By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
In the Houston Astrodomelast Saturday, I met a man named Robert. He invited me to take a seat beside him on a cot pushed against the wall — his home for the previous three days and the foreseeable future. Robert had lived in New Orleans for all of his 55 years, and was in the St. Bernard projects when Katrina washed it all away. “After the storm,” he told me almost as soon as I sat down, “they blew the levees up so they could flood New Orleans.”
I asked him who “they” were.
“The money people,” he answered. “The big money.”
“Why?” I asked.
Robert shook his head at my naivetÃ©. “They had to get the poor people out so they could get the space.” He gestured to the thousands of people in the dome around us, almost all of them African-American, crammed onto cots a few inches apart. “Now they got their space.
“We survived the storm,” Robert went on. “We survived the wind and the rain. After the storm passed, the water started rising, and all you heard was ‘Boom!’ ” The explosions, he said, were the levees blowing. “Ask any of these people. The hurricane wasn’t that bad, but the opportunity came up.”
It was a real estate grab, Robert explained — gentrification with a genocidal edge. And if he was more than slightly paranoid — he didn’t want to tell me his last name, and grew visibly nervous when a white stadium employee began sweeping the floor within earshot a few feet away — his theory made a certain kind of sense, far more than any of the official excuses for government inaction. I would later hear similar speculations again and again in New Orleans, and saw them written on the walls. Just across the canal from the flooded 9th Ward, on a corner heavy with the scent of death, these words were scrawled across an abandoned garage: “Fuck Bush They Fucking Left Us Here Them Bitches Flooded Us . . . Them Bitches Killed Our People.”
But bombing the levees wasn’t necessary. Years of neglect, suicidal environmental policies (the natural wetland barrier that might have protected New Orleans from the storm surge has been eaten away by pollution in the Delta) and the massive under-funding of urban infrastructure did the trick. It amounts to the same thing: Them bitches killed our people. Poor people, black people, people who can be easily transformed — with a flash of the darkest TV news magic — into a criminal class of looters hardly worthy of our care.
The Dead and the Helpless
Walking back across the drawbridge that connects the Bywater neighborhood to the 9th Ward, I came across a tall man of 55 named John “Jake” Washington. At the end of the bridge behind us, the road was blocked by water, and the flooding stretched on into the distance as far as I could see. The houses were inundated up to the windows with oil-slicked murk and slime. The cars parked outside were coated to the roofs in mud. Washington was limping with a cane and tugging a backpack and a radio on a collapsing luggage trolley. He spoke quietly, in a broken, exhausted voice. He had been back and forth from the 9th Ward three times, he told me, but was ready to leave for good. “Too much filth,” he said.
Washington had spent all week rowing through his neighborhood in a scavenged flatboat. At first he was rescuing people from rooftops and overpasses and half-flooded attics, ferrying as many as he could to dry land. His boat was always full, he said. But for the last few days it had just been corpses. “They were floating everywhere.” When he could, he tied them down and anchored them to posts. He grabbed one old woman by the arm, he says, “and her head came straight off her body. She was just a puddle. She was gel.”
I offered him a ride downtown, and as we crossed the canal, Washington spotted a small fleet of camouflaged pontoon boats trolling through the water. “None of that!” he erupted, deep furor in his voice. “None of that shit was out here but us!”
In the car on the way downtown, we passed a long convoy of Humvees and trucks towing Jet Skis and powerboats. Washington yelled out the window, and shook his fist. “Where was you a week ago?”
The first time he came across any soldiers, Washington told me, they trained their rifles on him. I heard the same complaint from others, and it was easy to imagine. Squads from the 82nd Airborne patrolled the deserted New Orleans streets as if playing at urban warfare, M-16s at the ready. Of course, they weren’t playing. Armored cars bristling with weaponry swerved around the corners. Rifle barrels protruded from the windows of passing SUVs. At the staging ground at the base of Canal Street — the most secure spot in the city if not the entire nation — hundreds of officials milled about lugging shotguns and automatic rifles as if expecting the Mahdi Army. Among thousands of soldiers and police from every imaginable government agency, I twice saw groups of heavily armed men in khaki fatigues wearing T-shirts that read “Blackwater.” A city was submerged, hundreds of thousands homeless, and the feds called in the mercenaries.
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