A New Orelans Journal
New Orleans, September 8 Who Will Bury This Man? His feet are sticking out from under a bent sheet of corrugated metal. Should I tell you more? He died where he lies, facedown on the asphalt about 50 feet from the door of the Arthur Monday Jr. health clinic. The clinic was closed when the storm began and its still closed today, although this neighborhood Algiers, across the Mississippi from the French Quarter has phone service, running water, gas, everything but electricity. The corpse has been here for 10 days. We called them Tuesday, when we found his body, says Malik Rahim, who lives down the block. Police came, looked at him, left. Ever day they come look at him, like they trying to see how long itll take him to decompose.
While were talking, six soldiers pull up in a Humvee. Theyre all hard stares, who are yous and why are you heres, but they ease up slightly when they see a press pass. I ask them what they can do about the corpse. Its been reported up, one tells me. Theyre supposed to come get it. But he doesnt know who they are, only that were not allowed to touch it. With that, the soldiers drive off.
But this is a happy story, or as hopeful as they get in New Orleans this week. We stop outside the clinic on the way out of town, and from there on things get brighter. Rahim, a community organizer and former Black Panther, needs to make an ice run. Hes 58, with gray dreadlocks and powerful construction workers shoulders. His kitchen is stocked with food and water, but he needs ice to keep the food from rotting. Most of the people left in the neighborhood (about 3,000 out of an original 74,000, he says) are in the same situation. The military is giving out ice, food and water, three towns away in Bayou Segnette, so we talk on the drive over.
We got a Navy base in Algiers, Rahim says. We got about 15 schools and 40 faith-based institutions, and they aintusing none of them. When the neighborhood was being evacuated down at the ferry dock, he says, We tried to put together a cooking cooperative to feed the evacuees. They told us we couldnt do it because it would start a riot. They let those people stand there hungry.
As we drive, he yells out a greeting here and there to families sitting on their porches: How you all set for ice?
We could use some, most respond.
The problem, Rahim goes on, began with bad leadership, first of all Mayor Ray Nagins. We had over 1,000 brothers here that was ready to volunteer. When the levee first broke, he wouldve had tens of thousands. But he never asked for volunteers.
We drive past a school bus, parked at a crooked angle in a glass-strewn lot. People eventually siphoned off its gas, Rahim says, but the bus was never used. We had two days prior notice that [the storm] was going to hit this city and they aintevacuated anybody. They never used the school buses or the city buses to get everybody out. He just opened the Superdome. Thats why all those people died. Hes got to live with this. He couldve commandeered every boat in this city. He aint did shit.
Once we get out of Algiers, we drive for about 10 minutes and take our place in a long line at the side of the highway. Its not far if you have a car and enough gas to make the drive, but few people in Algiers these days have either. Door to door, the trip takes about two hours, most of it spent idling and inching forward. This is how we spend most of our gas, Rahim says, right here. I do this three times a day. This constitutes my whole damn day, just going to get ice. Buying gas means driving even farther, and even longer waits.
Finally, we reach the head of the line, and volunteers (not locals but Choctaw Indians who came in from Oklahoma) fill the trunk with bags of ice. We drive back to Algiers, and cruise slowly through the neighborhood. Rahim calls out to everyone he sees. You need ice?
Almost everyone needs ice. Some days when I get home my old lady is set to kill me, because I didnt save a bag for us.
Usually he does this part on bicycle to save gas. He recruits three or four others. They divide up the neighborhood and pedal off, bags of ice balanced on the handlebars.
If the government doesnt find a way to bury the man lying outside the clinic by tomorrow, Rahim says hell do it himself. I got people coming in with lime. And hes not going to wait for the city to open up the clinic. Were looking to make the mosque a health clinic and establish some king of school. From there we gonnatry to start doing some church services so people can start feeling some sense of community, Rahimsays.
If you wait on the government, you wont get nothing.
