New Orleans: Survivor Stories
In the first week-plus after Hurricane Katrina, it was impossible to turn on the TV, pick up a paper, or cruise news sites on the web without seeing pictures of storm survivors trapped in a drowning New Orleans. What we heard of their stories, though, was almost invariably limited to a couple of sentences--about their most harrowing moment, or how angry they were to be left so long, or how relieved they were to get out. Round about week two, "the survivors" morphed into a human interest beat, and stories about them began giving way to stories about the generous folk taking them into their homes.
The survivors all had stories to tell, whether they could bear to tell them or not. A few first-hand accounts by New Orleans survivors did circulate via email lists and get posted at websites; these were more revealing, and more gripping, than the reports news media offered up regarding conditions in the city during the days between the storm and the eventual evacuation. (One exception: Scott Gold's wrenching coverage in the LA Times.)
We wanted to hear more. So last week, CP reporters and stringers contacted about 30 of them and asked them to tell their stories. We interviewed some of the 1,000 or so Katrina survivors who have made it to Minnesota, and spoke to many more who remain in the area by phone. Here are a few of the stories we collected, and a dozen or so more are posted online at citypages.com/neworleans. The real measure of all that was done wrong by city, state, and federal governments, and of all that people trapped in New Orleans had to do and endure as a result, is in these tales and thousands of others like them.
Jason Fraude, 22, carpenter, resident of New Orleans' Lower Garden District
I just wanted for my whole life to see a storm like that. I got tired of watching it on TV. I wanted to see the force of Mother Nature up close. I felt safe. I was up on the second story, 17 feet off the ground, so when they were talking about these storm surges, I never really felt in danger. I prepared for it. We went and bought all kind of food supplies. We had those five-gallon containers of water. We had a 15-gallon bucket of rice that my friend Steve brought. It was the three of us--me, Steve, and Coy. We had ropes and harnesses in case we needed to tie off anything. We had an EMT kit. All kinds of medical supplies. We had a generator from the shop, twenty-some gallons of fuel. After they cut off the fuel, we had to siphon fuel out of our cars.
The day before the storm, it was a ghost town. There were very few people. Everything was boarded up. Nagin was saying that only emergency personnel were supposed to stay. It was going to be bad. But we had everything already, and it was like, no way, we're staying.
The night before the storm was fairly easy. We all hung out at the apartment, drank a couple of beers and watched the rain start to pick up. About 11:00, we were all like, hell, let's go to bed. I woke up about 2:30 when the wind started to smack the house pretty good. As soon as daylight came, around 5, you could see trees broken in half. The pool next door was full of limbs. There was about two feet of water in my street.
We stayed on my balcony the whole time. There was nobody on the streets. About noon me, Steve, and Coy all walked down St. Charles during the storm to go to the Avenue Pub. We met up with some people and we went down and had a couple Hurricanes. Walking there, we were taking on hundred-mile-an-hour gusts. The water was making little waves, dude, coming down St. Charles. Then we got to the Avenue Pub and they had the storm shutters and they were blowing and smacking. You had to open the door between gusts, because the wind would take it right off its hinges.
There were eight or nine people in there. We were all just kind of hanging out, really. Everybody was like, wow, yeah, check it out, talking about the destruction that you could see up and down St. Charles Street. It was eerie to be able to sit back and watch all this. None of us up there could really tell much about damage, because we pretty much stayed in the same spot throughout the storm. But as we were walking out and looking out at our area, wow, it was pretty bad. As you go further out, you notice more and more. By the time the storm was done--Coy, Steve, and I, we all had bikes. We decided to ride around the city on bikes right after the storm was done.
We went all around, dude. What we did first was we went down toward Canal Street. There was big clouds of smoke coming up, places were on fire. We went all the way down to Canal Street, where the overpass is, and the NAPA tire center there was up in flames, dude. There was this billowing cloud of smoke you could see from like 20 blocks away. We just kept riding. We got there and we crossed the canal overpass--well, we didn't cross the canal overpass. We went down Claiborne and crossed Earhart, and went on the walk path to go over there by Superdome. As soon as we got on the other side of the walk path, the water was already up to there. It was already two feet of water around the Superdome on the day of the storm.
After that we turned around and decided to ride back into the city. We rode down Carondelet. There were people all over on the street, riding bikes, coming out of their houses. A lot of people stayed there, dude. A lot of people stayed. I saw three or four cars just absolutely crushed by debris. We went all the way down to check on the Royal Street job site. It was all right. There was going to be damage, because the roof kind of blew off a little bit.
We got down off Elysian Fields by Robert's Market. Down by Carrollton and Canal Street. This was before the levees busted. The water got really deep down there later. Robert's was the first place we saw looters. There were people running in and out, dude. We rode our bikes over and were just looking inside. Man. There were people trying to bust the ATM open. I don't know how they got that metal gate up as far as they did. I don't know if they drove a car into it or what. I looked in the door, and this was only like two hours after the storm. It was practically empty already. There was liquor on the shelves still. We got a few bottles. We figured we were going to be there for a while.
After we left Robert's, we rode around some more. Esplanade Avenue was like a jungle. You cannot drive more than a hundred feet without dodging trees. The whole area down there is like trees everywhere, some houses are collapsed. We got to the Quarter and Bourbon Street was dry. We were watching people walk up Bourbon Street for beers, and it was just like another day in New Orleans. This is before everyone had the freakout on the levee. We go up to Canal Street. There's cops and there's people looting. Canal Street was already starting to kind of fill up with news crews and media.
We headed back riding on St. Charles, and then some guy sees me filming and says, "If you want to get some film, they're looting the Walgreen's up here." And that's like a block away from my house, so I'm like, oh man. So I get up there and that place is like an in-and-out, dude. People are putting their bikes in the bike rack and locking them up. They're not in a rush. People were running in and out, packing their trucks. The pharmaceutical section was being demolished. There were people going crazy back there. People were trying to bust the ATM open there. Dudes were walking out of the store with cash registers. Little do they know that they're empty. It was unbelievable to see what people were grabbing.
I went in there and got another bag of medical supplies. We still didn't think we were going to leave. After we got there, cops rolled up. People started yelling at the cops. They were coming down Felicity from Wal-Mart. They turn the corner, and their trunk is wide-open and full of stuff. Yeah, dude, the cops were looting at Wal-Mart. I'd have to look at the film again, but it looked like large boxes. It did not look like food.
