(Link above; relevant parts of text below.)
The authors, Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky, were attending a paramedics’ conference in New Orleans, staying in the French Quarter, when the hurricane hit. Afterward, they were in the same situation as other survivors in the city: no food, no water, no transportation, and no help from the outside world:
On Day 2, there were approximately 500 of us left in the hotels in the French Quarter. We were a mix of foreign tourists, conference attendees like ourselves, and locals who had checked into hotels for safety and shelter from Katrina. Some of us had cell phone contact with family and friends outside of New Orleans. We were repeatedly told that all sorts of resources including the National Guard and scores of buses were pouring into the city. The buses and the other resources must have been invisible because none of us had seen them.
We decided we had to save ourselves. So we pooled our money and came up with $25,000 to have ten buses come and take us out of the city. Those who did not have the requisite $45.00 for a ticket were subsidized by those who did have extra money. We waited for 48 hours for the buses, spending the last 12 hours standing outside, sharing the limited water, food, and clothes we had. We created a priority boarding area for the sick, elderly, and newborn babies. We waited late into the night for the “imminent” arrival of the buses. The buses never arrived. We later learned that the minute they arrived at the city limits, they were commandeered by the military.
By day 4 our hotels had run out of fuel and water. Sanitation was dangerously abysmal. As the desperation and despair increased, street crime as well as water levels began to rise. The hotels turned us out and locked their doors, telling us that the “officials” told us to report to the convention center to wait for more buses. As we entered the center of the city, we finally encountered the National Guard.
The Guards told us we would not be allowed into the Superdome as the city’s primary shelter had been descended into a humanitarian and health hellhole. The guards further told us that the city’s only other shelter, the Convention Center, was also descending into chaos and squalor and that the police were not allowing anyone else in. Quite naturally, we asked, “If we can’t go to the only two shelters in the city, what was our alternative?” The guards told us that that was our problem, and no they did not have extra water to give to us. This would be the start of our numerous encounters with callous and hostile “law enforcement”.
We walked to the police command center at Harrah’s on Canal Street and were told the same thing, that we were on our own, and no they did not have water to give us. We now numbered several hundred. We held a mass meeting to decide a course of action. We agreed to camp outside the police command post. We would be plainly visible to the media and would constitute a highly visible embarrassment to the city officials. The police told us that we could not stay. Regardless, we began to settle in and set up camp. In short order, the police commander came across the street to address our group. He told us he had a solution: we should walk to the Pontchartrain Expressway and cross the greater New Orleans Bridge where the police had buses lined up to take us out of the city. The crowed cheered and began to move. We called everyone back and explained to the commander that there had been lots of misinformation and wrong information and was he sure that there were buses waiting for us. The commander turned to the crowd and stated emphatically, “I swear to you that the buses are there.”
We organized ourselves and the 200 of us set off for the bridge with great excitement and hope. As we marched pasted the convention center, many locals saw our determined and optimistic group and asked where we were headed. We told them about the great news. Families immediately grabbed their few belongings and quickly our numbers doubled and then doubled again. Babies in strollers now joined us, people using crutches, elderly clasping walkers and others people in wheelchairs. We marched the 2-3 miles to the freeway and up the steep incline to the Bridge. It now began to pour down rain, but it did not dampen our enthusiasm.
If Bradshaw and Slonsky are socialists, of course they were excited, hopeful, determined, and optimistic, with undampened enthusiasm: they were taking part in an honest-to-god self-organizing people’s march in search of peace, freedom, and better treatment for all. Once in a while, situations do arise where the trad socialists are the ones who understand what’s going on.
As we approached the bridge, armed Gretna sheriffs formed a line across the foot of the bridge. Before we were close enough to speak, they began firing their weapons over our heads. This sent the crowd fleeing in various directions. As the crowd scattered and dissipated, a few of us inched forward and managed to engage some of the sheriffs in conversation. We told them of our conversation with the police commander and of the commander’s assurances. The sheriffs informed us there were no buses waiting. The commander had lied to us to get us to move.
We questioned why we couldn’t cross the bridge anyway, especially as there was little traffic on the six-lane highway. They responded that the West Bank was not going to become New Orleans and there would be no Superdomes in their city. These were code words for if you are poor and black, you are not crossing the Mississippi River and you were not getting out of New Orleans.
Don’t give me any knee-jerk reactions. I’m a centrist, not a socialist, and I know perfectly well that that translation is correct. I could drag in a half-dozen translators, of diverse political leanings, and they’d tell you the same thing. Gretna law enforcement panicked at the prospect of letting some half-starved shell-shocked hurricane survivors, grannies and little kids and all, come limping on foot through their area. May they be ashamed of themselves forever.
