First person account from NOLA…

This was forwarded to a mailing list I subscribe too. Just read it.

Everyone,

I just returned from my first trip to Louisiana this
weekend since Katrina. I spent the entire trip back
trying to decide if I wanted to tell you all about
what is happening down there, because honestly if I
had the choice, I would choose not to know. But in
the end, I figured e-mail you all was better than
talking to each of you on the phone and over e-mail.

It is beyond what you can imagine… it’s hell on
earth. I flew into Baton Rouge, which sits about 80
miles northwest of New Orleans, and the city is
destroyed, but not by the storm. There are over
750,000 refuges from New Orleans in Baton Rouge.
People are camping on the side of the roads, in their
cars if they have them, and all over the LSU campus.
The first thing you notice is how outraged everyone
is. The people of Baton Rouge don’t want us here.
There seems to be no plan for the New Orleaneans once
they are dropped off in Baton Rouge, and everyone is
confused, horrified, or worse. They know this is
potentially a permanent situation, or at least the way
it will be for the next several months, and it is safe
to say they are as scared as the homeless and
exhausted refuges that litter their streets.

My sister and I rented four houses in Houma,
Louisiana, which is about 50 miles south of Baton
Rouge or about 30 miles west of New Orleans. We spent
the weekend moving our family there, then our friends,
and then in the end, people we met that had no other
options. When I left, we had perhaps forty people
with another twenty on the way. It is an amazing
thing to see: your best friends, your family, and
everyone in between huddled on floorboards, makeshift
beds, and sleeping bags. It is truly like a nuclear
bomb hit our city, and we are doing everything we can
just to keep everyone housed, fed, and with water.

Saturday morning, I decided to go into New Orleans.
There were far too many people from our home
unaccounted for, but beyond that, New Orleans is part
of everything that I am; it’s more than a city to
those of us who call it home. It’s part of your
family, and with the stories of looting, flooding, and
complete inability of the government to make the
matter better, it was as if a family member was being
slowly killed. I was told by everyone it was
impossible to get in and I would be arrested for
trying, but I’m sure you call imagine how little that
did to deter me.

There is no way to get into the city. The roads that
are open are being used to bring people out, and no
traffic is headed into the city. I had a rental car,
and I started to drive the 30 miles on backroads that
I guessed wouldn’t be flooded. I made it about half
way before there was no way to get into the city by
car. I loaded up a backpack with as much water as I
could carry, two packs of breakfast bars, three
canisters of bug spray, and an extra pair of shoes.
Then I started walking.

>From there, it was hell on earth.

First, there is the climate. It is almost 90 degrees,
and the humidity plus the still water everywhere has
made the swamp come alive with bugs. Trying to
describe the mosquitos is almost impossible. Do you
know the sound of the wind in the north when a
blizzard is happening? The “whirring” sound? That is
the sound this many bugs make. You have to wear long
sleeve shirts and pants, and you are drenched with
sweat because of the heat.

The first group of people I met were very friendly. I
traded my ipod for a kid’s dirt bike so I could make
better time, and they gave me some extra water. They
did their best to warn me it wasn’t safe to head into
the city, but they didn’t argue when I said there were
people we couldn’t find. They warned me about what
neighborhoods to avoid, and they said beyond
everything else, it was critical to stay away from the
police. They would force you to leave by putting you
on a bus destined for who knows where, and if you
resisted, they’d shoot you. It was the first I saw of
a constant epidemic: the police and the government are
considered absolute enemies by Katrina survivors. At
first, I tried not to judge and simply considered that
shortsighted, but over the next two days, I started to
understand where it came from.

I got into the outskirts of the city by about 2pm…
an upscale neighborhood called “Metaire,” where most
of the money of New Orleans lives. To even get that
far had already involved about half a mile of
swimming. There is no way I can get you to understand
just how destroyed everything is. It’s not just
underwater – it’s more that the swamps have risen over
New Orleans. There are snakes and alligators
everywhere, and the more you see, the more you realize
the city isn’t going to be livable for who knows how
long.