We went back to my apartment to get rid of the stuff we got from Walgreen's, the medical supplies and food and water. Then we hear that Wal-Mart's open, so we decided to get in the truck and drive to Wal-Mart. And it's like a shopping center. People are parked there, and there's a bum-rush of people trying to get in the front door. They had the security guard guiding people. It wasn't like just looting. They had cops looting in there, it was complete mayhem, dude. That store was destroyed. The three of us went in there with shopping carts. I went in looking for clothes and food, because we were going to need clothes. You couldn't wash yours in that water. The food was pretty much gone. There was a lot wasted on the ground that people had just grabbed and dropped.
You couldn't run in the store, because it had like an inch of water in it. Just enough to slide around. And full of trash. We were in there a good hour. We went to sporting good supplies and got hatchets in case the flood got higher and we had to cut our way out. I already had a chainsaw at the house.
We pretty much got supplies that we needed. But I watched people walk out of there with--have you ever seen those pump-jack palette loaders, like you pump them and it lifts the palette up and you just roll them around? I saw people pulling them things out with the palettes full of TVs, computers. Like what the hell are you going to do with these things? They probably wanted to sell them on the street as soon as they got two blocks away, for money or drugs or something. It's just insane.
So we fill the truck up pretty much, dude, the back of the truck. Then we go back to the apartment and get the generator up and the power going. Tuesday morning, we all get up. Coy decides to go for a bike ride. Me and Steve go to get more gas. We have to go find gas cans throughout the city and get more gas. Uptown had got looted bad, right down to the toy stores.
So we ride back looking at the destruction. The looters weren't as bent as downtown. The cops had caught somebody at a Walgreen's and they were throwing all his stuff on the ground, kicking in his face. Just totally giving this guy the hardest time.
The one cop I talked to was sitting at the gun rack section of Wal-Mart. I asked him if he knew where there were any BBs. He said, you know you're looting, right? And right below him is a box of bullets and shit that I doubt he paid for, because there's no registers. I kind of gave him this cockeyed look and walked away.
When I got down to Canal Street later on and we met back up with Coy, he said he ran into Kim Siegel of CNN and she needed someone to drive her around for the day. So I was like, uhh, I don't know. But then I was like, yeah. I'll go down there. So we go down and pick up CNN and we go around with them. I went to the Superdome with them. I saw a little of the Convention Center. We didn't go close. You could see the people around there. You didn't want to be around there. It was dangerous. You didn't want to be around there with a vehicle. You had to be worried about people car-jacking you at all times. We were driving around and seeing tourists stuck in the middle of--not to be rude, but people like from the ghetto and stuff. Thugs and stuff. And you've got these straight-looking white tourists stuck, like, and scared.
We ended up putting CNN up for the day. They stayed at my apartment that night, because the hotels told everyone with reservations that they could not stay. They had to evacuate. So they were staying with us. We had food and booze and a generator, and me and Steve spent about three hours cleaning the limbs out of the pool next door. Then we were able to go swimming.
On Wednesday when we woke up, CNN had gone out to do their thing, and we were just roaming around again checking things out. You go out and you constantly have to watch your back. We started going out with a 12-gauge shotgun, because we were worried about people stealing the trucks out from under us. We lost that sense of happiness of the city after Wednesday morning. It got pretty serious. Then we were scrambling to get things that people said they needed or wanted, like family Bibles and whatnot.
On the last day, we were riding around and finishing up getting a little more gas, trying to get the trucks full before we leave, and we turn the corner of Terpsichore and St. Charles. That's where Emeril's Delmonico is. We turned the corner and there's this guy painting "Looters Die" [on a building]. I stopped and I filmed this guy for like 10 seconds. Then he turns around kind of slowly and stares at me. He pulls a gun and points it at us and says, "Leave." We were just like, woah. Wow. This is not a black guy. This is an older white guy that looks totally legitimate, just straight-up losing his mind and scared for his life. He pulls that gun out and points it at anyone with no hesitation. We knew it was time to go. We packed up our stuff and left.
Interview by Frank Carter
Dumas Carter, 30, eight-year veteran NOPD officer, one of six local cops who stayed on duty at the Convention Center complex in the days after Katrina
The day before, we all go in for roll call and we're basically told that we're reporting for work and we pretty much won't be able to leave until this is over. Some of [the officers] were whining, but all week long we had been told, you're a police officer, and once you go active we're going to be on active duty for the remainder. Make sure that your families are out and your houses are taken care of, because we can't have you worrying about your family, your house, your dog, and be a police officer. That made sense to me. But a lot of people were like, fuck this, I've got to go with my family. So they left. My district wasn't like any other district. Ninety-eight percent of the people stayed. The Sixth District. The real district. Fort Apache. You've seen that on the news.
We do our shift, and we find out that our captain has arranged for us to stay at the Pontchartrain Hotel through this, on St. Charles. They've given us two floors to house all of our people. The hurricane starts trickling in, we find out that the Pontchartrain Hotel has locked the doors and evacuated the city. They've locked us out and we have no place to stay. My lieutenant works a detail at the Hampton Inn on Convention Center Boulevard and has access to that. He said if push came to shove, we could house people at the hotel.
So we all go to the hotel and hunker down to ride out the storm. Once the winds get over 35-40 miles an hour in the city, they pull us off the streets. Park the car somewhere secure, get the fuck off the streets. Because at anything over 20 miles an hour, tree branches become bullets that can shatter windows and decapitate people. Not to mention flying street signs and bending poles. When you see people impaled on two-by-fours that were airborne in the storm, it gives you an appreciation of the power of wind.
So now we're at the Hampton riding the storm out. It's battering the building. The winds are hitting the building so hard that water is forcing itself in through the window seals and the brick. It's chiseling the mortar out between the wood and the brick on windows. On the north side of the building, it is now raining in all of those rooms, horizontally, a good seven inches from the window. Most of the beds are soaked, the sofas are soaked, the carpet's soaked, the power's flickering. Then we lose power. I'm on the fifth floor, at the top of this building, and in the corner that's getting hardest hit. The building is rocking.
When the hurricane's gone, or so we think--after the eye passed--we sneak out to do a couple of patrols, and check on some houses and areas. Then we go back to the hotel for the next wave. Once the storm passes, the power is out and we relocate to the Sixth District station and try to figure out what we're doing next. A number of our police cars are destroyed. There's some flooding in the city, but we're looking around thinking, this isn't going to be as bad as we thought.