New Orleans, Tuesday afternoon, September 6 My Vain Call for Help
Heading to the 9th Ward from the French Quarter, I find the road blocked by armored cars. This is nothing extraordinary in New Orleans this week soldiers and police in full paramilitary gear are everywhere, marching through the deserted city, barking orders, bristling with shotguns and M-16s but this swat team looks strangely relaxed. Theyre smiling, taking pictures even. At last I see why: Three horses, one white, one gray and a bay, are limping down St. Claude Street.
A mile or so farther down St. Claude, at the corner of Poland, a drawbridge over a shipping canal leads to the 9th Ward. Its blocked by a few National Guardsmen from Oregon. The air stinks of rotting corpses. I ask one of the soldiers if theyve been finding bodies here. No, he tells me, the smell is just sewage. But all of New Orleans smells like sewage. Here it smells like death.
I dont get too far across the bridge. Almost immediately, the road is blocked by water, and it stretches on into the distance as far as I can see. The houses to my left are inundated up to the windows with oil-slicked murk and slime. The cars parked outside are coated to the roofs in mud. A dog barks somewhere off in the floods, but otherwise its awfully, eerily quiet.
Walking back across the bridge, I meet John Jake Washington. He is a large man of 55, and is tugging a backpack and a radio on a collapsing luggage trolley. He has been back and forth from the 9th Ward three times, he says, but now hes ready to leave. Too much filth, he says.
Washington has spent all week rowing through his neighborhood in a scavenged flatboat. At first he was rescuing people, he says, ferrying them to higher ground. The past few days its just been corpses. They were floating everywhere. When he could, he anchored them to posts. Yesterday, he grabbed a woman by the arm, he says, and her head came straight off her body. She was just a puddle.
Hes ready to head out of town, and has people in Baton Rouge, so I offer him a ride downtown, which is the only place Ive seen the Red Cross. (They were serving hot meals to police and soldiers outside Harrahs casino.) As we drive across the bridge, Washington spots a small fleet of camouflaged pontoon boats trolling the canal. None of that! he erupts, with deep, exhausted furor in his voice. None of that shit was out here but us!
A mile or so later we pass a long convoy of humvees and trucks filled with heavily armed soldiers and towing Jet Skis and power boats. Washington yells out the window, and shakes his fist. Where was you a week ago? After dropping him off, I head back down St. Claude to the canal. The drawbridge is up, so I copy down the graffiti scrawled on the door of a garage: Fuck Bush They Fucking Left Us Here Fuck the Navy Fuck the Air Force Them Bitches Killed Our People.
On the porch across the street Patricia Kelly is living with Anthony Washington and two other friends shes made since the storm. Washingtons wife is sleeping beside him, and another man is sprawled bare-chested on a mattress a few feet away. All of them lived in the 9th Ward until the flooding forced them out. The police pulled Kelly out of her attic when the water, she says, was almost up to her mouth. She went to the Convention Center, but the squalor was too bad, so she left and came here, and met these friends, beautiful people. Weve been living together and praying together like one big happy family.
Washington tells me the soldiers have been pressuring them to evacuate. I aint going anywhere, he says. I was born and raised here. I aint got nowhere to go.
The situation, though, is hardly ideal. They have mattresses and chairs, and the soldiers give them food and water, but theyre still living on a porch. I hardly get any sleep, Washington says, because he stays up to guard the women. He shows me a rusty hammer: I keep this by my side as a weapon.
And Washingtons wife is sick. She is diabetic and was in the hospital until just before the storm. I ask if she has any insulin. He tries to wake her, and only after 30 seconds prodding does she come to. No, she says, her eyes still closed, no insulin. I tell Washington Ill talk to the soldiers and see if they can help. I run around the corner and see another armored car, this one carrying not only the usual array of police with automatic rifles, pistols, helmets, and flak vests, but a well-coiffed man in civilian clothes. The police all wear plastic ID tags reading AMW, but there are so many government agencies in town, from the Border Patrol to Louisiana Fish and Game, that I dont think anything of it. A few cameramen cluster around the car, and I assume that the well-coiffed man must be someone important, a politician maybe, someone with some pull, and that Washingtons wife may be in luck. The armored car is about to pull away, but I yell out to him, Sir theres a woman over there who needs help.
