ninth circle

9/7/05

The lovely, talented enchantress Bliss Broyard is from New Orleans, and through some of her friends, we got the following story from Lorrie Beth Slonsky (editor of the medical journal The Gurney Gazette) and Larry Bradshaw, two paramedics who got stuck in the French Quarter while attending a convention. What follows is their harrowing journey out of hell, and while it is long, it is so worth the time. Read it now before this makes the email rounds and thus both Lorrie Beth and Larry end up vilified on conservative blogs. I promise, there is no politics here. Just a true story.

Here it is:

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HURRICANE KATRINA: OUR EXPERIENCES by Lorrie Beth Slonsky and Larry Bradshaw

Two days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the Walgreen’s store at

the corner of Royal and Iberville streets remained locked. The dairy display

case was clearly visible through the widows. It was now 48 hours without

electricity, running water, plumbing. The milk, yogurt, and cheeses were

beginning to spoil in the 90-degree heat. The owners and managers had locked

up the food, water, pampers, and prescriptions and fled the City. Outside

Walgreen’s windows, residents and tourists grew increasingly thirsty and

hungry.

The much-promised federal, state and local aid never materialized and the

windows at Walgreen’s gave way to the looters. There was an alternative. The

cops could have broken one small window and distributed the nuts, fruit

juices, and bottle water in an organized and systematic manner. But they did

not. Instead they spent hours playing cat and mouse, temporarily chasing

away the looters.

We were finally airlifted out of New Orleans two days ago and arrived home

yesterday (Saturday). We have yet to see any of the TV coverage or look at a

newspaper. We are willing to guess that there were no video images or

front-page pictures of European or affluent white tourists looting the

Walgreen’s in the French Quarter.

We also suspect the media will have been inundated with “hero” images of the

National Guard, the troops and the police struggling to help the “victims”

of the Hurricane. What you will not see, but what we witnessed, were the

real heroes and sheroes of the hurricane relief effort: the working class of

New Orleans. The maintenance workers who used a fork lift to carry the sick

and disabled. The engineers, who rigged, nurtured and kept the generators

running. The electricians who improvised thick extension cords stretching

over blocks to share the little electricity we had in order to free cars

stuck on rooftop parking lots. Nurses who took over for mechanical

ventilators and spent many hours on end manually forcing air into the lungs

of unconscious patients to keep them alive. Doormen who rescued folks stuck

in elevators.

Refinery workers who broke into boat yards, “stealing” boats to rescue their

neighbors clinging to their roofs in flood waters. Mechanics who helped

hot-wire any car that could be found to ferry people out of the City. And

the food service workers who scoured the commercial kitchens improvising

communal meals for hundreds of those stranded. Most of these workers had

lost their homes, and had not heard from members of their families, yet they

stayed and provided the only infrastructure for the 20% of New Orleans that

was not under water.

On Day 2, there were approximately 500 of us left in the hotels in the

French Quarter. We were a mix of foreign tourists, conference attendees like

ourselves, and locals who had checked into hotels for safety and shelter

from Katrina. Some of us had cell phone contact with family and friends

outside of New Orleans. We were repeatedly told that all sorts of resources

including the National Guard and scores of buses were pouring in to the

City. The buses and the other resources must have been invisible because

none of us had seen them.

We decided we had to save ourselves. So we pooled our money and came up with

$25,000 to have ten buses come and take us out of the City. Those who did

not have the requisite $45.00 for a ticket were subsidized by those who did

have extra money. We waited for 48 hours for the buses, spending the last 12

hours standing outside, sharing the limited water, food, and clothes we had.

We created a priority boarding area for the sick, elderly and new born

babies. We waited late into the night for the “imminent” arrival of the

buses. The buses never arrived. We later learned that the minute the arrived

at the City limits, they were commandeered by the military.

