One of the Millions of Hurricane Katrina Stories
I survived Hurricane Katrina, but it transformed me. I am a different person. I feel more loved than I did a week ago, and I very much appreciate all of the friends and family and even strangers who both helped me directly and who contacted me to say they were concerned and thinking about me and my family. The world clearly has plenty of empathy and compassion left. I saw people slide down ropes out of helicopters to rescue people from rooftops. I saw my neighbors break into grocery stores, fill up their boats with supplies, and row through neighborhoods distributing food and water to those in need. And as I drove 1000 miles north to escape the carnage, I saw convoy after convoy of people and supplies heading south to help. They are their brother's keeper, and I am so thankful for their support. Maybe there is hope for the world after all.
Much of the heroism affected me directly. Strangers actually risked their lives to save mine, and friends and family did so much to help. Two gentlemen from the Westbank in an airboat transported me and my dogs from the flood waters to dry ground. Firefighters from Phoenix helped a large group of us begin the process of leaving the city. Therese's friends the LaCinas and Kents in Purvis Mississippi hosted her and my children for several days as they rode out the storm. My father-in-law John flew to Jackson Mississippi to help Therese and the kids make it Omaha, Nebraska, where they'll be living and attending school until at least January most likely. My mom went on local and national TV asking for help. Hundreds of friends, even people I haven't spoken to in 25 years, have contacted me to voice their support. Thank you so much, you've touched my heart.
But I also learned that catastrophes such as this bring out not only the very best in people, but also the worst. I have witnessed and experienced some pretty awful things over the past week. I saw dozens of dead bodies floating in toxic waters. I heard about invalid elderly humans dying in attics and hospitals believing that the world did not care as they gradually ran out of medication and oxygen while the politicians gave press conferences about how well Democrats and Republicans were cooperating. I saw sick babies and paraplegics living for five days outside in 100 degree weather, while gangs of armed youths roamed, raped, and terrorized in filthy refugee camps of 20,000 of society's most afflicted and abandoned. These poor people were placed in massive outdoor "security" pens for as many as 6 days, and many of them died. This incredibly large group of people desperately needed food, water and transportation out of New Orleans. The immediate federal response for relief was so incredibly inept it left many of us to wonder if the lack of support was deliberate. This gross inaction while so many people suffered and died occurred in the world's richest country, and it makes me so angry with the government. I heard that Bob Hastert, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, said two days after this tragedy that it made no sense to rebuild New Orleans. He said this while families grieved over death and misery and desperately searched for missing loved ones. I saw drug addicts take over parts of the city and terrorize, and heard that they shot nurses in the back of the head to steal pharmaceuticals to ease their drug withdrawals. And despite what you might read in the news, this wasn't a case of everyone working together to save lives. Officials from neighboring more affluent parishes (counties) than Orleans said that citizens of New Orleans were not welcome in their parishes because they only had enough supplies for their own.
There were certainly elements in this drama of upper classes abandoning those less fortunate. But the disparity in fortune wasn't only about social and financial differentiations. Racism played a large role in this tragedy, I am sickened to say. Sure there were looters and murders and lawlessness, but there is after every hurricane. Heck, the same stuff happens after cities win the Super Bowl. But in New Orleans' case, these recurring images of young men with guns showed black men. Certain relief organizations refused to go in to the New Orleans area until several days after the hurricane, because they said it was "too dangerous," and this heartless refusal to act was devastating to thousands of innocent people. It even cost hundreds of lives. As I lay in my bed surrounded by my flooded city I heard on the radio caller after caller cry out for help and ask why they and their loved ones were not being rescued. People lay in hospitals and nursing homes and starved to death. It occurred to me that it was more complicated than concluding that suddenly the American government was forgetting these impoverished people, these descendants of the slaves who built New Orleans and this country. Instead, I realized that these poor people hadd been forgotten for hundreds of years.
I cried when I heard my mayor Ray Nagin's interview with Garland Robinette on Thursday, September 1. You can read the transcript here and from that sight there is a link so that you can hear it. The part that brought on the tears was about how so many people were dying due to the government's initial lethargy and apathy and how the great city of New Orleans would never be the same again. And much of this could have been prevented in my opinion. Of course we can't prevent hurricanes, but most of the death and destruction came from the subsequent flood after the 17th street levee was breached. The federal government had been warned repeatedly for 20 years that that specific levee was in dire need of attention, yet nobody listened. I believe these politicians were criminally negligent and are partly to blame for much of this. And perhaps now the country will start taking seriously the problems caused by coastal erosion. I hope.
If I hear one more person say "IF they decide to rebuild New Orleans..." I will explode. New Orleans was a great city long before there was even an idea about forming the United States. I know of course that they will rebuild the city. It will never be the same. It will take a great amount of time, money, effort, and patience. For the short future the world is focused on the city, but what about in a year when New Orleans will need so much and attention? Not too many will care then. I thought a great deal over the past week about leaving New Orleans permanently. I'm nearly 40, ripe for a midlife crisis, and this would a great time to move to another place and start over. Life can be very easy outside of the Big Easy. There are few places in this country with as much poverty, poor education, and overall problems. Also, I'm sure that many businesses and people with resources, education, and financial independence will never return, while the impoverished will, as they have no choice. But I think that for me and my family, returning to the devastation of New Orleans offers us a chance to really make a difference in the world. We could help to rebuild the great city that has become our home, and at least make our modest contribution to this Herculean task.
