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Ice Runs

His feet were sticking out from under a bent sheet of corrugated metal. Should I tell you more? He died where he lay, face-down 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 it’s still closed more than two weeks later, although this neighborhood — Algiers, across the Mississippi from the French Quarter — never lost phone service, running water or gas, and the lights came back on this Monday. The corpse had been there for 10 days when I was in Algiers last week. “We called them Tuesday, when we found his body,” said Malik Rahim, who lives down the block. “Police came, looked at him, left. Every day they come look at him, like they trying to see how long it’ll take him to decompose.”

While we were talking, six soldiers pulled up in a Humvee. They were all hard stares, who are yous and why are you heres, but they eased up slightly at the sight of a press pass. I asked them what they could do about the corpse. “It’s been reported up,” one told me. “They’re supposed to come get it.” But he didn’t know who “they” were, only that “we’re not allowed to touch it.” With that, the soldiers drove off.

But this is a happy story, or as hopeful as they got in New Orleans last week. Just don’t let it warm your heart so much that you let your anger cool. Forget, though, about the looting — people were dying, and crying over diapers or even diamonds is nothing but obscene. Forget the chaos in the Superdome — lock yourself in the Staples Center with 20,000 of your neighbors, flood it with feces and see how politely you behave. Forget the snipers — I didn’t hear of one that was confirmed. Forget, for a moment, the government — they’re happy to return the favor. What was left in New Orleans was people looking out for one another.

We stopped outside the Arthur Monday clinic on the way out of town, and from there things got brighter. Rahim, a community organizer and former Black Panther, needed to make an ice run. He is 58, with gray dreadlocks and powerful construction worker’s shoulders. His kitchen was stocked with food and water, but without electricity he needed 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 estimated) were in the same situation. The military was handing out ice, food and water — not within New Orleans, but in Jefferson Parish, three towns down Highway 90 in Bayou Segnette. Left to themselves, anyone without a car was out of luck, or would have been without Rahim. Jefferson Parish, by the by, is 70 percent white, and Orleans Parish almost the same percentage black.

“We got a Navy base in Algiers,” Rahim said, as we drove through the neighborhood. “We got about 15 schools and 40 faith-based institutions, and they ain’t using none of them.” When evacuees had gathered down at the ferry dock, he said, “We tried to put together a cooking cooperative to feed the evacuees. They told us we couldn’t do it because it would start a riot. They let those people stand there hungry.”

The streets were largely empty, but they were dry. Algiers never flooded. Save the power lines coiled on the asphalt and the roof tiles and broken glass in the gutters, the neighborhood looked battered, but fine. Rahim yelled out a greeting every block or two to families sitting on their porches: “How you all set for ice?”

“We could use some,” most responded.

The problem, Rahim went on, began with bad leadership, first of all Mayor Ray Nagin’s. “We had over 1,000 brothers here that was ready to volunteer. When the levee first broke, he would’ve had tens of thousands. But he never asked for volunteers.”

We drove past a school bus, parked at a crooked angle in a glass-strewn lot. People eventually siphoned off its gas, Rahim said, but the bus was never used. “We had two days’ prior notice that [the storm] was going to hit this city and they ain’t evacuated anybody. They never used the school buses or the city buses to get everybody out. He just opened the Superdome. That’s why all those people died. He’s got to live with this. He could’ve commandeered every boat in this city. He ain’t did shit.”

When we had done the rounds of the neighborhood and left Algiers, we drove for about 10 minutes and took our place in a long line at the side of the highway. Door to door, the trip took about two hours, most of it spent idling and inching forward. “This is how we spend most of our gas,” Rahim said, “right here. I do this three times a day. This constitutes my whole damn day, just going to get ice.” Buying gas, if you had the money, meant driving even farther and waiting even longer.

Finally, we reached the head of the line, and volunteers (not locals but Choctaw Indians from Oklahoma) filled the trunk with bags of ice. We drove back to Algiers, and cruised slowly through the neighborhood. Usually Rahim did this part on bicycle to save gas, recruiting three or four others, dividing up the community and pedaling off with bags of ice balanced precariously on the handlebars. Rahim called to everyone he saw. When we passed houses where he knew old people lived alone, or where women lived with children, he asked me to hit the horn. “You need ice?” he yelled.

Almost everyone needed ice. “Some days when I get home,” he laughed, “my old lady is set to kill me, because I didn’t save a bag for us.”

Since I left New Orleans, Rahim and his neighbors have opened a health clinic in a local mosque and a food distribution center at a nearby church. They have received no help from the city, the state, or from FEMA or any of the federal agencies that flooded into New Orleans as the waters receded. But the word is out, and doctors have been coming in to volunteer. The clinic is treating between 40 and 60 people a day, and the church is feeding “at least a couple of hundred.” They’ve collected 60 bicycles for community members who couldn’t afford gas. Their next project is a school. As Rahim put it, “If you wait on the government, you won’t get nothing.”

The city-run clinic has not reopened. The last I heard, no one had come to pick up the remains of the man lying on the asphalt outside the clinic doors, which makes 15 days and counting.

To read Ben Ehrenreich's day by day account of his trip to New Orleans, click here.

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