copied from ana’s journal

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Trapped in New Orleans

By LARRY BRADSHAW
and LORRIE BETH SLONSKY

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
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 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 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 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 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 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 thebridge, 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 groupof 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.
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.

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4 thoughts on “copied from ana’s journal

  1. this is horrrid..

    my friend jayne worked at that Walgreens thankfuly she got out before all this happened and now she is here. i just prey for the recovery of all this… thanks for posting its an outrage.. is it okif i post this as well. i think its important for others to see.

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