Oh, and by the way, the 17th Street canal just broke. We found out from people on the street who were listening to the news. At this point we weren't listening to our radios very much because they weren't working. Our radios would only broadcast a mile or two miles. The communication tower went down--the one communication tower that the city has. So now we go back to the hotel, and we're waiting around. This is where the franticness begins. We're getting information from people who don't know any better, people who don't have any background with sewage or water, no basis for claiming any kind of knowledge about this, coming in screaming, we've got to get out of our hotel! We've got to get out of the city! There's a 10-foot wall of water coming at us! We've got to go! We've got to go!
Instead of getting a representative from the Army Corps of Engineers on the radio and saying what the facts are, they tell somebody who tells somebody else who's doing a press conference, who whispers it to the mayor, and now it's changed 10 times and gone from "we've got a flow over the levee where it's breached" to "there's a tidal wave coming and the tsunami has hit." So these people are freaking out, and we're in a five-story building with access to an eight-story building next door. And they're screaming at us, "We're all gonna be under water. We've got to go!" And we're at the highest point in the city. We're less than a hundred feet from the river. I'm trying to tell these people, from my knowledge of how the city's laid out, and nobody wants to hear it. So whatever. My lieutenant believes me. My lieutenant asks the captain, "Are you commanding us out of the hotel?" The captain refuses to command us.
Four of us stayed at the hotel, two of us stayed at the station, and everybody else ran like I don't know what. They went to the parking lot of Breaux-Mart. They were like Battlestar Galactica. They were fleeing the Cylons, and they didn't even know what the Cylons were. And we were like, we've got a hotel, we've got high ground, why the fuck should we go? We're 50 feet from the bridge. The water's not going to rise so quick that we can't get out of here if we have to. We can just sit on the fucking bridge for the remainder if we need to. But it's not going to come to that. I'm watching the water rise through the city, and it's rising at a rate of six inches to a foot every hour and a half.
Lots of people on the street were asking me where to go. I'm telling them the truth, which is I don't know, they haven't told us anything. They're telling us that somebody told them that they were told by another person who was somebody in charge of something that the Convention Center was being set up as a secondary evacuation point with food and water. Those people went to the Convention Center, and there was no food or water there for them. So now there's no water, there's no police--everybody's left the city except for the six of us. And now there's 20,000 people with no extra security down there.
We just told people that the National Guard was handling the evacuation effort, and they're not talking to us. So we've got all these people at the Convention Center, and now the captain is saying, okay, you all got to get out of the hotel. They're going to riot and they're going to burn the fucking hotel down. They're going to start this big massive thing, they're going to start killing people on Convention Center Boulevard, it's going to be a big massacre.
At this point it's like four days into it, and we're trying to explain to the captain, these people are so tired and thirsty and hungry they couldn't flip over a lawn chair if they wanted to riot. I won't say anything bad about my captain. My captain was making good decisions based on bad information. And my captain had to realize that he had to run a district of a hundred [officers], not all of whom had the testicular fortitude to stick this all out. So to keep morale up, he moves them out of the line of fire so they can sleep in a car somewhere. Whatever. That's what he had to do. When he got the proper information, he said we didn't have to leave the hotel. He said, just do the right thing. I trust you all. Do what you need to do.
So we hunkered down again. Our hotel was at the corner of Gaiennie and Convention Center. If you walk into a door 40 feet over, there's 20,000 people. And they were not staying inside the Convention Center because of the murders and robberies going on inside there. They were all on the neutral ground staring at us. We don't have many supplies, so we're not passing shit out. We barely have enough for us to get by the next two days. Occasionally another police car would drive by and stop and ask if we were all right, then drive on. No patrol presence whatsoever.
The majority of the people were staying outside. We were hearing all kinds of horror stories from inside, murder to rape to robberies to shootings to beatings. There was no way to verify any of that stuff. Ninety-seven percent of these people were behind us. They wanted us to be the police and they loved that we were still there. We were the only police they saw for four or five days. The majority of the conversations were, "Baby, I know you're being left here just like we're being left here and you don't know anything, but if you find out something, could you tell us?" My response was, you've got the radio--you tell us what's going on. And these people would come over and give us bulletins as they heard it from the news.
I talked to lots and lots of those people there. Ninety-nine percent of the conversations were people coming up to us asking, where's the food? Where's the water? When are the buses coming? Where are they taking us? People were coming up with dying children, with elderly people who were dying and needed medical attention. We need diabetes medication, we need heart medication. Where can I get medical assistance? We don't know, we don't know, we don't know.
Then came the military helicopters. They'd fly over the crowd, then fly seven or eight blocks away and drop food and water from about 40 or 50 feet--high enough to bust the boxes and send bottles of water all over the concrete. There was a group of people, Good Samaritans, who pilfered the Convention Center for handcarts and walked out to where the food and water was and brought it back to the people. And the people got together as a group and disseminated it amongst themselves, without any riots, any fights, anything. And then these people put together a box of food and water and brought it to us. We didn't take it. We told them, don't worry about us, give it to the kids and the old people. But these people were looking out for us at this point!
There were guys running through the crowd shooting at us and shooting at the crowd. And they would disappear back in the Convention Center. There wasn't much we could do. How about shooting into a crowd of 20,000 people to kill one person? At one point, there's a guy in a stolen Jeep Liberty who's shooting at us with an M16. It jammed on him--he didn't know what he was doing--and we were able to persuade him out of the vehicle the way I normally persuade people out of vehicles, and we were able to subdue him. We weren't technically the most polite in subduing him. We did this in front of 20,000 detainees. I call them detainees because the city sent them to a place where they could be detained, and that's all that happened, they were inconvenienced and detained. Anyway, we do this in front of the crowd and you hear this fucking roar from the crowd, this fucking standing ovation. We handed him over to the feds--who, by the way, are very good at making ID cards, and have really pretty uniforms.