The police are already driving off, but the important man stops them to hear me out. I tell him about Washingtons wife, that shes in bad shape and wont live long without insulin. He points to the SUV behind me. Talk to those guys over there, he says. Theyll get a paramedic in here right away.
He drives off. I stop the SUV, but the driver yells something about Americas Most Wanted, points me to a policeman and drives off. The policeman, it turns out, is John Walshs bodyguard, is lagging far behind his boss, and cant help me anyway.
I ask the National Guardsmen, but they dont have any insulin either. One of them calls back to his base, but no one can tell him anything. If I can convince her to leave, he says, theyll make sure she gets some care.
This story would be almost funny, if it werent so goddamned horrible, and so absurdly symbolic of how the disaster has been handled. There are now far more soldiers and policemen in New Orleans than residents, and most of them are so overburdened with weaponry that they dont have a hand to lend. Its Bushs Baghdad-on-the-Bayou: a vast and empty show of force to secure a ruined city in which theres nothing left to loot.
New Orleans, September 5, 2005Here Lies Vera
The streets are dry, and the white pillared mansions of the Garden District are relatively untouched by the storm. Trees have crushed a portico here and there, and some houses have collapsed rather spectacularly on the side streets, but by and by, the rich fared well in New Orleans.
Charles Wendell is walking two dogs, a mini-dachshund and a scrappy black mutt, on the median strip at the corner of St. Charles and Napoleon, just across from a looted Rite Aid and a restaurant where a truck filled with National Guardsmen sits idling. Wendell has blue eyes, thinning white hair and a sunburned chest, and at the moment he is wearing red, white and blue short shorts, sneakers with tube socks, a thick gold bracelet, and nothing else. A plainclothes police officer with a badge pinned to his T-shirt has just left Wendell when I approach him. He says, I hope youre ready, because theyre going to make everybody leave, Wendell tells me, but he clearly has no plans to go anywhere. I dont want anybody to be telling me that I have to get out of here. It makes me furious.
Wendell stayed, he says, because he owns a house and a business here and theres no place I want to go. Not to mention, he adds, I have five dogs that I stayed for, and I have four cats that I stayed for, and a parrot that I stayed for.
Besides, Wendell says, hes been fine. Immediately to the north of us, the streets are still flooded, but the water stopped here, he says, at this very corner. He had fresh water from the taps until four days ago, and he still has plenty of canned food. He saw no sign of the government at all until Saturday (a full five days after the hurricane hit, in case youre counting), when a tank rolled by outside his windows. But Wendell was fine before they came, he insists, and doesnt see why he should have to leave.
Not everyone has been so fortunate, he says. A woman died across the street from his shop on Magazine Street. I dont know who she was, but she was a black lady. Her body lay in the street for two days, he says, before someone picked her up and brought her to the morgue. The morgue wouldnt take her, he says, so they brought her back to Magazine Street and buried her on the sidewalk.
Someone has painted the words LOOTERS WILL BE SHOT on the plywood nailed up over shop windows for about a mile up and down St. Charles Street. In the same handwriting, on the wall of the Oriental rug shop next to Emeril LaGasses restaurant, the following words appear: Dont try, I am sleeping inside with a big dog, an ugly woman, two shotguns, and a claw hammer. An update has been painted a few yards away: 9/4 Still here, woman left Fri., cooking a pot of dog gumbo.