Our small group retreated back down Highway 90 to seek shelter from the rain under an overpass. We debated our options and in the end decided to build an encampment in the middle of the Ponchartrain Expressway on the center divide, between the O’Keefe and Tchoupitoulas exits. We reasoned we would be visible to everyone; we would have some security, being on an elevated freeway; and we could wait and watch for the arrival of the yet-to-be-seen buses.
All day long, we saw other families, individuals and groups make the same trip up the incline in an attempt to cross the bridge, only to be turned away. Some chased away with gunfire, others simply told no, others to be verbally berated and humiliated. Thousands of New Orleaners were prevented and prohibited from self-evacuating the city on foot. Meanwhile, the only two city shelters sank further into squalor and disrepair. The only way across the bridge was by vehicle. We saw workers stealing trucks, buses, moving vans, semi-trucks and any car that could be hotwired. All were packed with people trying to escape the misery New Orleans had become.
Until I read this story, it had never once occurred to me that law enforcement might be keeping people from leaving the city on foot. That’s mainly how New York City evacuates when we have a disaster. If you’re prudent, you keep a pair of comfortable walking shoes at the office where you work.* It may take you hours to reach home, or a place with working transit, or just an area that’s less affected by the disaster, but you’ll eventually get there.
Walking out lightens the load on services in the city core. It frees up resources that can be better spent evacuating people who are injured, elderly, frail, or disabled, or who commute long distances by rail. It means everything doesn’t have to go into and out of one small central area. In the case of New Orleans, it would move people who need relief out of the worst-flooded areas, which could only make things easier for everyone.
Why should people be prohibited from leaving New Orleans on foot, but the same people be allowed to leave if they’re in cars and trucks? We already knew the people stuck in the city didn’t have cars. That’s why they’re stuck there.
Corroboration: the story of three intrepid Duke University students who cobbled together enough fake ID to pass for journalists, then made two trips ferrying survivors to LSU and Baton Rouge. They got a look at the situation in the Superdome, and the arbitrariness of the situation:
“We found it absolutely incredible that the authorities had no way to get there for four or five days, that they didn’t go in and help these people, and we made it in a two-wheel-drive Hyundai,” said Hans Buder, who made the trip with his roommate Byrd and another student, David Hankla. …
“Anyone who knows that area, if you had a bus, it would take you no more than 20 minutes to drive in with a bus and get these people out,” Buder said. “They sat there for four or five days with no food, no water, babies getting raped in the bathrooms, there were murders, nobody was doing anything for these people. And we just drove right in, really disgraceful. I don’t want to get too fired up with the rhetoric, but some blame needs to be placed somewhere.”
More corroboration: this segment, from (of all places) Sean Hannity & Alan Colmes’ show on Fox News, with Geraldo Rivera and Shepard Smith reporting from the NOLA convention center and the encampment on I-10. Shepard Smith reported that there were thousands of people still stuck on freeways and bridges, with no food or water, ignored there for days. Back in the studio, O’Reilly said that what they needed was a strong leader like Rudy Giuliani. Smith shot back that what they needed “on the first day was food and water and what they needed on the second day was food and water and what they needed on the third day was food and water.”
Geraldo tried to describe the inhuman conditions at the shelter, then broke down and cried as he begged the authorities to let people still stuck in the convention center walk out of town. Shepard Smith confirmed that the authorities had set up checkpoints, and were turning back people who tried to leave. When Sean Hannity said Smith and Rivera needed to get some perspective, Smith yelled “This is the perspective!”
See also the comments on this at Digby and TalkLeft.
FEMA’s contemptible excuse for not letting the Red Cross into New Orleans was that if they alleviated the suffering there, people might be disinclined to leave. As every report from the city attests, the people in New Orleans are desperate to get out. And how does FEMA’s excuse fit in with law enforcement’s refusal to let the citizenry leave the city? Furthermore, what reason can there be for keeping obviously harmless people from walking along public roads in order to get out of a dangerously unlivable situation and into safer areas where the civil authorities could give them assistance and get them into shelters?
We return now to Bradford and Slonsky and the rest of their group, huddled in the middle of the Ponchartrain Expressway between the O’Keefe and Tchoupitoulas exits, where they’re organizing a cooperative:
Our little encampment began to blossom. Someone stole a water delivery truck and brought it up to us. Let’s hear it for looting! A mile or so down the freeway, an army truck lost a couple of pallets of C-rations on a tight turn. We ferried the food back to our camp in shopping carts. Now secure with the two necessities, food and water, cooperation, community, and creativity flowered. We organized a cleanup and hung garbage bags from the rebar poles. We made beds from wood pallets and cardboard. We designated a storm drain as the bathroom and the kids built an elaborate enclosure for privacy out of plastic, broken umbrellas, and other scraps. We even organized a food recycling system where individuals could swap out parts of C-rations (applesauce for babies and candies for kids!).