Eventually we're going on seven days without word on what else is going on. Meanwhile, from midnight to noon, we're pooling out of the hotel and we're doing neighborhood patrols with guns, driving around with our machine weaponry. At this point I don't even have a uniform. I've got my gun, but somebody's walked off with my gear bag and they've got my duty rig and my NOPD uniform. So I'm wearing my shoulder holster, my raid dress with a camo bag on it, water in it, and anything from shorts to blue jeans with an NOPD t-shirt, my badge around my neck, and a bandana tied around my head. More times than not, I had to wade in water, and that's where the pneumonia came from. At one point I had seven days of 100-degree fever and full pneumonia that I had been patrolling with. I went to the hospital ship, and the Navy doctors were amazing. They took really good care of me. I went back to work, but I was still showering with the water that was making me sick and I was still dealing with all this pollution.
We're patrolling from midnight to noon, and noon to midnight we're standing guard at the hotel because we don't have any relief help. We get a couple of wannabe SWAT teams from outside agencies coming in and saying they need a place to stay. We said we'd put them up at the hotel, but they had to give us a hand securing the hotel and patrolling this area. They looked at the area, and we never heard back from them. Then came the guys from Detroit. Five agencies from around the Detroit area came down. They looked at the area and they went, all right, looks like home. We're in. They moved in to the hotel and helped us secure it. They helped us patrol at night. They fucking were the real police. They had our backs. Then the Burnett County guys came down, from Austin [Texas]. I know other agencies showed up to help, but I didn't see them. They weren't in my area.
I took pictures. I knew that there'd be enough photos of flood water and enough photos of refugees, so that's not what I focused on. I focused on police officers and how we were living. How anarchist our set-up was. Sleeping on sofas in a hotel lobby, machine guns laying around. It was just outrageous, you know? It kept on going like that, and blurring and blurring, and sometime around day 12 the hotel people got to town with a crew to rip up the carpet and clean out the hotel, set the place up for us.
Food and water started trickling in five or six days in. We started seeing buses lining up on the outskirts of town. They were getting the Superdome cleared first. The Convention Center had no security presence from the get-go except for us, so they couldn't just bring in three buses and leave and then come back in with three more buses. They needed to have enough buses to move everybody out in one sweep. And they did it. The military sure knows how to line things up. They can line it up in twos, threes, backwards, forward, alphabetically. You name it, they can line shit up. They lined up those goddamn buses and filled them up, and the next thing you knew there was no one. In less than 30 hours.
The city had no idea--the mayor couldn't do a mandatory evacuation from the get-go, because to do a mandatory evacuation you have to provide transportation for people who don't have it. For whatever reason, the city wasn't going to use RTA buses to get people out of town. So most of the RTA buses wound up stolen and wrecked around the city.
How many died there? I couldn't begin to put a number on it. I know there were a number of people who died in front of the Convention Center on the neutral ground. But as to inside, and as to how many died on Convention Center Boulevard, I don't have a tally. I don't know that there will be a tally. I think there might just be one big number for the entire incident. I don't know how accurate that number is going to be, either. They're going to be finding bodies for weeks. All I know is that when you drive into certain neighborhoods, you'll hit a corner and you can smell something. And it smells worse than an animal that's dead. You can only assume that it's a body, but I'm not trained to deal with it, so I'm not looking for it.
Day to day, anything I could get my hands on that might be useful, I'd go get it. By any means necessary. The number of vehicles I've procured, commandeered, is just phenomenal. The gas issue was another whole story. We figured we'd go get some of the old fleet trucks that have air conditioning, and we'll keep the trucks running so we can store cold goods in them. So we got five of those. Through all this, you can imagine all the flat tires we were getting from nails and debris and everything. If you've got six inches of water on the road, you can't see what's under the water. The department made no provision for spare tires. Thankfully, through some connections I've got, we got access to spare tires and we're getting that done. Through this, I've been to southern Plaquemines parish, to the water line, wherever I've got to go to get what we need. We don't care.
The department had no provisions for any of this. It'd be easy for us to say, well, we're out of gas. Oops, we got a flat tire, we're done. Some of the task force guys got a blowout, and instead of driving the car to a safe spot on the rim, they left it there and the car got vandalized. These are not the smartest people we're dealing with.
Just know this. Before the hurricane hit, there was a bulletin sent out to all districts from headquarters, saying please come to headquarters to pick up your hurricane provisions: 72 cases of water per district. Big whoop.
The people randomly shooting at us, and the things that we had to do to people that we caught--that's something I have to deal with, and I will deal with. That's not the story here. The importance needs to be shined on the fact the city was unprepared for a tropical storm, let alone a category 5 hurricane. And the people at the Convention Center were left high and fucking dry. They survived, they pulled together, they sang songs all night. I mean, they would come and ask us: You're looking tired, are you feeling okay? Those were the people I swore to protect. Five times we were told to leave: Leave 'em. Leave 'em. Leave 'em. When the oil storage facility in the Ninth Ward blew up, [people outside the Convention Center] thought they were blowing the levee and they were going to flood everybody, and they thought that's why there were no police around there. I said, well, look, if they're doing that, they're doing it to us too. We're here with y'all, regardless.
They were afraid given what the city did to the community in the '60s when the hurricane hit and they blew the levee and flooded them and killed them. And [given] no information and no security presence and no food and water. They'd been lied to by everybody except us. I want somebody to find out who said "Go to the Convention Center, there'll be food and water there," and I want that person held accountable for the fact there was no food and water or security presence there. I want them to be held liable for every death and injury there. I want someone to find out why the city didn't get their hands on 10 tankers full of gasoline and park them somewhere outside the city and drive them in. I want to know why a city that floods if it rains for more than five minutes doesn't have high-water vehicles. I want to know why they didn't use the RTA buses to get some of these evacuees out. Those are the people I swore to protect.
Interview by Frank Carter
Tysuan Harris, 24, nurse's aide, resident of the lower Ninth Ward
People need to understand what happened, once and for all. My name's Tysuan Harris, and I'm from New Orleans, Louisiana, the lower ninth ward. My husband and I, I'm just gonna say his name is Moe, been married five months. When the water went through, our house was completely underwater, and my husband had to kick in the door above us. And me, my husband and four of our dogs--we had a pit bull and three puppy pit bulls--stayed up there for two days, in the apartment above us.
We slept up there for two days with two bottles of water and a block of cheese left to eat. We didn't have no power. We was laying in our feces, and also the dog feces. We was burning t-shirts and plastic to get the helicopters to notice us. And when a helicopter did notice us, he flashed his lights on us and kept goin'. Finally I told my husband I had given up on faith.