By day 4 our hotels had run out of fuel and water. Sanitation was

dangerously abysmal. As the desperation and despair increased, street crime

as well as water levels began to rise. The hotels turned us out and locked

their doors, telling us that the “officials” told us to report to the

convention center to wait for more buses. As we entered the center of the

City, we finally encountered the National Guard. The Guards told us we would

not be allowed into the Superdome as the City’s primary shelter had

descended into a humanitarian and health hellhole. The guards further told

us that the City’s only other shelter, the Convention Center, was also

descending into chaos and squalor and that the police were not allowing

anyone else in. Quite naturally, we asked, “If we can’t go to the only 2

shelters in the City, what was our alternative?” The guards told us that

that was our problem, and no they did not have extra water to give to us.

This would be the start of our numerous encounters with callous and hostile

“law enforcement”.

We walked to the police command center at Harrah’s on Canal Street and were

told the same thing, that we were on our own, and no they did not have water

to give us. We now numbered several hundred. We held a mass meeting to

decide a course of action. We agreed to camp outside the police command

post. We would be plainly visible to the media and would constitute a highly

visible embarrassment to the City officials. The police told us that we

could not stay. Regardless, we began to settle in and set up camp. In short

order, the police commander came across the street to address our group. He

told us he had a solution: we should walk to the Pontchartrain Expressway

and cross the greater New Orleans Bridge where the police had buses lined up

to take us out of the City. The crowd cheered and began to move. We called

everyone back and explained to the commander that there had been lots of

misinformation and wrong information and was he sure that there were buses

waiting for us. The commander turned to the crowd and stated emphatically,

“I swear to you that the buses are there.”

We organized ourselves and the 200 of us set off for the bridge with great

excitement and hope. As we marched past the convention center, many locals

saw our determined and optimistic group and asked where we were headed. We

told them about the great news. Families immediately grabbed their few

belongings and quickly our numbers doubled and then doubled again. Babies in

strollers now joined us, people using crutches, elderly clasping walkers and

others people in wheelchairs. We marched the 2-3 miles to the freeway and up

the steep incline to the Bridge. It now began to pour down rain, but it did

not dampen our enthusiasm.

As we approached the bridge, armed Gretna sheriffs formed a line across the

foot of the bridge. Before we were close enough to speak, they began firing

their weapons over our heads. This sent the crowd fleeing in various

directions. As the crowd scattered and dissipated, a few of us inched

forward and managed to engage some of the sheriffs in conversation. We told

them of our conversation with the police commander and of the commander’s

assurances. The sheriffs informed us there were no buses waiting. The

commander had lied to us to get us to move.

We questioned why we couldn’t cross the bridge anyway, especially as there

was little traffic on the 6-lane highway. They responded that the West Bank

was not going to become New Orleans and there would be no Superdomes in

their City. These were code words for if you are poor and black, you are not

crossing the Mississippi River and you were not getting out of New Orleans.

Our small group retreated back down Highway 90 to seek shelter from the rain

under an overpass. We debated our options and in the end decided to build an

encampment in the middle of the Ponchartrain Expressway on the center

divide, between the O’Keefe and Tchoupitoulas exits. We reasoned we would be

visible to everyone, we would have some security being on an elevated

freeway and we could wait and watch for the arrival of the yet to be seen

buses.

All day long, we saw other families, individuals and groups make the same

trip up the incline in an attempt to cross the bridge, only to be turned

away. Some chased away with gunfire, others simply told no, others to be

verbally berated and humiliated. Thousands of New Orleaners were prevented

and prohibited from self-evacuating the City on foot.

 Meanwhile, the only two City shelters sank further into squalor and

disrepair. The only way across the bridge was by vehicle. We saw workers

stealing trucks, buses, moving vans, semi-trucks and any car that could be

hotwired. All were packed with people trying to escape the misery New

Orleans had become.

