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Apocalypse in New Orleans

Five days after Hurricane Katrina, a journey into the nightmare

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina
Chris Hondros/Getty Images
October 6, 2005

It's a little before midnight on Friday, September 2nd, and I'm sitting in a hotel bar in Houston. Somewhere to the southeast, the worst natural disaster in American history is unfolding in the darkness, with an entire city shrouded in death, panic and disease – and here we are, a bunch of half-drunk, affluent white people quaffing eleven-dollar foreign beers and planning what appears to be a paramilitary mission to rescue two cats and a maid in the wreckage of New Orleans.

I'm in the lounge of the Four Seasons with Sean Penn and other assorted media creatures, debating the merits of rescuing animals instead of humans in a disaster area. To my left is the eminent historian Douglas Brinkley, a friendly academic whose careful diction reminds me of Bob Woodward's. Brinkley is my contact in Houston. He's friends with Penn, and when he evacuated his home in New Orleans earlier in the week, he left his cats and his maid behind in the flood zone. Now he and Penn are talking about commandeering private jets, helicopters and weapons for a grand mission into hell that begins tomorrow.

I have no idea what the fuck is going on. At this point, five days into the disaster, I'm as clueless as President Bush. To those of us who didn't know any better, Katrina by her early satellite portrait looked like just another one of those watery curlicues that runs up the gulf from time to time, turning gap-toothed hayseeds out of their trailers on live television, titillating Middle America just long enough to inspire the odd few days of canned-food drives or teddy-bear vigils.

But then Katrina snuck up on America, smashing it right in the breadbasket when not a soul anywhere was paying attention. For most of the country it was like going to bed one night with a mild toothache and waking up the next morning to find your balls smashed with a sledgehammer. Instead of leaving a little twisted timber and a few bodies behind, Katrina blew absolutely everything to shit and wiped an entire NFL market off the map. The standard television-entertainment formula for the meteorological catastrophe has been hopelessly disrupted, for in place of the Swift Government Reaction and the inevitable Inspirational Reconstruction and Recovery we have instead goodness knows what – some kind of gruesome existential horror story in which a mighty empire is transformed in a single night into a Hobbesian jungle, with taxpayers turned into wraiths and zombies, and not only no order but no clear idea of who is responsible for restoring it.

At the Four Seasons, Penn listens as a giggly Fox TV producer with big tits explains why she supports a mission, supposedly launched by Siegfried and Roy, to save the abandoned pets of New Orleans.

"I just have a soft spot for cats!" she gushes. "I can't stand to see them suffer – the little cuties!"

As she speaks, she tosses her hair back and brushes a tit against Penn's elbow. He shrugs.

"The way I see it," he says, "when in doubt, go human."

In the morning, Sean, Doug and I fly in a small four-seater plane from Houston to Baton Rouge. The flight is without incident but also our last brush with normalcy.

The instant we land in Baton Rouge it is clear we are at the far edges of an extraordinary, cataclysmic event. The airport gates are clogged with military helicopters of every stripe, refueling and unloading, while the terminals and parking lots are spotted everywhere with stacks of food supplies and bottled water, a sight that will become increasingly familiar. There being no rental cars available, we hire what appears to be the last cab in Baton Rouge, an ancient minivan that lists badly to one side and makes knocking sounds at speeds over 35 m.p.h.

Actor, historian and journalist pile into this ridculous vehicle around noon on Saturday with no real concrete plans beyond a determination to find passage into New Orleans. We do have one definite order of business in Baton Rouge, visiting black family that had just evacuated the city and is staying in a cramped room of a room of a roadside hotel. Penn had seen the Browders on CNN and had called them to ask if he could help. They were hoping that he, being a celebrity, could get into New Orleans somehow and track down a lost relative.

Specifically, one Lillian Browder, the elderly mother of a frantic, gesticulating woman named Dorian Browder. Lillian had stayed behind to protect her home in a waterlogged neighborhood, and now the rest of the family doesn't know where she is.

"We can't get back to her, there's too much chaos," Dorian says, covering her eyes. "The last time I talked to her, the water was up to her waist..."

In her frenzied accounts of clashes with the rescue bureaucracy, Dorian describes an apparatus of police and National Guardsmen that is smug, callous, totally disorganized, given to lapsing into acronym-speak and military mumbo-jombo, and more focused on preserving their dubious situational authority than on using common sense. Even the only grown man in the room with us, who identifies him-self as a New Orleans policeman, has been turned away, badge and all, in his attempt to re-enter the city – the highly suspect reason being that he should not have left his jurisdiction in the first place.

Before this trip is over we'll hear a lot of complaints like this, and I'll see plenty of this kind of bureaucratic insanity myself, but this frantic scene at the hotel is the first place we encounter it.

"They're trying to keep it on the hush-hush," says Dorian. "But people are dying... People are dying all around you down there and they're not doing anything about it."

The family gives us the address of Lillian's home, and when we leave everyone in the room embraces each of us in turn – even me, though I have done nothing but stand mute in the back of the room while Sean and Doug talk to Dorian. When Dorian hugs me there are tears in her eyes; she grasps me so hard I drop my notebook.

"God bless you!" she says. "You have to find her. Please!"

"OK," I say, looking at Sean and Doug in a panic. Anyone who places her life-and death hopes in the hands of a journalist is in a very desperate situation indeed. We all three of us seem to realize this, and we are all affected and even frightened by the raw fear and emotion in the room. There is no more talk about cats. Leaving the hotel, we each independently memorize the address of Lillian Jones – 621 South Alexander. Reaching this place becomes the whole purpose of the trip.

But we still have the problem of getting there, and this is no simple matter. Our first thought is to simply hire the cab to drive all the way to Now Orleans, but signs are posted on the interstate announcing the closure of all routes into the city. We spend the rest of the afternoon, almost until nightfall, searching out state and local agencies that might be charmed into giving us a ride into the city, before finally making it to the right place: the headquarters of the state Office of Emergency Preparedness, or the OEP.

Located across from the headquarters of the Louisiana State Police, the OEP headquarters has been transformed into a sort of chaotic intra-agency zoo, with uniformed personnel from every conceivable governmental agency – from the army to the police to the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, which was handling boat convoys up the Mississippi River – rushing back and forth in a panic to acquire vehicles, weapons and other "assets."

From the moment we arrive it is clear that the now-famous bitter dispute between state and federal rescue agencies has already reached an advanced stage. What is even more evident (and more troubling) is that no one really knows who is in charge – not only of the New Orleans operation but of the OEP building itself. We are standing in the middle of a historic, and historically lethal, bureaucratic fuck-up.

Congressman Charlie Melancon, a Louisiana Democrat, is standing outside the entrance to the OEP building with a red face and gritted teeth, telling anyone who will listen that the federal government had senselessly dicked around for days after Gov. Kathleen Blanco's original request for troops and aid. The federal response was so weak, Melancon says, that when he himself visited Plaquemines Parish (the New Orleans county that covers the mouth of the Mississippi) the day before, he was the first federal presence in the region since the day of the storm.

"The sheriff was not smiling when I got out of the car," he says.

He goes on to tell a story about standing with the sheriff shortly afterward and seeing a white car pull up.

"Two guys stepped out of the car and flipped up a badge, and they're like, 'We're from FEMA," Melancon says. "I don't want to say everyone burst out laughing, but it was close."

Melancon is hot, He is that rarest and most dangerous of states for a politician, when righteous anger overpowers calculation at the very moment a crowd of journalists has gathered.

"Look, this is a disaster," he hisses, "You shouldn't have to ask. They're treating this like a game of Mother May I. You ask for permission, but you can't move unless you say, 'May I?"

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