His cousin and his girlfriend walked in the water to come save us. They threw a door into the water, and we floated on top of the door to higher ground. The only thing we had was the pajamas on my back. My husband went back in the house to get me some shoes and dry clothes, but he couldn't salvage nothing. We had to leave our four dogs behind. We floated on that until we was able to get into water that was walkable, four blocks from our house. It was about 12 feet high up until then.
We got a boat and we canoed to France and Robertson Street, where we stayed in a two-level house with 20 other people. We had food, we had water, but we didn't have electricity. No running water for toilets. We took a bath with bottled water, we washed our clothes with bottled water, and we slept in our underwear and wet t-shirts. This was on French Street in the lower Ninth Ward.
My husband and his cousin went out to get us food and water. It was like day four. They got [food and water] from stores that was broken down and stuff. They got anything that wasn't contaminated by the water. When they came back, the Coast Guard came and told us we had to leave because they was gonna open the floodgates to level the water off so the water could go down.
The Coast Guard told us we had to leave. I'm thinking I'm gonna die if nobody's gonna come help us. They didn't help us. They just told us to leave, they was evacuating the whole city. They told us to go to the Convention Center. It took us two days to get there. We walked the water through the darkness, flashing flashlights on each other to make sure nobody drowned. Oh, that water. Gas, oil, brake fluid, chains, bodies, snakes--everything. All kinds of snakes.
When we got to the convention center, the first thing I see is six dead bodies. We slept outside. It was like hell. It was like slavery days again. I ain't never been through it, but that's what it felt like. Four of us, two females, two men. Five days we're out there. Everything. Fires to get helicopters attention. When they came and brought us water and food, it was peaceful for a second. But then agitation stirred up again. We were staying in the River Walk parking lot, that's where we slept for five days. Thousands of people. We [slept on] the grass. We made pallets on the parking lot, on the concrete. We took baths on them, with whatever bottled water we could find. We had candy, but we didn't have food-food, you know.
We tried to walk out once, across the Mississippi River bridge. The military turned us back. They pointed their guns at us and told us to get back down [off] the fucking bridge. Made us feel like shit. Like shit. They told us the only way we could cross was if we had a car. They probably thought if we were gonna walk we was gonna steal. But we just wanted out. Eventually we came across a car that had the keys still in it, and we drove it across the bridge. They let us cross. We got to a pay phone, and we called our cousin Tony, and he drove from Baton Rouge to come get us.
When Bush got off the helicopter, we were standing on the bridge waiting for them to come with a vehicle for us. He got out, and he had the nerve to have the military pointing guns at people who was trying to greet him to let him know we needed help. And I think that was sick of him. Then and when we tried to walk across was the first time in my life I ever had a gun pointed at me.
We stayed in Baton Rouge for four days. Then I had to go to the LSU medical center that they had opened up because I got sick. I have auto-immune hepatitis. I had got sick, and a pastor volunteered to drive us from Baton Rouge to Chicago. From Chicago we drove to Minnesota, and now we're living, nine of us, in a three-bedroom house with my husband's aunt and uncle.
My liver was shutting down on me. I couldn't tolerate food or water. I stayed until they got me stable enough to go for a 16-hour drive. Just to clear up, Jesse Jackson, LSU was not being racist. At all. You cannot say it's a race thing because if the NAACP was worried about us, they could have chartered planes and dropped us food. So if they gonna blame anybody, they might as well blame white and black politics too.
I'm gonna get a house in St. Paul. I ain't got nothing to go back to at all. I was a certified nurse's aide. In New Orleans we made 6 or 7 dollars. Here they pay you 15 and above, plus you get good benefits. I do want to say thank you to everyone in St. Paul, Minnesota, who helped everyone from New Orleans, Louisiana. You all been very, very kind.
Twenty-four years of my life, my whole family's from there. My mama, my daddy, my sister, my whole family's from there. Now my mama's in Texas, my father's in Texas, my little brother's in Alexandria, Louisiana, and my sister's in New York. I don't really get to talk to my sister and my brother. I know that they're all right. Only one I don't know about is my niece DeJhai Campbell. She's two years old and we don't know where she is.
Interview by G.R. Anderson Jr.
Edith Moore, 70, resident of Johnson Street in Uptown, near the Superdome
I was there through the hurricane, but the next day we had to get out because the water begin to rise. And so we went in the water, but we didn't go to the Superdome. It was overcrowded and it was announced they wasn't taking any more people there. So we walked across the New Orleans bridge, and we hitchhiked rides there. So the next morning, the truck passed and took us to a shelter at Marrero over on the West Bank, the Harry S Truman school.
The storm come in and hit that Saturday night, and all day that Sunday morning, that's when Katrina came in, until late Sunday night. It was never gonna end. I said it's never gonna end. And it hasn't.
We stayed in the shelter two days. At the school. It was terrible. Terrible. The floor had urine on it, you walked in urine. You didn't have no food, you didn't have no water. We was treated like dogs. They called us refugees. I really didn't know who was running it. The camouflage, I guess, the National Guard. They treated us like dogs. They treated me like a dog. Because any time you're running all over people with shotguns, them big popguns, and you're cursing them out and telling them to get down on their knees, and up on their feet, and you're making them turn their heads, and making them stand outside so you can taunt them. You tell them to get up with the sun, and you tell people that the trucks are coming and you're moving them out to safety. It didn't happen.
And they point guns at you. I was very frightened and very upset. And if you leave out the door, they said if you get to the dogs, they was gonna shoot you at the dogs. These was words that came from their mouth. And these was the guards that was over you. I've never had a gun pointed at me. No I haven't. And it was terrible.
There was an old lady that was sick. She didn't have anybody with her, so evidently they must have rescued her. When they'd come through to take a count, they'd say, "Everybody down, everybody down! Get off your ass, get on your feet!" She said, "I can't stand up." They'd say, "We need you over here, Jefferson Parish, you got to get over here. You can't get over here, you ain't gonna eat. The trucks is coming to count you." She couldn't get there, and they acted like they was gonna leave her. I guess what made the Guard so angry over there where we was, a police had got killed over there, and they was angry with the world, so they had to blame us for what had happened.
You was lucky to get a cold slice of turkey. One day, she had a roast. They said they had barbecue ribs. I don't know who it was for, because I never saw it. It wasn't for us. They'd show it, and they said they had that food, but we never got any of it. After a while, you had water to drink, but that's all they had was water. And then the gourmet would dig in the fridge, and they'd give you some milk, and they'd give you a carton of milk, but it wasn't really milk. It was like little cartons of milk, but it wasn't milk. I don't know what that was.
