Please send the enclosed testimony to everyone who you know to serve
as a wake-up call.
Sept 5, 2005
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
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
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 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.
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 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
were told the same thing, that we were on our own, and no they did
have water to give us. We now numbered several hundred. We held a
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
truck and brought it up to us. Let's hear it for looting! A mile or
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
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
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.
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
in the first 2 or 3 days, the desperation, the frustration and the
ugliness would not have set in. Flush with the necessities, we
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
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
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,
elderly, disabled as they sat for hours waiting to be "medically
screened" to make sure we were not carrying any communicable
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.
World Wide Eyes!