Thursday, September 15, 2005

New Orleans: "It's hell on earth"

This is an email I received from a friend of a friend about the real state of affairs in New Orleans. I knew it was bad but this somehow made it much more real for me than what I was seeing on TV. It's long, but it's very descriptive. I hope you will take a little time to read it. Also, this is a little late, but here's a link that will take you to all Katrina-related web sites, from the Red Cross to missing persons sites.


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-mailing 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 refugees 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 back roads 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 2 pm... 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 believe" 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 levy 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 loud 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. Just 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 ( Thank you to you all for everything you will do in the next coming months,


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