We had to leave out of there, because my little grandson had caught a fever. The doctor came to check on the baby, and they gave some sterilized water for the baby. They let you know: Don't use it. You don't use it. Only for the baby.
They let us leave. They said, everybody that can leave, you better leave. They said, the truck's not coming. After two days, they finally say the truck's not coming to move you, you best make the best of it. So we hit the bridge again, and this little white nurse come and gave us a ride. And they had a man and a wife and his daughter looking for his family in Baton Rouge, and we got a ride to Baton Rouge.
We got to Baton Rouge, and we stayed in a McDonald's for a day until my grandson came to pick us up. My grandson flew in from here [Coon Rapids] to Texas, to Houston. He rented a van and came down to Baton Rouge, got us at McDonald's, and drove us back to here.
It was the worst thing I've ever witnessed in my life. I've witnessed this with my naked eye. Nobody ever told me anything. Everything I'm telling you, I went through. This is America, but they didn't think enough of [people here] to get them out.
Interview by G.R. Anderson Jr.
We pushed all of our stuff through the floodwaters. Some of it was waist-deep. By this time [Wednesday], the looting was everywhere. People just looked like zombies. Nobody had emotions. I was afraid to cry. I wanted to look strong or something. I just wanted to get home. We were pushing our bikes, using them to elevate our stuff so it wouldn't get wet. There were downed signs and pieces of metal in the water, so you really had to be careful. Police were starting to come out. They were actually sitting on the back of their police cars holding shotguns. The whole city just sort of went under martial law at that point. There were police sitting in their cars crying. They didn't want to get out because they were freaked out. There were police cars flooded, stranded on the street. We stayed in a group and got to the house.
There were about three blocks on my street that were dry. I took a bath before we heard that the water was contaminated, so I got really paranoid. We started boiling water as soon as possible because we didn't really have any. And then our water went off. And then the gas went off. We were riding our bikes around just to see who was in the neighborhood. I had a very small amount of food at the house, as part of my hurricane kit. Usually they only tell you to prepare for like three or four days. A friend of mine rode her bike by and she had a bunch of grocery bags. She told me that the grocery store was open. So we all decided to ride down there. My boyfriend looked at me and said, "These people aren't buying food, they're looting." And I looked at him and said, "I'm going in." We came to find out that the owner of the store actually showed up with the military and said, "Take what you want. I have insurance." He knew what was going to happen.
I knew that The Superdome floods. I remember the mayor talking about it when they were supposed to evacuate during Hurricane George. So I was not going down there. By this time, people were escaping from there to come back into the neighborhoods, telling people do not go down there. There's no food or water. There were people dying. There were people getting raped. You would go to the Superdome if you wanted to die, if you wanted to give up. A friend of mine sent a girl there and hasn't heard from her since.
We had a little bit of money between us. We were concerned about getting ice, food, and water. When we'd go to the grocery story there were lunch meats and other high protein foods that you would need ice for. Also with bags of ice you can let that melt and that water would be drinkable. There was an ice store. Someone stole their generator, so they started selling bags of ice for a dollar apiece and surrounding the ice place were armed guards with semi-automatic weapons in full military uniforms ready to shoot if anyone tried to steal ice. So we formed lines. The military were protecting the ice. I think we had like seven bucks in our pockets. So we got all that. That lasted for a day. It's so hot there.
There were no phones working at that time that we knew of. We had flashlights and we had battery operated lanterns. It got dark early and it was very dark. You had to stay in after dark. On the third day it started getting bad with gangs in the neighborhood. I guess after downtown was already done getting looted, they started coming into the neighborhoods because they knew people were evacuated. They paraded around in cars and they started stealing city buses. You would see a group of men in city buses with weapons driving down the street real slow. One even announced going down the street that he could rob the whole street. There were still no cops around.
We noticed that a lot more people were coming into our neighborhood, and we couldn't figure out how. We found out later that they were bringing helicopters and pulling those people from roofs, dropping them off in my neighborhood at a Navy base, and telling them to go to the buses to get evacuated to the Superdome. The problem is they didn't tell them how to get to the buses. The buses were getting stolen. These people had no flashlights, and they're wandering around at night soaking wet and scared.
I'm on medicine every day for my thyroid. [At one point] they opened up a drug store so I actually went back into the pharmacy to find my medicine and grab that. There was a line of old people saying, "I need my heart medicine," "I need my insulin." So we stayed in there for a while just helping the elderly get their medicines. If you can imagine an 80-year-old woman in water up to her knees, standing in a dark drug store just frantic and needing her heart medicine, there were a lot of people in there doing that.
We wanted to wait until the Superdome was all the way evacuated. We had plans to venture out and get evacuated after all those people were out of there. They finally dropped water off in our neighborhood. Four days after the storm they finally dropped water off--and not very much. Blackhawk helicopters would just drop pallets on the ground and everyone would run out of their houses like roaches and grab what they could and run back in. Around that time, I started to get sick. I had pain in my stomach.
We heard the military was coming in. We knew we were under martial law. I was out in the middle of the street taking photographs, and a Blackhawk helicopter came. We freaked out because we thought they were just going to pull us up. Everybody in the neighborhood was afraid of the military. They weren't our friends. The police were just scary at this point. There were trucks with a bunch of military in them, with their guns pointed out at us, saying, "Move off the road before I shoot!" We were warned on the radio that they were ordered to shoot to kill if we get into the way. How do you even know if you're in the way? That night a building blew up, like three or four blocks from us. We woke up to our whole house shaking. It turned out that it was a place where they kept big fireworks and there was kerosene in there. We didn't know if the military was starting to bomb places.
We stayed up all night, and I could actually hear people taking plywood off doors. So we started getting really scared. We had weapons. Whatever we could find. We had one revolver, we had knives, pepper spray, ice hooks, an axe. It wasn't weird to see people walking down the street with an axe at this point. People were getting shot over ice and gasoline. By that next morning, the smell of the city was getting really bad. Dead people, sewage, dirty salt water, garbage, mold.
We went down to my friend's house the next morning. They had a vehicle and said yes, they wanted to go. They had to get all the gasoline together and they were going to come pick us up. They didn't get to us until Saturday evening. I don't even know what route we took. It was so hard to tell with downed trees and everything. We didn't know if we were going to be able to get out.
