Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky, two paramedics attending a conference, were trapped in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.
Two days after Hurricane Katrina struck the Walgreen’s store at the corner of Royal and Iberville streets remained locked. The dairy display case was 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.
The much-promised federal, state and local aid never materialised 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 organised and systematic manner. But they did not. Instead they spent hours playing cat and mouse, temporarily chasing away the looters.
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 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 neighbours 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 two, there were approximately 500 of us left in the hotels in the French Quarter. We were a mix of foreign tourists, conference attendees, and locals who had checked into hotels for shelter from Katrina. We were repeatedly told that all sorts of resources including the National Guard and scores of buses were pouring in to the city, but none of us had seen them.
By day four 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” had told us to report to the convention centre to wait for more buses.
As we entered the centre of the city, we finally encountered the National Guard. They told us we would not be allowed into the Superdome as the city’s primary shelter had descended into a humanitarian and health hellhole. They said the city’s only other shelter, the Convention Centre, was also descending into chaos and squalor and that the police were not allowing anyone else in. We asked, “If we can’t go to the only two 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 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. 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.
We called everyone back and explained to the commander that there had been lots of wrong information and asked 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.” Two hundred of us set off for the bridge with great excitement and hope. As we marched past the convention centre, many locals saw our determined and optimistic group and asked where we were headed. We told them our 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 other people in wheelchairs. We marched the two-three miles to the freeway and up the steep incline to the bridge.
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. But 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. 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 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 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 decided to build an encampment in the middle of the Ponchartrain Expressway on the centre divide. We would be visible to everyone, would have some security being on an elevated freeway and could wait 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. The only way across the bridge was by vehicle.
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.
Now secure with the two necessities, food and water; cooperation, community, and creativity flowered. We organised 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 organised 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. When these basic needs were met, people began to look out for each other, working together and constructing a community. If the relief organisations had saturated the city with food and water in the first two or three days, the desperation, the frustration and the ugliness would not have set in.
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 organisations 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. “Taking care of us” had an ominous tone to it.
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 atomised 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. 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 eight 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 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. 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.
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) 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.