from the September 26, 2005 issue of The Nation
The empty streets of this city present a vista of apocalyptic
desolation: wind-ripped roofs, downed trees, smashed fast-food signs,
dangling power lines, columns of dark smoke and everywhere heaps of
garbage. On a lawn near the Ninth Ward three light brown mules,
wandering the city alone, graze peacefully. In the sky above,
helicopters drum the air. From the pale, empty stretches of elevated
Interstate 10 one can look down on wide expanses of the city where homes
are submerged in the flat, brackish floodwater. Strangely, the wind now
is gritty and dry.
At first the city appears like a giant conceptual art installation, or
the set of some archetypal cold-war disaster movie. But then comes
evidence of what this really means: dazed refugees wade through the
filthy water or push shopping carts down ravaged streets or wait
silently in lines for evacuation. And every now and then there is the
stench of abandoned corpses. Officials have no idea how many people are
lost, trapped in the attics soon to be dead, or drowned and hidden in
Few can fathom the near-total lack of planning and coordination among
local, state and federal authorities. "I been hearing about this is
gonna happen for my whole life--how could they not have a plan?" says a
man named Reginald Bell as he drops off extra candles to a neighbor.
On a side street in Algiers, on the flood-spared west bank, the corpse
of a young black man in blue pants and white shirt lies rotting in the
sun about ten feet from a chained-up health clinic. Swollen, greasy and
oozing maggots, the dead man has become a symbol of official neglect.
There are scores of uncollected corpses like this all over New Orleans.
"See, they just leave him here," says Malik Rahim, a community organizer
who is spearheading a grassroots relief effort called the Green Cross.
"He's been here almost five days, man." A colleague and I look down at
the corpse dumbly. A police car rolls by. Another one stops, but the two
white cops in it are dismissive. "We don't have the resources," says
"Their message to black people here is, Get out or die. You on your
own," says Rahim, as the cops pull away.
The next day at the infamous convention center, where stunned refugees
are being searched and then loaded onto outbound helicopters, a dozen
ambulances sit waiting for orders. No rescues yet today, I am told. As
for corpses, no one knows what the plan is.
Archie Haley, an emergency medical technician from Oak Grove, near the
Arkansas border, squats as I scarf down a military MRE food ration; he
explains that the major problem is "the large population of welfare-ized
blacks who can't help themselves." My interlocutor is white like me, so
he feels comfortable. "See, these people are the city's disease." His is
an attitude that is far too common among officials here. Racism and
incompetence seemed to merge to create a sluggish response. Despite all
the troops, SWAT teams and out-of-town cops that have arrived since
September 5, there's still little sign of a plan: On the ground, chaos
reigns. Civilian volunteers are still doing many of the rescues; no one
knows where to get water or MREs; the radio reports nothing of use.
By the Wednesday after Katrina hit, people here began to grow desperate
as their stockpiles of supplies ran out. Survival looting, facilitated
by the police, gave way to opportunistic rampaging and panic. "We grew
more and more frightened each day because there was never any word from
the government about emergency foods and water distribution, and we
listened to the radio pretty regularly," says Mike Howell, a former
academic, local peace activist and Nation reader I happened upon in a
dark but open bar in the Bywater district. There is no power or water in
this joint but somehow there is cold beer and free BBQ.
"All they kept saying was, Go to the Superdome, but we knew conditions
over there were horrible, and we heard they weren't letting people back
out who wanted to leave," says Howell.
Several SRO hotels, he says, have organized themselves into "communes"
and do their survival looting in an organized and collectivist fashion.
Everywhere one hears stories of mutual aid.
One of the most striking things about being in New Orleans is the number
of people who outright refuse to leave. Howell calls them "the
diehards." The mayor has ordered a mandatory evacuation, but the
diehards, as well as thousands who live in dry, relatively
unscathed areas, are poised to defy the order.
Out east on elevated I-10, above the dark, oily floodwaters of Elysian
Fields, a man and his son are camped in a looted mail van. Two empty
bottles of champagne sit on the dash; Black Power is spray-painted on
the side. "We're bringing food and water back down in to the dogs. I got
two of 'em still in the house." He points off east to roof-deep water.
At the far eastern edge of New Orleans, where the floodwater
consumed I-10, a crew of rescuers from the state Department of Wildlife
and Fisheries--biologists with boats--are getting ready to launch.
They've been out here for days, bringing in water and bringing out the
wounded, but as Clint Jeske explains, "A lot of people are in there just
wading around, getting supplies and wading back in. They're living in
half-flooded homes and they don't want to come out."
Nearby, in a sodden trailer park in the Chef Menteur Highway area, Paul
Breaux sums it up thus: "I did two tours in Nam, went through the LA
quake. I was a federal cop. I can deal with this. All I need is some
resupply, some MREs and water." Breaux and three of his friends are
camping outside their trailers; the water here had been four feet high
but flowed out after a day. Why people should leave dry areas of the
city is not at all clear. When pressed, some local officials say they
might reconsider the order, which smacks of the incoherence and
high-handedness that have characterized the whole evacuation. Refugees
are loaded onto buses and just shipped away, not told where they're
going or for how long. It's this sort of bad treatment that hardens
people's resolve to stay.
By a levee on the west bank, school buses wait to load up. "I don't want
to go far away, but I was in a boat with my disabled neighbor for five
days eating nothing but potato chips and two gallons of water and some
Gatorade," says a tall, skinny man named Lee from the totally submerged
and oil-fouled St. Bernard Parish. "They just told us, Out," says
another man, from the Algiers neighborhood, which has running water but
no lights. The mayor has threatened to force people out and deny them
food and water if they insist on staying.
Traditions of racism, exploitation and exclusion are visible in every
aspect of this crisis. One also feels the repressive reflexes of the war
on drugs and war on terror. Rather than work on rescue and cleanup with
the mutual-aid networks, like the distribution efforts of Malik Rahim
and his neighbor, the increasingly militarized local, state and federal
agencies have defaulted to their worst bureaucratic instincts toward the
dispossessed: silence, exclude, control and intimidate. Never mind why
or toward what end.
© 2005 The Nation