They had a six o'clock curfew, and this was after six. We packed our bags as if we wouldn't make it. We had flashlights and we were wearing face-masks, the SARS-type masks so we wouldn't have to breathe in. There were a lot of fires starting, a lot of arsonists. We did manage to get out and got to Baton Rouge. I think we were pretty much the only car on the road that wasn't military. It was all military behind us until we got out of the city.
Interview by Paul Demko
Harold, 56, last name withheld by request, politician/professional decorator and New Orleans native
Me, my mother, my aunt, my girlfriend and her mama made reservations to go to the hotel, the Lake Plaza in New Orleans. When we went to check in, we found out that the mayor had cancelled all the residents and left it over for police, fire, and hospital people.
Then a Zulu brother of mine made a place for us at La Maison Bleu, a bed and breakfast at 4333 Canal Street. Old antebellum home; beautiful place, man. Beautiful place. At that point, we thought we could ride it out, but the 17th Street canal broke and the water just came on down Canal Street. We were there two days, and when the water got too high, we decided to get out. Those boys from down in the river parish in their flat boats came to help. Nobody told them nothing. They just jumped in their flat boats. That's the boys who just like to fish for fun, and they were picking people up, picking people up.
There was a fence around the place, so they couldn't get the flat boat in. And this woman with them said, "I'm gonna go get my pirogue from my house." And she got through the shit, and got over there and picked up my mama and my aunt, put them in the pirogue, and rowed them out to a bigger boat. Then they came back and picked up me and my brother.
My mama's 85, her sister's 92. They brought us to Jefferson Parish. We had to get out and walk about four blocks through the water to get there. From there, they put us on a bus to the shopping center, where they were putting people on buses to Baton Rouge, and shipping them all over. I knew we had to get to Baton Rouge. It just so happened I saw a man with a church van. I walked up to the man, and I was ready to buy my way out. There were too many people, you understand what I'm saying? Thousands and thousands of people, screaming. I said, "I got $300 to get to Baton Rouge. Man, I need that van."
He said, "Put your money away. I'm a pastor. I'm here because I'm from New Orleans. I've come to help." He put us in that van, with two more people, and we left immediately. It was like a transfer stop, and the bus was there. The Lord was with us the whole way. We had comfort the whole way. We didn't go through none of this tragic stuff.
The man brought us to Baton Rouge, and we're staying with a friend of my mama's. They don't want us to pay no rent, or utilities. It's so big you could walk around naked. He said we can stay here as long as we want. We'll probably be here a year or a year and a half. Am I blessed, my friend? And I'm passing the blessings on to everyone I know.
My mama's house, my house, everything is gone. But guess what, my friend? We got each other and we got the Lord on our side. You want a laugh? Guess what I told my mama? I told her, "You ain't got to worry about no termites no more, you ain't got to worry about the garden no more, you ain't got to paint those walls no more."
You know what else? The greatest part? I'm divorced, my son just graduated from college, he's in Atlanta, he's straight, all I got is my mama, and guess what else I rid of? All the disgusting-ass women who were on my nerves. I'm getting me a whole new set of women. There's no other way I could've done that. Me and my friend been saying, "Katrina got a whole lot of things straight." And not just the terrible school system and old buildings. Katrina got a whole lot of things straight, my brother. A whole lot straight.
Interview by Jim Walsh
Jennie Lynn Waters, 62, legal secretary in the New Orleans city attorney's office
I lived at Napoleon and St. Charles Avenue. They call it Uptown. I lived on an old Mississippi levee. We're nine feet above sea level. At first, we had no problem. It was high and dry and beautiful. We went through the storm and the howling wind and lost our power at 5:15 Monday morning. I knew that was going to happen, so I cooked up everything I had in the freezer, knowing we could live on that for a while. I also had a screwdriver and a hammer and a hatchet, in case we had to get out. I was cooking up all the food, and my friends kept text-messaging me, telling me to get out: "Find the Red Cross and get out." I don't know anything about text-messaging, and I couldn't answer them because I'm old and don't learn those things very easily.
I finally went up the street and there were these tattooed, pierced kids, five of them. Things in their tongues and things in their eyebrows. I never would have spoken to these kids, had I not needed their help. But I told 'em, "I'm Jennie Lynn from apartment 5 from across the street, my son is trying to text-message me. Could you please show me how to answer him?" They laughed and they showed me how to do it, and I saw that they didn't have a whole lot. So I said, "Listen, are you guys hungry?" I brought them some catfish and bread.
The next day, they kept on me. I went over there and gave them one of my little radios and eight C-cell batteries, in case the original batteries ran out. The winds were pretty bad, but no big deal. They said, "Miss Ginny, we'd leave, but we don't have a car."
I said, "Sweetie, I don't have a car either. But I'm not gonna leave, because I've got my ferrets and my dad in town that I have to watch for." I only had five dollars in my pocket. I gave my son all my money and he went to Memphis with some friends. I told them they could take my son's car, it was the only car in the parking lot, but I said, "It's a clunker. It won't make it around the block. It doesn't even have a clutch."
One of the guys, his name was Zach, said, "Miss Jennie, I drove an ambulance in Iraq. I can drive that car out of here." So I gave them the keys. Meantime, my dad died Saturday. He died in the Methodist Memorial Hospice, which got hit with two or three stories of water, and all those people died. It was horrible. My dad couldn't have handled that. God is good. He spared Dad that.
Sunday was beautiful, Monday was okay, Tuesday was okay, and I took pictures of my friend's house and took pictures to show her that it was okay. I borrowed her rake and started cleaning up. Then all of a sudden, I see this car going up the street, and water was coming up under the wheels. Zach and I went to check it out, and the police said, "You're fine. You're high and dry." But Marrero, which is in Jefferson parish, on the west bank of the Mississippi River, was were pumping out their sewage and did something wrong, and backed that horrible stuff into our neighborhood. Within 15 minutes, the water rose up two feet, and those kids were beating on my door, pulling on my arm, telling me I had two minutes to get out.
They had already backed my son's car out into the street. How they did it, I don't know. The tail pipe was under the water. Zach [drove] up on the sidewalks, around downed power lines, trees, and we got out safely to the Crescent City connection.
