The lovely, talented enchantress Bliss Broyard is from New Orleans, and through some of her friends, we got the following story from Lorrie Beth Slonsky (editor of the medical journal The Gurney Gazette) and Larry Bradshaw, two paramedics who got stuck in the French Quarter while attending a convention. What follows is their harrowing journey out of hell, and while it is long, it is so worth the time. Read it now before this makes the email rounds and thus both Lorrie Beth and Larry end up vilified on conservative blogs. I promise, there is no politics here. Just a true story.
Here it is:
HURRICANE KATRINA: OUR EXPERIENCES by Lorrie Beth Slonsky and Larry Bradshaw
Two days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the Walgreen's store at
the corner of Royal and Iberville streets remained locked. The dairy display
case was clearly visible through the widows. It was now 48 hours without
electricity, running water, plumbing. The milk, yogurt, and cheeses were
beginning to spoil in the 90-degree heat. The owners and managers had locked
up the food, water, pampers, and prescriptions and fled the City. Outside
Walgreen's windows, residents and tourists grew increasingly thirsty and
The much-promised federal, state and local aid never materialized and the
windows at Walgreen's gave way to the looters. There was an alternative. The
cops could have broken one small window and distributed the nuts, fruit
juices, and bottle water in an organized and systematic manner. But they did
not. Instead they spent hours playing cat and mouse, temporarily chasing
away the looters.
We were finally airlifted out of New Orleans two days ago and arrived home
yesterday (Saturday). We have yet to see any of the TV coverage or look at a
newspaper. We are willing to guess that there were no video images or
front-page pictures of European or affluent white tourists looting the
Walgreen's in the French Quarter.
We also suspect the media will have been inundated with "hero" images of the
National Guard, the troops and the police struggling to help the "victims"
of the Hurricane. What you will not see, but what we witnessed, were the
real heroes and sheroes of the hurricane relief effort: the working class of
New Orleans. The maintenance workers who used a fork lift to carry the sick
and disabled. The engineers, who rigged, nurtured and kept the generators
running. The electricians 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
Refinery workers who broke into boat yards, "stealing" boats to rescue their
neighbors clinging to their roofs in flood waters. Mechanics who helped
hot-wire any car that could be found to ferry people out of the City. And
the food service workers who scoured the commercial kitchens improvising
communal meals for hundreds of those stranded. Most of these workers had
lost their homes, and had not heard from members of their families, yet they
stayed and provided the only infrastructure for the 20% of New Orleans that
was not under water.
On Day 2, there were approximately 500 of us left in the hotels in 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 in to the
City. The buses and the other resources must have been invisible because
none of us had seen them.
We decided we had to save ourselves. So we pooled our money and came up with
$25,000 to have ten buses come and take us out of the City. Those who did
not have the requisite $45.00 for a ticket were subsidized by those who did
have extra money. We waited for 48 hours for the buses, spending the last 12
hours standing outside, sharing the limited water, food, and clothes we had.
We created a priority boarding area for the sick, elderly and new born
babies. We waited late into the night for the "imminent" arrival of the
buses. The buses never arrived. We later learned that the minute the arrived
at the City limits, they were commandeered by the military.
By day 4 our hotels had run out of fuel and water. Sanitation was
dangerously abysmal. As the desperation and despair increased, street crime
as well as water levels began to rise. The hotels turned us out and locked
their doors, telling us that the "officials" told us to report to the
convention center to wait for more buses. As we entered the center of the
City, we finally encountered the National Guard. The Guards told us we would
not be allowed into the Superdome as the City's primary shelter had
descended into a humanitarian and health hellhole. The guards further told
us that the City's only other shelter, the Convention Center, was also
descending into chaos and squalor and that the police were not allowing
anyone else in. Quite naturally, we asked, "If we can't go to the only 2
shelters in the City, what was our alternative?" The guards told us that
that was our problem, and no they did not have extra water to give to us.
This would be the start of our numerous encounters with callous and hostile
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 did not 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 would constitute a highly
visible embarrassment to the City officials. The police told us that we
could not stay. Regardless, we began to settle in and set up camp. In short
order, 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 where the police had buses lined up
to take us out of the City. The crowd cheered and began to move. We called
everyone back and explained to the commander that there had been lots of
misinformation and wrong information and was he sure that there were buses
waiting for us. The commander turned to the crowd and stated emphatically,
"I swear to you that the buses are 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, people using crutches, elderly clasping walkers and
others people in wheelchairs. We marched the 2-3 miles to the freeway and up
the steep incline to the Bridge. It now began to pour down rain, but it did
not dampen our enthusiasm.