This was a process we saw repeatedly in the aftermath of Katrina. When individuals had to fight to find food or water, it meant looking out for yourself only. You had to do whatever it took to find water for your kids or food for your parents. When these basic needs were met, people began to look out for each other, working together and constructing a community.
If the relief organizations had saturated the City with food and water in the first 2 or 3 days, the desperation, the frustration and the ugliness would not have set in.
Emphasis mine. They’re right. People in stressful emergency situations tend to cooperate rather than panic. It takes a terminal weenie like Jonah Goldberg to come up with masturbatory post-holocaust fantasies about the imminent breakdown of civilization. (I’ve met his type in the consuite. They tend to own lots of knives, talk big about how dangerous society has become, not know their neighbors, and never have gotten into so much as a streetcorner shoving-match, much less a fight.) What Goldberg is actually demonstrating is that he’s never dealt with real human beings during real civil emergencies.
It takes very little to turn people into part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. You practically have to work at it to get them to do anything else. But if you make them feel like they’ve been abandoned and are on their own, they’ll do whatever they can to ensure that they and their loved ones survive. You’d do the same.
We return once again to Bradshaw and Slonsky in the freeway-median cooperative:
Flush with the necessities, we offered food and water to passing families and individuals. Many decided to stay and join us. Our encampment grew to 80 or 90 people.
From a woman with a battery powered radio we learned that the media was talking about us. Up in full view on the freeway, every relief and news organizations saw us on their way into the city. Officials were being asked what they were going to do about all those families living up on the freeway? The officials responded they were going to take care of us. Some of us got a sinking feeling. “Taking care of us” had an ominous tone to it.
Unfortunately, our sinking feeling (along with the sinking city) was correct. Just as dusk set in, a Gretna Sheriff showed up, jumped out of his patrol vehicle, aimed his gun at our faces, screaming, “Get off the fucking freeway”. A helicopter arrived and used the wind from its blades to blow away our flimsy structures. As we retreated, the sheriff loaded up his truck with our food and water.
Let’s rehearse the situation: There are no available shelters in New Orleans. Poor pedestrians aren’t being allowed to leave the city. Since they’re stuck in the city, the freeway cooperative people are taking care of each other and organizing the provision of food, water, sanitation, and other basic needs. Nobody is using their chunk of freeway. What possible reason can there be for destroying their encampment and scattering its inhabitants?
As a bonus question, what legitimate use could the sheriff have for water and C-rations, other than to put them into the hands of refugees?
Once again, at gunpoint, we were forced off the freeway. All the law enforcement agencies appeared threatened when we congregated or congealed into groups of 20 or more. In every congregation of “victims” they saw “mob” or “riot”. We felt safety in numbers. Our “we must stay together” was impossible because the agencies would force us into small atomized groups.
In the pandemonium of having our camp raided and destroyed, we scattered once again. Reduced to a small group of eight people, in the dark, we sought refuge in an abandoned school bus, under the freeway on Cilo Street. We were hiding from possible criminal elements, but equally and definitely we were hiding from the police and sheriffs with their martial law, curfew, and shoot-to-kill policies.
It would appear that sick, starved, homeless, and weary though they were the refugees were nevertheless so frightening to law enforcement that they had to hide from the very people who should have been helping and protecting them.
Tell me again who’s been firing off all those shots that’ve been reported in New Orleans?
Bradshaw and Slonsky’s adventures weren’t over, but they were eventually airlifted out by an urban search-and-rescue team. Given how much search-and-rescue work remains to be done, one wonders why Bradshaw and Slonsky couldn’t be allowed to walk out of the city under their own power, and let the pros concentrate on rescuing less resourceful survivors.
Official priorities didn’t improve once they were out of the city:
Those who managed to make it out with any possessions (often a few belongings in tattered plastic bags) were subjected to two different dog-sniffing searches.
Most of us had not eaten all day because our C-rations had been confiscated at the airport because the rations set off the metal detectors. Yet no food had been provided for the men, women, children, elderly, and disabled as they sat for hours, waiting to be “medically screened” to make sure we were not carrying any communicable diseases.
This official treatment was in sharp contrast to the warm, heartfelt reception given to us by the ordinary Texans. We saw one airline worker give her shoes to someone who was barefoot. Strangers on the street offered us money and toiletries with words of welcome.
Any lingering suspicions that Bradshaw and Slonsky’s account was an exercise in ideology should dispelled by the brevity and austerity of their conclusion:
Throughout, the official relief effort was callous, inept, and racist. There was more suffering than need be. Lives were lost that did not need to be lost.
Please spread this link.