We kept driving. We never stopped. We eased past people at red lights, and that old car made it out of there to Baton Rouge and Alexandria. I've kept in contact with those kids. They email me to tell me how they're doing. They made it all the way to San Antone in that car I thought wouldn't make it around the block.
Interview by Jim Walsh
Jeffrey Hills, 29, tuba player, resident of the Lafitte housing project
We rode the storm out at my house, which is on Orleans and Claiborne. It wasn't too bad inside and, thankfully, not one window broke. The trees outside were falling like bowling pins, and after the storm the water kept rising. By morning, the water was maybe four feet deep in front of the house. By the evening it was six, seven feet. We stayed for a day or two before they shut the water off to the apartment. Then we had to leave.
I had to walk through six feet of water. I put the kids up high on my shoulder and we walked to the nearest up ramp to the interstate, all the way to the New Orleans Convention Center. We stayed for there two and a half days. It was the worst thing I've ever been through in my life. I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy.
There were no blue uniforms in the convention center. The only police car I saw was missing wheels and had bullet holes in it. So we just took over a corner and guarded our kids. There was no running water. No lights. It was hot. Tens of thousands of people. All kinds of things happening that I don't care to remember. Old people were dropping dead right next to us. We saw people dragging out bodies in garbage bags.
We were trying to figure out what was going to happen next, whether there would be any water or food provided. The National Guard came in and would say that they were about to unload supplies. But we found out that was a lie--just a plot to calm some citizens down who were being rowdy. I kept thinking, How am I going to get out of this alive with my wife and kids? How are my children going to survive if anything happens to me? Staying alive was the main thing I could think about because there was fighting all over. People were trampling each other. We heard gunfire. Then we found this large room in back--I was familiar with the building from playing gigs--and took shelter in there. It was a little bit cooler than in the main room of the Convention Center.
When we woke up Friday morning, we heard that a couple of kids were missing. Later on, they were found in the bathroom with their throats slit and possibly raped. I'm talking about young kids--from the age six to eight. I didn't see anything, but the parents verified that their children were found dead. Word gets around in an enclosed place like that.
When we found out about the kids, we took off in the rain, walking blindly. We didn't know where we were going. We were heading for the interstate when we saw this RTA bus--that's the city transit of New Orleans--and the lady driver was nice enough to pick us up. We were trying to go across the river to the west bank, but they had something else in store for us.
The driver missed a turn on the way to Baton Rouge, so we wound up in Lafayette at a shelter, where we spent two and a half more days. That's when we caught up with my sister. She lives out here in Mississippi. She is blessed enough to have a church congregation get a big enough vehicle to pick up all 12 of us. They drove to Lafayette and brought us here.
I'm supposed to go to Arizona tomorrow. I'm going to try to play some music and make some money. I'm going to have to leave my family behind and make sure that everything is adequate. If New Orleans opens back up and is adequate to live in, I'm more than sure we'll be going back. If not, we'll have to start our lives somewhere else. But my main goal is to get back home.
Interview by Mike Mosedale
Katy Reckdahl, 40, Gambit Weekly staff writer, former City Pages staff writer, gave birth at New Orleans' Touro Infirmary on the Saturday night before the hurricane hit
All day Saturday, people were getting ready to evacuate. Everyone you saw in the street would say, "Are you leaving?" Among our friends, it was 50-50 between people staying and people going. We were debating because I was so enormously pregnant--38 weeks along, big as a house and four centimeters dilated, which meant I could go on to labor at any moment. Last year, I had evacuated for Hurricane Ivan. We spent 14 hours on the road, and then we got two drops of rain in New Orleans. I knew I couldn't do that this time. For one thing, you really don't own your bladder at that point in pregnancy. And if I had gone into labor, I probably would been forced to give birth in a car.
At about 10 p.m., when [my boyfriend] Merv got home from his gig, my contractions were getting pretty close. So he borrowed a car and drove like a speed demon to Touro--me in the back seat, on all fours and in a lot of pain. When we arrived to the hospital, they discovered Hector was lying sideways, so they had to turn him about 90 degrees before he could come out. I could have never given birth to him in a car. It turned out we probably did the right thing by staying.
I started to push at midnight. Hector wasn't born until 4:14 in the morning. He was a cute, mellow little dude and we called some people to say that we were staying and then I fell asleep. About eight hours after I gave birth, the hospital was put on lock down, which meant no one could leave and no one could enter. So after that, I really didn't think again about evacuating.
About 6 a.m. on Monday morning, we were awakened by the head nurse. The hurricane came through--it sounded like a train--and she was telling everyone to move in the hallways. Originally, they had thought we would be okay in our rooms because the glass was rated for 200 mph winds. But after a few windows broke in the upper stories, someone decided all the patients would sit out the hurricane in the hallways.
We were on generator power all through the hurricane. Initially, the phones were still working. The girl across from me was talking to her mom, who lives in the lower ninth ward--one of the places that was hit really badly. Her mom was saying she was in the attic, trying to get onto the roof. Then the line went dead. All through the morning, there was this horrible pall on our floor because we realized that her mom could be dead.
The generator for our part of the hospital failed around 7 o'clock that night and we left were in total darkness. It was bizarre to live that way, no electricity for two days, then no water. We were using the light of the cell phone to get around the room at night, and to light up my nipples. It was so crazy. Merv would be standing there with an open cell phone, pointed at my nipple, and we'd try to get the baby to latch on.
We started to get reports on an A.M. radio call-in show, which was the only outside communication we had. They said that the Ninth Ward had been hit pretty bad and that a lot of people had probably died. But then we were also hearing that the rest of the city had survived. It seemed like it was just a matter of getting the power back on, cleaning up and helping people in the Ninth Ward. So we felt really lucky, like everything could be back to normal in a few days.
Then on Tuesday, we started hearing a lot of really dismal news. We were hearing about houses completely under water in other parts of the city. We were hearing about the water flowing toward Uptown. A nurse came in and said her house was under water. It sounded like some of the places really near our house were completely under water, too. We heard that the neighborhood right next to us, the St. Bernard/Seventh Ward area, had been pretty badly hit and that this store called Circle Foods had water up to its arches. So Merv and I started to realize, "Oh, shit, our place might be under water too."
That was also the day they started rationing food. There were a lot of people in the hospital--staff people, staff people's family, patients, and patients' family members. There wasn't enough food, especially when you're trying to feed a baby or when you're trying to split it into three
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