the hurricane swept into Gulfport, Mississippi.

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Around the Nation
12:53 am
Tue August 28, 2012

Gulf Coast Hunkers Down For Isaac's Wind And Rain

Originally published on Tue August 28, 2012 4:32 am

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

Residents of New Orleans and other cities are performing the balancing act that is an essential part of life along the Gulf Coast. Hurricanes are such a regular feature that you can't let them disrupt your life too much.

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Around the Nation
11:06 am
Tue August 21, 2012

Saltwater Invades Mississippi River

Water gets churned up at the end of a dredging pipeline connected to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredge on the Mississippi River near Memphis, Tenn., on Monday. The river has seen water levels from Illinois to Louisiana plummet because of drought conditions in the past three months. When there's less flow coming downstream, saltwater from the Gulf wedges its way in.
Adrian Sainz AP

Originally published on Tue August 21, 2012 3:25 pm

All the dry weather means there's less water flowing through the once mighty river into the Gulf of Mexico, and low outflow means saltwater from the Gulf is creeping in.

Some Louisiana cities have already begun purchasing drinking water. Now New Orleans is at risk.

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