And then there are the bodies. I first started seeing
them as I crossed from Metaire into what is called
“mid city.” Have you ever been to Jazz Fest? The
neighborhood you drive through to get there and the
fairgrounds are called “mid city.” It was the first
place where I saw them. Before this weekend, I had
only seen a few dead bodies in my entire life: traffic
accidents, I once witnessed a shooting, and then
funerals. I don’t know how many dead people I saw
this weekend. Some have been pushed against dry spots
by what I am assuming are rescue workers. Others are
just floating in the water. Then there are all the
houses with red marks on them, meaning there is
someone dead inside. The most horrifying part of all
of it is what happens when a body is floating in the
water for two or three days. It’s barely recognizable
as a person. When you see one, it is riddled with
mosquitos and who knows what else.

The other thing you have to understand is people are
still everywhere. Any idea the media may have given
you about a city wide evacuation is insane. I found
hundreds if not thousands of people in all the
different neighborhoods, and they have no intention of
leaving. First and foremost, they have nowhere to go.
And having come from Baton Rouge, the people that did
get evacuated are simply unloaded from the busses,
told loose plans of food that is coming, and told to
hold tight and someone will come up with a plan. It’s
chaos. Second, they don’t want to leave. They don’t
trust they will ever be let back in, and they
certainly are not going to allow their homes to be
pillaged by the people crafty enough not to get kicked
out. Finally, they just don’t believe the argument
that the city will be unsafe and riddled with disease.
The people still in New Orleans are our uneducated
and angry masses. You know the people of the world
that “don’t beleive” in AIDS, who thinks the
government is out to get them, and don’t understand
why they should ever get jobs when unemployment pays
just fine? Try convincing them typhoid fever is real.
But beyond that, they are armed and angry, they have
already survived five straight days of no food and no
water, and they don’t believe those who haven’t gotten
them food or water are going to find a place for them
to live. I know it sounds ignorant on their part, but
can you imagine it? I was there on Saturday, five
days after the storm, and still no one had been told
where to go for food or water. People are surviving
by breaking into each other’s homes. It’s chaos, and
it’s dangerous, and there doesn’t seem to be a plan to
fix anything any time soon.

My main goal was to go to the homes of family and
friends and make sure everyone was safely out of the
city. I grew up in the 9th Ward – it’s one of the
lowest income areas in the city, and it is also the
sight of the first levi break. For me to get to my
childhood home, I would have needed to dive down
underwater just to get to the roof. I went to the
second house we lived in after that. It’s roof had
been torn off, and there was a body floating not fifty
feet away from the front porch. I wish I could say
the journey to friends’ houses fared better, but I
can’t. Most of the homes were either completely
submerged, sitting in ten to fifteen feet of water, or
just not standing anymore. I found three people I
knew in all, and they set off for Houma that
afternoon.

Then I started to explore the city. Like I said, it
is hell on earth. The people are furious. They feel
as if they have been abandoned. You have to
understand, there is no power anywhere. The rescue
crews are going through New Orleans proper, not all
the neighborhoods where people live. Most of the city
doesn’t even think there is a rescue effort underway
at all. It became clear to me the one thing people
need is communication, and in the absence of
communication, fear takes people over. I never
realized how powerful the raw ability of communicating
is. There is nothing more important to restoring
order than giving the leaders an ability to get
messages to everyone.

I know you have all heard about people firing on
helicopters. I’m certainly not saying it is right,
but after being there, I understand. For five days,
helicopters were flying overhead, but none of them are
even so much as dropping water or food down for
people. They fly by using load speakers saying that
anyone found looting or stealing will be arrested, and
those are the helicopters that are followed by
gunshots, from what I saw. I don’t know who is
controlling the message being given to everyone, but
they need to be replaced. The only government group
anyone has seen are the police with sawed off shotguns
threatening to arrest everyone who is walking around
on the streets. Everyone is scared about their
future, about their friends and family, and about
their city, and fear leads people to do amazing
things. Like I said, I’m not saying firing guns at
the helicopters is the right thing to do by any means,
but after being down there, I understand.