When I stop to copy this down, a pink-faced man with graying hair pulled back into a ponytail steps out of an open door, shouts, Actually, Im having a pretty fucking good time, and ducks back inside to grab a camera. He steps back out again to snap a few shots of 10 National Guardsmen patrolling the sidewalk a few yards down. They hold their M-16s at the ready. Their faces are wary, and they advance in a crouch, as if they expect the organized gangs of criminal looters that the television keeps talking about to leap out at any moment. Hey, you guys, the man yells at the soldiers, lighten up! There aint nobody around here, aint been nobody here for five days!
One of the soldiers asks him if hes okay. I aint going anywhere, he answers. Every woman I ever fucked has called me this week Im having a great time!
And, indeed, somewhere inside his shop a phone rings not a cell phone, but the good, old corded kind and he runs back in to answer it. When he comes back out, he tells me his name is Bob Rue. I ask him how it is that his phone still works. He shrugs: No trees.
Rue says hes been living it up, guarding his shop all day and sleeping in his 20-room mansion on a king-size bed with satin sheets. (He tells me this several times, in fact, and each time adds a few more rooms to the mansion. In a dim backroom of his shop, though, I cant help but spot a mattress on the floor.) Ive got the keys to three doctors homes, he adds. You know what kind of wine they got? Ive been drinking wine and eating cheese with my friends each night.
The phone keeps ringing. He apologizes, I got these black women that work for me, have all these children, dont know where they are, so they call me.
Rue is certain that New Orleans will be back on track in time for Mardi Gras, but he hasnt left downtown, and doesnt seem to realize that most of the city is still submerged. But he has heard about the woman buried on Magazine Street. A bus shelter fell on her, he says, crushed her dead. The people at the morgue told her bearers to just put her back on the street so her relatives could find her and pick her up, but she was rotting already, so they turned a planter over on her and buried her right there.
And there she is as promised, beneath a shallow mound on the sidewalk at the corner of Magazine and Jackson. Across the street, the third story of a brick building has collapsed into the road. The grave has been carefully lined with five layers of bricks borrowed from the rubble. A sheet of white plastic has been stretched across the bricks, and a cross has been planted at the head. Here lies Vera, someone has written on the plastic sheet. God help her.
Southeast Louisiana, September 4Scenes of Destruction Even 30 miles west of New Orleans, you wouldnt know that a hurricane has just passed through. The shop windows are intact. The trees have all their leaves. Im driving east with an organizer friend I met up with in Houston named Shakoor Aljuwani. He's hoping that, in the absence of any noticeable governmental assistance, he might be able to help streamline some mutual aid. The Interstate, we know, is closed before it hits the city, so we drop off the I-10 for Highway 61, a smaller, four-lane highway to the south. After about 10 miles, we start seeing signs left by the storm. At a Shell station in the small town of Gramercy, the canopy over the gas pumps has caved in. Then in La Place, about 20 miles from New Orleans, the traffic lights are out. Billboards have twisted in on themselves and sag from their frames. Half the golden arch at a McDonalds has been blown out, and Popeyes fried chicken has become Pope. The plastic numbers advertising the price of gas are gone, which is just as well these days, and theres no gas here anyway. Traffic more or less stops. The trees on both sides of the highway are bent and fallen, all pointing straight east as if in accusation. We pass oil refineries, cattail swamps and trailer parks, white cranes wading in the muck. An old man sits in a plastic chair in front of his trailer, watching the cars inch by. A few yards down, one of his neighbors trailers has been bisected by a fallen pine. We crawl forward and stop, crawl and stop again. In two hours we cover barely four miles. The DJ on the car radio snarls to a caller, Mike, you think we have a problem with FEMA? What makes you think we have a problem with FEMA? It occurs to me that the moment before the end of the world will probably feel a lot like this sitting with elbows on the steering wheel and foot on the