As we approached the bridge, armed Gretna sheriffs formed a line across the
foot of the bridge. Before we were close enough to speak, they began firing
their weapons over our heads. This sent the crowd fleeing in various
directions. As the crowd scattered and dissipated, a few of us inched
forward and managed to engage some of the sheriffs in conversation. We told
them of our conversation with the police commander and of the commander's
assurances. The sheriffs informed us there were no buses waiting. The
commander had lied to us to get us to move.
We questioned why we couldn't cross the bridge anyway, especially as there
was little traffic on the 6-lane highway. They responded that the West Bank
was not going to become New Orleans and there would be no Superdomes in
their City. These were code words for if you are poor and black, you are not
crossing the Mississippi River and you were not getting out of New Orleans.
Our small group retreated back down Highway 90 to seek shelter from the rain
under an overpass. We debated our options and in the end decided to build an
encampment in the middle of the Ponchartrain Expressway on the center
divide, between the O'Keefe and Tchoupitoulas exits. We reasoned we would be
visible to everyone, we would have some security being on an elevated
freeway and we could wait and watch for the arrival of the yet to be seen
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 to be
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 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 the two necessities, food and water; cooperation, community, and
creativity flowered. We organized a clean up and hung garbage bags from the
rebar poles. We made beds from wood pallets and cardboard. We designated a
storm drain as the bathroom and the kids built an elaborate enclosure for
privacy out of plastic, broken umbrellas, and other scraps. We even
organized a food recycling system where individuals could swap out parts of
C-rations (applesauce for babies and candies for kids!).
This was a process we saw repeatedly in the aftermath of Katrina. When
individuals had to fight to find food or water, it meant looking out for
yourself only. You had to do whatever it took to find water for your kids or
food for your parents. When these basic needs were met, people began to look
out for each other, working together and constructing a community.
If the relief organizations had saturated the City with food and water in
the first 2 or 3 days, the desperation, the frustration and the 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 they were going
to take care of us. Some of us got a sinking feeling. "Taking care of us"
had an ominous tone to it.
Unfortunately, our sinking feeling (along with the sinking City) was
correct. Just as dusk set in, a Gretna Sheriff showed up, jumped out of his
patrol vehicle, aimed his gun at our faces, screaming, "Get off the fucking
freeway". A helicopter arrived and used the wind from its blades to blow
away our flimsy structures. As we retreated, the sheriff loaded up his truck
with our food and water. Once again, at gunpoint, we were forced off the
freeway. All the law enforcement agencies appeared threatened when we
congregated or congealed into groups of 20 or more. In every congregation of
"victims" they saw "mob" or "riot". We felt safety in numbers. Our "we must
stay together" was impossible because the agencies would force us into small
In the pandemonium of having our camp raided and destroyed, we scattered
once again. Reduced to a small group of 8 people, in the dark, we sought
refuge in an abandoned school bus, under the freeway on Cilo Street. We were
hiding from possible criminal elements but equally and definitely, we were
hiding from the police and sheriffs with their martial law, curfew and
The next days, our group of 8 walked most of the day, made contact with New
Orleans Fire Department and were eventually airlifted out by an urban search
and rescue team. We were dropped off near the airport and managed to catch a
ride with the National Guard. The two young guardsmen apologized for the
limited response of the Louisiana guards. They explained that a large
section of their unit was in Iraq and that meant they were shorthanded and
were unable to complete all the tasks they were assigned.
We arrived at the airport on the day a massive airlift had begun. The
airport had become another Superdome. We 8 were caught in a press of
humanity as flights were delayed for several hours while George Bush landed
briefly at the airport for a photo op. After being evacuated on a coast
guard cargo plane, we arrived in San Antonio, Texas.
There the humiliation and dehumanization of the official relief 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 did not have
air-conditioners. In the dark, hundreds if us were forced to share two
filthy overflowing porta-potties. Those who managed to make it out with any
possessions (often a few belongings in tattered plastic bags) we were
subjected to two different dog-sniffing 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, disabled as they sat
for hours waiting to be "medically screened" to make sure we were not
carrying any communicable diseases.
This official treatment was in sharp contrast to the warm, heart-felt
reception given to us by the ordinary Texans. We saw one airline worker give
her shoes to someone who was barefoot. Strangers on the street offered us
money and toiletries with words of welcome. Throughout, the official relief
effort was callous, inept, and racist. There was more suffering than need
be. Lives were lost that did not need to be lost.
***Posted by Ian Williams at September 7, 2005 11:20 PM