New Orleans

First By the Floods, Then By Martial Law -Trapped in New Orleans

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

First By the Floods, Then By Martial Law

Trapped in New Orleans



Two days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the Walgreens store

at the corner of Royal and Iberville Streets in the city's historic

French Quarter remained locked. The dairy display case was clearly

visible through the widows. It was now 48 hours without electricity,

running water, plumbing, and 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 Walgreens' windows, residents

and tourists grew increasingly thirsty and hungry. The much-promised

federal, state and local aid never materialized, and the windows at

Walgreens gave way to the looters.

There was an alternative. The cops could have broken one small window and

distributed the nuts, fruit juices and bottled 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 on 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

Walgreens in the French Quarter.

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

the National Guard, the troops and 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 forklift 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 hotwire 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


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 percent of New Orleans that was not under water.

* * *

ON DAY Two, 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 into 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 didn't have the requisite $45 each 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 newborn babies. We

waited late into the night for the "imminent" arrival of the buses. The

buses never arrived. We later learned that the minute they arrived at the

city limits, they were commandeered by the military.

By Day Four, our hotels had run out of fuel and water. Sanitation was

dangerously bad. 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 "officials" had 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 guard members told us we wouldn't be allowed into the Superdome, as

the city's primary shelter had descended into a humanitarian and health

hellhole. They further told us that the city's only other shelter--the

convention center--was also descending into chaos and squalor, and that

the police weren't allowing anyone else in.

Quite naturally, we asked, "If we can't go to the only two shelters in

the city, what was our alternative?" The guards told us that this was our

problem--and no, they didn't 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 didn't

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 constitute a highly visible embarrassment to city officials. The

police told us that we couldn't 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 to the

south side of the Mississippi, 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, so

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, as did people using crutches, elderly clasping walkers and other

people in wheelchairs. We marched the two to three miles to the freeway

and up the steep incline to the bridge. It now began to pour down rain,

but it didn't dampen our enthusiasm.

As we approached the bridge, armed 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


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 the commander's

assurances. The sheriffs informed us that 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 six-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 are 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 that 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

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 that

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 these 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 something we saw repeatedly in the aftermath of Katrina. When

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

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

food for your parents. But 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 two or three days, the desperation, frustration and 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 that 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

accurate. Just as dusk set in, a sheriff showed up, jumped out of his

patrol vehicle, aimed his gun at our faces and screamed, "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 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" attitude

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 eight 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 day, our group of eight walked most of the day, made contact

with the 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 eight 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 didn't have air

conditioners. In the dark, hundreds of 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) 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 and disabled, as we sat for hours waiting to be "medically

screened" to make sure we weren't carrying any communicable diseases.

This official treatment was in sharp contrast to the warm, heartfelt

reception given to us by 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.

LARRY BRADSHAW and LORRIE BETH SLONSKY are emergency medical services

(EMS) workers from San Francisco and contributors to Socialist Worker.

They were attending an EMS conference in New Orleans when Hurricane

Katrina struck. They spent most of the next week trapped by the

flooding--and the martial law cordon around the city.

updated: 14 years ago