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Larry Bradshaw & Lorrie Beth Slonsky, "Hurricane Katrina"

nolympics writes:

"Hurricane Katrina: Our Experiences"
Larry Bradshaw & Lorrie Beth Slonsky

[ An eyewitness report by two paramedics trapped in New Orleans while
attending a conference. ]

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 they 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

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.