brake, staring at my reflection in the paint of the car in front of me.In New Orleans, everything flimsy has been destroyed. Giant billboards have fallen; their rusted metal frames are bent like clay. Telephone poles lie snapped in half. Power lines hang everywhere and lie coiled in the streets. The canopies over nearly every gas station have been flattened on the ground. The mirrored windows of high-rises are half-gone, and inside you can see that the drywall and ceiling tiles have been blown away as well. A man lies bare-chested on a lawn chair in a BP parking lot, his possessions scattered around him. Helicopters buzz through the air, banking low. Save the occasional police car, the streets are entirely empty. Here and there we pass a man on a bicycle or on foot and pushing a shopping cart. Outside the airport, a man pushes a wheelchair stacked high with plastic bags of clothes, a portable radio perched atop the bags.We drive up on an elevated causeway, turn a bend, and come across a parked bus and about 20 Latino men lining up on the pavement for a photo. They smile and wave. Then the causeway is flooded, so we back up and turn onto a street called Metairie. We drive through a neighborhood of large, brick-walled houses, boutiques and day spas. Though the buildings are largely undamaged, after a few minutes the road is blocked by water and fallen trees. Two abandoned canoes drift in the road.We turn back and come across a man walking purposefully along the side of the road. We ask him if he knows if there are any open roads that will take us downtown. Thats where Im going myself, he says, so we tell him to hop in the back.His name is Thomas, he says. He has a handlebar mustache and a honey-smooth voice, and after telling us his name, he adds, I am a prophet. Hell turn 50 tomorrow, he says, and hes been wandering the city all week, blessing the land. We pass a middle-aged couple sitting on a stoop, the first white people Ive seen in New Orleans. The SUV in their driveway is clean, so I assume theyre just returning. A few houses down, a message has been spray-painted on the plywood nailed over a big bay window: Warning: armed homeowner, will shoot.Thomas is unimpressed by the destruction here in Metairie. (Just branches on the ground, thats all.) He had to swim out of his neighborhood, he says. The water is still up to the roofs. Oh, man, you oughtta see my neighborhood, God bless! We lost everything. Everything. When I say everything, I mean everything.The sun is low and the sky is yellow. We pass trees lying on otherwise tidy lawns. Their roots are exposed, white and somehow almost obscene. Crickets whine in the standing water. Thomas family is safe, he says. His mother left before the storm, but he decided to stay. The Lord had moved my heart he wanted me to endure the test of the storm, so here I am, still enduring.Every road we try is blocked by trees or standing water. At last we find a wide, clear crosstown boulevard and make a right. The going is smooth for a mile, maybe two, and then the road abruptly ends. Two speedboats rest at odd angles on the pavement, and eight smaller boats have been tossed ashore beside them. The road becomes a lake, and in the dim light I cant see the other side, just a rowboat a few hundred feet out, and a man rowing standing up. The houses to the side of the road are almost entirely submerged. Boats float in their back yards.The final word on looting: I ask Thomas if the people hes seen have been treating each other well, or taking advantage of the situation to do each other wrong. Thomas takes a long pause to consider his response. Its hard to deal with, he finally says, when you have everything under the water.
Houston, September 3 Refugee Robert recounts the horror of babies floating, babies drowning, people drowning.
For blocks and blocks around the Astrodome, the refugees spill onto the sidewalks. They push shopping carts loaded with children, with bags of diapers and groceries, and all their earthly possessions crammed into a few white plastic trash bags. Four men and a boy clasp hands and pray in the parking lot outside Ross Dress for Less. A woman sits on the curb and cries. In the Fiesta market, a giant warehouse of a supermarket with a produce section the size of a Rite Aid, they buy toothpaste, deodorant and lottery tickets. Outside the market the stockboys and cashiers clown and flirt with all the new girls from New Orleans. The liquor store next door is charging a quarter for a plastic cup filled with ice.