When I left, I thought I was going to see the 3rd
world, but it isn’t the third world. It’s a state of
war. People don’t even know who they are fighting,
but they know they are at war. Twice, I had to bike
at full speed away from gangs that came at me, and
before I left the city, I had my cash, my backpack
with my food and change of clothes, and my camera
stolen from me. It’s like a family member of mine has
been possessed by a confused, frightened, angry force
that can’t be stopped. Every interaction with someone
who is supposed to be helping, like the helicopters
flying overhead or the police barking threats only
makes it worse.

When I left for New Orleans, I thought I wanted to
help the people I couldn’t find. But once there, I
realized I was just trying to feed my selfish vanity
of wanting to see the city in turmoil. If it was
flooded and there was chaos, I wanted to see it and be
a part of it. It was as if I was one of those
idealistic kids who wanted to head off to war to seek
glory. I’ll never forget this weekend my entire life,
and I’ll spend years wishing I could. You just can’t
describe what it is like to see your hometown that you
love, that is a part of everything you are, with dead
bodies floating in the street and the people you
consider “your people” firing guns at strangers and
hating everyone and everything. It was one of the
worst things I have ever felt or seen. It’s a war
being fought against no one.

But not all is ruined. I was thrilled to see the
French Quarter, the Garden District, and the central
business district were all ok. The shipping yards
along Tchapitoulas were also undamaged. It is enough
to make you believe the city can be salvaged.

I got back to Houma Sunday morning, and that is where
the real work began. We’ve been trying to construct
mosquito nets around the houses. Jjust using screen
doors and screen windows isn’t enough, because of how
many people we have living there. Opening the door
for ten seconds every hour can make the house
unlivable. We managed to get a generator going, and
we are using it to boil water, keep food cold, and
charge up non-working cell phones (we can make calls
out of state, but we can’t receive any phone calls
with in-state phone numbers).

So many of you have asked what you can do, and I am
sorry to sound pessimistic, but I just don’t know. I
wish I could say “donate money to the Red Cross,” but
I didn’t see the Red Cross doing anything. The entire
time I was there, I only saw Jesse Jackson and his
buses, a huge congregation of busses from Baltimore
(for some reason) bringing food and water, and private
companies like Dysani, Evian, and K-Mart bringing
supplies. The more you look around, the more you
realize it is the private sector that is the only
group that is doing anything. I genuinely believe
private companies are going to do more for us than our
own government, but I’m ignorant to the entire
picture, I only know what I saw, so I don’t want to
judge anyone.

If you want to help, all I can say is there are
different levels of help. There are 1,000,000 people
that need homes and some semblance of a future. My
sister, mother, aunt, and I are going to do our best
to make a home for people in Houma. We don’t need
money, but we do need bodies. There is just too much
to do.

I’m going back on Thursday, and I hope to figure out
an address for people to ship things to us. Right
now, what we need more than anything else are:

– light sleeping bags (not designed for the cold)

– battery chargeable power tools

– mosquito netting by the square yard

– CELL PHONES with out of Louisiana phone numbers are
CRITICAL

We have enough breakfast bars and bottled water for
now, and there is no power for preparing food as it
is. There are stores to the north that can sell food
once we have the power to make it, so that isn’t
needed, even though you would think it is.

I know this sounds crazy, but if there could be anyway
to make an outdoor movie theatre powered off a
generator, it would do more good than you can imagine.
New Orleaneans are social, and one of the biggest
problems we have is not being able to be with each
other… share the stress and find a way to deal with
it together. It’s being isolated from each other that
is really destroying people’s will.

If you can, please consider opening up your home to
people that need one. But as these people are
strangers, I don’t pretend it is something everyone
will find comfortable. If you can, there is an
amazing site setup to help you register as a host
(http://www.shareyourhome.org/).

Thank you to you all for everything you will do in the
next coming months.

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