Our little encampment began to blossom. Someone stole a water delivery truck

and brought it up to us. Let’s hear it for looting! A mile or so down the

freeway, an army truck lost a couple of pallets of C-rations on a tight

turn. We ferried the food back to our camp in shopping carts. Now secure

with the two necessities, food and water; cooperation, community, and

creativity flowered. We organized a clean up and hung garbage bags from the

rebar poles. We made beds from wood pallets and cardboard. We designated a

storm drain as the bathroom and the kids built an elaborate enclosure for

privacy out of plastic, broken umbrellas, and other scraps. We even

organized a food recycling system where individuals could swap out parts of

C-rations (applesauce for babies and candies for kids!).

This was a process we saw repeatedly in the aftermath of Katrina.  When

individuals had to fight to find food or water, it meant looking out for

yourself only. You had to do whatever it took to find water for your kids or

food for your parents. When these basic needs were met, people began to look

out for each other, working together and constructing a community.

If the relief organizations had saturated the City with food and water in

the first 2 or 3 days, the desperation, the frustration and the ugliness

would not have set in. Flush with the necessities, we offered food and water

to passing families and individuals. Many decided to stay and join us. Our

encampment grew to 80 or 90 people. From a woman with a battery powered

radio we learned that the media was talking about us. Up in full view on the

freeway, every relief and news organizations saw us on their way into the

City. Officials were being asked what they were going to do about all those

families living up on the freeway? The officials responded they were going

to take care of us. Some of us got a sinking feeling. “Taking care of us”

had an ominous tone to it.

Unfortunately, our sinking feeling (along with the sinking City) was

correct. Just as dusk set in, a Gretna Sheriff showed up, jumped out of his

patrol vehicle, aimed his gun at our faces, screaming, “Get off the fucking

freeway”. A helicopter arrived and used the wind from its blades to blow

away our flimsy structures. As we retreated, the sheriff loaded up his truck

with our food and water. Once again, at gunpoint, we were forced off the

freeway. All the law enforcement agencies appeared threatened when we

congregated or congealed into groups of 20 or more. In every congregation of

“victims” they saw “mob” or “riot”. We felt safety in numbers. Our “we must

stay together” was impossible because the agencies would force us into small

atomized groups.

In the pandemonium of having our camp raided and destroyed, we scattered

once again. Reduced to a small group of 8 people, in the dark, we sought

refuge in an abandoned school bus, under the freeway on Cilo Street. We were

hiding from possible criminal elements but equally and definitely, we were

hiding from the police and sheriffs with their martial law, curfew and

shoot-to-kill policies.

The next days, our group of 8 walked most of the day, made contact with New

Orleans Fire Department and were eventually airlifted out by an urban search

and rescue team. We were dropped off near the airport and managed to catch a

ride with the National Guard. The two young guardsmen apologized for the

limited response of the Louisiana guards. They explained that a large

section of their unit was in Iraq and that meant they were shorthanded and

were unable to complete all the tasks they were assigned.

We arrived at the airport on the day a massive airlift had begun. The

airport had become another Superdome. We 8 were caught in a press of

humanity as flights were delayed for several hours while George Bush landed

briefly at the airport for a photo op. After being evacuated on a coast

guard cargo plane, we arrived in San Antonio, Texas.

There the humiliation and dehumanization of the official relief effort

continued. We were placed on buses and driven to a large field where we were

forced to sit for hours and hours. Some of the buses did not have

air-conditioners. In the dark, hundreds if us were forced to share two

filthy overflowing porta-potties. Those who managed to make it out with any

possessions (often a few belongings in tattered plastic bags) we were

subjected to two different dog-sniffing searches.

Most of us had not eaten all day because our C-rations had been confiscated

at the airport because the rations set off the metal detectors. Yet, no food

had been provided to the men, women, children, elderly, disabled as they sat

for hours waiting to be “medically screened” to make sure we were not

carrying any communicable diseases.

This official treatment was in sharp contrast to the warm, heart-felt

reception given to us by the ordinary Texans. We saw one airline worker give

her shoes to someone who was barefoot. Strangers on the street offered us

money and toiletries with words of welcome. Throughout, the official relief

effort was callous, inept, and racist. There was more suffering than need

be. Lives were lost that did not need to be lost.

***