[News] Trapped in New Orleans
News at freedomarchives.org
Wed Sep 7 13:20:09 EDT 2005
September 6, 2005 counterpunch.org
First By the Floods, Then By Martial Law
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
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
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
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
* * *
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
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
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
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
* * *
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
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 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
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 group of 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 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.
The Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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