Katrina: Hurricane experience by two who made it out

Posted on: Fri, 09/09/2005 - 12:40 By: Tom Swiss

Forwarded to me by our good friend Mike Gurklis:

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.

Hurricane Katrina-Our Experiences

Larry Bradshaw, Lorrie Beth Slonsky

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 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 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 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 ecided 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 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.