The dome itself is incredible, its giant football field of a floor bathed in bizarre, shadowless artificial light and covered with row after row of narrow green cots separated from each other by just a few inches and draped with reddish gray wool blankets. The giant display screens are black, but messages scroll across the scoreboards, Please be patient with us the sleeping arrangements, we know theyre not ideal If you are missing any children, please go to section A Theres a medical clinic and a line for free diapers, toiletries, and clothes in one end zone. In the other theres a lost persons station thousands of messages written on post-its, index cards, torn cardboard, Christian Young, please call mother Looking for Ada Holmes found children: Jeremiah, Jarvis B., Marquette, David James, Jamira, Kevanda, Keenan.
People are milling everywhere. Some hold the names of missing loved ones above their heads. Some sit on their cots, talking or staring at their laps. A few lie down and try to sleep or to read, but most are wandering about the floor and the hallways. Kids wrestle donated toys from their plastic wrappers. The infirm and the aged roll by in wheelchairs. Hallways lead to a Social Security Administration office behind glass walls, 10 tables of free red telephones, even an improvised barber shop: a young man with an electric razor, stationed between a wall outlet and a plastic chair. Here and there someone sleeps in the folding plastic-upholstered seats wrapped head to toe in blankets like a ghost or stretches out on the stained concrete floor between the aisles, but most of the thousands of seats are empty.
Do I need to mention that, save the Red Cross volunteers and the cops, almost everyone here is African American? Of the 20,000 people taking refuge in the stadium, Id be surprised if more than 100 are white. Its a point not lost on anyone here. A barefoot man named Robert (hed rather not give me his last name, and grows visibly nervous when a white stadium employee begins sweeping the floor within earshot a few feet away) invites me to take a seat beside him on a cot pushed against the wallhis home for the last three days. Hes wearing cut-offs and clutching a bottle of Pepto Bismol in one hand. Robert lived in New Orleans for all of his 55 years, and was in the Saint Bernard projects when Katrina washed it all away. After the storm, he tells me straight off, they blew the levies up so they could flood New Orleans.
Whos they? I ask him.
The money people. The big money.
Why? I ask.
He shakes his head at my naivete. They had to get the poor people out so they could get the space. He gestures to the thousands of people in the dome around us. Now they got their space.
We survived the storm, Robert says, We survived the wind and the rain. After the storm passed, the water started rising, and all you heard was Boom! The explosions, he says, were the levees blowing. Ask any of these people. The hurricane wasnt that bad, but the opportunity came up.
Robert borrows a Houston Chronicle from a man on another cot, and opens it to an aerial shot of the ruined city. He points to the very bottom of the image. Theres the French Quarter, the Garden District. See all of that? All of thats dry. Thats where the money is. See all the rest of it? Its flooded.
He draws the theory out in greater detail. It was a real estate grab: gentrification with a genocidal edge. And I cant argue with him. Looking out at the sea of black faces around the room, Roberts version of the storm makes a lot more sense than any of the official excuses for government inaction.
I ask him what he saw after the city flooded. Robert is quiet for a long time, shaking his head and staring sadly at my eyes. Babies floating in the water, he answers at last. Dead people, babies floating, babies drowning, people drowning. They talk about the looting if people didnt loot, they didnt eat.
He spent two days, Robert says, waiting out the high water on an elevated bridge without food or water. And when the National Guard helicopters finally arrived, they got out holding their M-16s on you, he says, and left almost immediately.
He was bussed to Houston with his wife, daughter and one grandchild, but doesnt know where his three other daughters are, or their three children. Hes heard it may be six months before people can return to New Orleans, and though theres enough food and donated medical supplies here to keep everyone alive, he doesnt know how long Houstons hospitality will last. This is gonna wear thin on their nerves, he says. Theres a lot of people here.
Back in my hotel a few blocks away, the array of fliers stacked on the coffee table in the lobby suggest a certain degree of ambivalence towards Houstons new guests. Most of the fliers offer hot meals and prayer services. A few advertise cheap apartments, and a few are pre-hurricane tourist brochures. Dear Friends, one of them begins. Please stop stealing, raping and robbing you will go to prison for a very long time and you will do just about all of your time IN JESUS NAME WE LOVE YOU!!!!!!
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