Thursday, September 08, 2005

Katrina: A First Hand View of the Tragedy in New Orleans 

I had this story sent to me in an email. Its unbelievable, heartbreaking, and maddening.
-Important to read, but difficult to comprehend-

Hurricane Katrina - Our Experiences
By Parmedics Larry Bradsahw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky
EMS Network News

Tuesday, September 6, 2005

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

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

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 to
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

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 crowed 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 pasted 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

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

There was more suffering than need be.

Lives were lost that did not need to be lost.

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