Certainly my relationship with my dogs Kochise and Mosey is stronger. For those who don’t know, I stayed behind with them to ride out the hurricane. It was an amazing experience, and the house outside survived with little damage. However the wind made the house racked, meaning the upper floor was blown so hard that the walls of the bottom floor now lean considerably. But slowly over the next 36 hours the water rose, until by Tuesday evening there was 8 feet of water in our streets, and four feet on our bottom floor. Me and the dogs lived upstairs, and watched from our balcony as people canoed by. I even got my acoustic guitar and played "dueling banjoes" as they passed to evoke images from the film Deliverance. I didn't have direct contact with Therese, though I was able to use my cell phone once in a while to tell family in Omaha I was OK. I kept thinking the water would recede and I could start cleaning out the house, but it never happened. On Wednesday I swam to Xavier University, and I was happy to see that the university as a whole didn't appear to have too much damage, though it was badly flooded. I heard the students were finally evacuated with the help of Jesse Jackson, though I've heard rumors that one student passed away. I don't know the details yet, and I'm so sorry to hear about that tragedy. I don't know how the parents of that student will make it through this trial. I swam to my office and found that it was intact. So I swam home and was going to wait for the waters to recede, and then I would spend half my time working in my office and half my time cleaning the house. I had plenty of supplies, and was planning on experimenting with a diet of only home brewed beer.
But then in the end I left. I learned that my father-in-law was flying to Jackson Saturday, and Friday those guys in the airboat showed up. I was very worried because I had heard that they were not letting people evacuate with their animals. But these guys said that had changed, and so I put my computer and a few papers in my backpack, loaded the dogs, let the birds go, and put Oot the sugar glider with food and water in Kalypso's room to await my return, much like Napoleon leaving for Elba I suppose. We drove in the boat all over the city looking for people. It was so surreal with the helicopters and all the boats up and down Canal Street amidst all the devastation. Towards dusk on Friday I arrived at I-10 and Banks Street, not far from my house. There they packed all of us pet owners from Mid City into a cargo truck and drove us away. They promised they would take us to Baton Rouge, and from there it would be relatively easy for me to get a cab or bus and meet the family in Jackson.
But then everything went to hell. They instead locked up the truck and drove us to the refugee camp on I-10 and Causeway and dropped us off. Many refused to get out of the van but they were forced. The van drove away as quickly as it could, as the drivers appeared to be terrified, and we were suddenly in the middle of 20,000 people. I would estimate that 98% of them were African Americans and the most impoverished people in the state. It was like something out of a Kafka novel. Nobody knew how to get out. People said they had been there 5 days, and that on that day only 3 buses had shown up. I saw murdered bodies, and elderly people who had died because they had been left in the sun with no water for such a long time. I’ve traveled quite a bit, and I have never seen the despair and tragedy that I saw at this refugee camp. It was the saddest thing I have ever seen in my life. I am still so upset that there were not hundreds of buses immediately sent to get these people to shelters.
There was a group of officials going around and taking people’s animals away. It was then that I decided to try to escape. I knew there were armed looters outside the camp, but there were inside as well, and I had Mosey, who is a pretty big dog and can be scary when she is barking. I could not have ever told my children that I gave up the dogs to save myself. Officials were not letting anyone past the city of LaPlace to pick up relatives, so I decided to try to sneak out of the camp and walk the 30 miles to LaPlace. On the refugee camp’s perimeter there was a girl named Robin from my neighborhood who wanted to save her cat, and a guy we just met named Carlos who was trying to get to LaPlace, so we teamed up. It was an odd group. Me with two dogs, Carlos who is an African American guy who works in the oil business, and Robin, a skinny white girl who paints movie designs or something like that. So we slipped out at 3 AM and walked along the side of I-10 to Clearview, and then walked through the dark and destroyed neighborhoods until I was on Airline Highway. Amazingly the police never stopped us, I think because we were such a bizarre grouping, and we weren’t shot by the looters or vigilante groups trying to stop them. Fortunately on Airline we found a shopping cart to put the cat inside. We then walked almost to the airport by 9 AM Saturday. But by then I was about ready to give up. My feet were bloody and the dogs were totally exhausted.
Robin had a cell phone, but the batteries were dead. We found a neighborhood that still had power, and then noticed a gas station that had a broken window. Robin climbed inside and charged her cell phone enough to make a call. We knew then that her uncle would be in LaPlace, but concluded he would not be able to make it past the checkpoint. Suddenly miraculous things changed my fortune. Her uncle was retired from the Mississippi government and he had several ID tags, and he was able to finagle his way through checkpoint after checkpoint, and he picked us up, and drove us past LaPlace all the way to Jackson airport, as he lived just a few miles from there. When I got out of the van, there was Therese, her dad, and my children. Then, after an 18 hour drive, we're all safe in Omaha.
I think in approximately two weeks I'll return to New Orleans with my father-in-law, as he is an insurance adjustor and will be sent to the area to work on claims. A few days later Therese will fly down and we'll sort out all of our stuff. We lost a lot of things to the flood, but I don't feel too bad about it. We had too much stuff anyway. Kalypso and Gilgamesh will start in a new school tomorrow, and it was the same school that I attended, which makes me happy in some sense. So like Moses we are strangers, though we are by no means in a strange land.