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Baghdad on the Bayou

In the Houston Astrodome last 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 naiveté. “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.

“We have the city under control,” the generals and politicians insisted again and again to the cameras, and they did — in the only way they knew how. It had become Bush’s Baghdad on the Bayou, except that there were no insurgents to speak of. I encountered no gangs on the streets of New Orleans, few groups of more than two or three, and almost no one under 30. Most of the people I came across were alone, and too dazed and sick or traumatized to do any harm at all. By the time the military arrived in force, almost everybody was gone or dead, and there was little left to loot.

 

My Vain Call for Help

Just across the canal from the 9th Ward, I found Anthony Washington, living on a porch. He was there with his wife and two people he’d met since their neighborhood had disappeared beneath the water. They had hung sheets over the porch for shelter from the sun. They had mattresses and plastic chairs, and the National Guardsmen stationed a few yards away gave them food and water. The soldiers had been pressuring them to evacuate, but Washington didn’t want to leave. “I was born and raised here,” he said. “I ain’t got nowhere to go.”

But his wife was a diabetic, and had been in the hospital until just before the storm. I asked him if she had any insulin. She was sleeping on the mattress beside him, and he tried to shake her awake. Only after a half a minute’s prodding did she come to. “No,” she said, her eyes still closed — no insulin.

I told Washington I would talk to the soldiers to see if they could help. Around the corner I found another armored car, this one carrying not only the usual array of police with automatic rifles, pistols, helmets and flak vests, but a well-coifed man in civilian clothes. The police all wore plastic ID tags reading “AMW,” but there were so many governmental acronyms in town, from ICE to the NOPD, that I didn’t think anything of it. A few cameramen were clustered around the car, and I assumed that the well-coifed man must be someone important, a politician maybe, someone with some pull. Just as they were about to drive away, I yelled out to him, “Sir — there’s a woman over there who needs help.”

He motioned to his escorts to stop the car and hear me out. I told him what I knew about Washington’s wife, that she was in bad shape and wouldn’t live long without insulin. He pointed to the SUV behind me. “Talk to those guys over there,” he said, as his armored car sped off. “They’ll get a paramedic in here right away.”

I stopped the SUV, but the driver yelled something about America’s Most Wanted, pointed me to a policeman and drove off too. The policeman, it turned out, was John Walsh’s bodyguard, lagging far behind his boss, and couldn’t help me anyway.

I asked the National Guardsmen, but they didn’t have any insulin either, and didn’t know who might. One of them radioed his base, but no one there could tell him anything. If I could persuade her to leave the city, he told me, they would make sure she got some care.

This would just be a funny anecdote — more post-storm surreality, the day I mistook John Walsh for a proper human being — if it weren’t so terribly symbolic of how the disaster has been handled. There are real and desperate needs in New Orleans, lots of them, but by the time the military arrived in force, being protected from looters was no longer high on most people’s lists, at least not those of anybody out of uniform. The response was made for TV — all action shots, mirrored shades and body armor — but the troops were so overburdened with weaponry that they didn’t have a hand to lend.

 

Refugees and rebuilding

Back at the Astrodome, Robert borrowed a worn copy of the Houston Chroniclefrom a friend on an adjoining cot, and opened it to an aerial shot of the ruined city. He pointed to the very bottom of the image. “There’s the French Quarter, the Garden District. See all of that? All of that’s dry. That’s where the money is. See all the rest of it? It’s flooded.” He was right, of course. The French Quarter was barely touched by the storm. Mardi Gras can do more damage. The Garden District fared a little worse, with houses here and there crushed by trees and walls blown off by wind, but the St. Bernard projects, where Robert had lived, was underwater.

You don’t need to look at a map, though, to guess who will profit from these deaths. Halliburton is already winning cleanup contracts, and its stock has been soaring since the storm. It is hard to imagine, given the current political climate, that any great effort will be made to guarantee that Robert and thousands like him will be able to afford to live in New Orleans again, that anyone will be talking about subsidized housing when the water is pumped out and the ruined houses are razed. Before Katrina, the median annual income in the 9th Ward was $7,500. This is the America revealed by the storm surge, one in which class and racial divisions are stark and often deadly. Cleaning up after Katrina, if it means anything at all, has to mean more than re-stringing power lines and bailing out the muck. It has to mean erasing the inequities and the structures of injustice that allowed the middle class and the rich to survive while killing thousands of poor blacks.

This begins with the refugees. Will they be given an opportunity to rebuild their lives with dignity, or regarded as so much pitiable refuse, to be passed from town to town? Despite Barbara Bush’s rosy judgment of stadium life (“So many of the people in the arena here,” she said, “were underprivileged anyway, so this — this is working very well for them”), it is an unsustainable situation, with zero privacy and less possibility of purpose. As of last week, Robert had heard that it might be six months before people would be able to return to New Orleans, and though there was more than enough food and donated medical supplies in the Astrodome to keep everyone there alive, he didn’t know how long Houston’s hospitality might last. “This is gonna wear thin on their nerves,” he said, staring off at the lines of cots arrayed across the Astrodome floor. “There’s a lot of people here.”

Before the week was out, Robert’s prediction proved correct: The governor of Texas proposed that 7,000 of the refugees be transferred to cruise ships docked at Gulf-state ports.

 

Here lies Vera

I heard the story of Vera independently from two different men who were trying to stick it out at their homes in the Garden District. Both were white, and, at least on the distorted scale imposed by the storm, both were quite well-off. Each told me about the black lady who died over on Magazine Street. The details of their accounts differed slightly, but the essentials were the same. A bus shelter fell on her, one of them said, “crushed her dead.” The other didn’t know what killed her, only that she was dead, and that her body lay in the street for two days before anyone bothered to pick her up. Both agreed that the Samaritans who carted off her remains were turned away at the morgue, so they brought her back to Magazine Street and buried her where she had fallen.

I found her 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 had collapsed into the road. The grave had been carefully lined with five layers of bricks borrowed from the rubble. A sheet of white plastic had been stretched across the bricks, and a cross had been planted at the head. “Here lies Vera,” someone had written on the plastic sheet. “God help her.”

The next morning I happened to pass the grave again. The authorities had been by. The bricks were scattered, the cross and plastic tarp were gone, replaced by a sheet of plywood. The body was gone too. A thick, brownish-red liquid was left pooled in the dirt. On the plank, someone had spray-painted a warning: “Brothaz, Death Contamination.”

May the poor of New Orleans, both the living and the dead, be treated with greater respect.