Apocalypse in New Orleans

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Shortly after Melancon's aides finally pry him away from reporters, Republican Sen. David Vitter emerges from the building. Normally Vitter looks like the quiet second dentist of a local family practice, but on this day he looks like the angriest family dentist in the world; in fact, he is wearing the same face as Melancon – that of a man who's just had his car stolen. I ask him if he agrees that the government response has been inadequate.

"In terms of the state bureaucracy and the federal bureaucracy, I would have to say yes, it was highly inadequate," he says. "And I promise you" – here he puts an index finger in my shoulder – "I promise you, there will be hearings about this."

Meanwhile, there are soldiers and cops rushing to and fro, all sighing and shaking their heads. The ones who have just come from New Orleans look wide-eyed and freaked out.

"It's like a war zone up there," says one Guardsman.

"It's like nothing you've ever seen before," says another.

Throughout all this time, Doug and Sean have been rushing around the OEP looking for a way into the city. Brinkley in particular had been talking up every official on the property. The historian is one of the most relentlessly friendly people I've ever seen; it's beginning to freak me out. He is the kind of person who can secure a wedding invitation from a total stranger within four minutes. In any crowd situation he fans out in a fractal pattern, making friends as he goes along. At times you want him to cut it out, but he can't; he's friendly by nature, like a dolphin.

Doug is working on a National Guard official when Sean rushes out of the building and announces that the state police have agreed to give us a ride in. We pry Doug loose from his new friend, pile into a squad car and head for the city, just beating the fall of darkness.

About a half-hour out of the city, a terrible smell starts to waft in through the car's air vents. It is something like a cross between rotting milk and Elizabeth, New Jersey. From now until many decades hence any person who was in New Orleans during these weeks will recognize this horrific odor. "It gets worse as you get closer," our driver says.

For a person raised in civilization, it is a jarring thing to see a great city reduced to a wild state of nature. As we enter New Orleans, buildings and houses are now just natural features, like cliffs and valleys. There is not a person in sight. After a harrowing drive through darkened streets blocked by downed trees and telephone poles, we make it to our destination for the evening – the private home of a Wealthy Local Attorney who is a friend of Brinkley's.

The place is a breathtaking manse in a still-dry section of town, a veritable palace of Southern comfort and grace – with white columns, a manicured yard and a stone wading pool obscured by lush hedges. It is an end-of-the-rainbow kind of home, a place one would fight to the death to defend, and this is exactly what the Wealthy Local Attorney is doing. He is holed up here with his own private army – a team of four seasoned ex-military specialists, Delta Force types who smile and apologetically refuse to answer when asked what branch of the Army they graduated from. Tomorrow the Attorney will welcome six more soldiers, only these will be from Israel.

Doug gets out of the car and shouts his name over the gates, thereby preventing us from being shot at. We'd made no arrangements in advance and instead were just hoping to be invited in once we arrived. After a pause, the gates open for Doug and a pair of soldiers come out to greet us. One points to the gigantic machine gun he is carrying.

"You see this?" he says. "This's called a street sweeper. This is what you need here."

I smile at him in a manly way, as if to say, yes, of course, I left mine at home by accident. He nods back. We are cool.

When Sean and I enter the house, the Attorney is there to greet us. A big, bulky man with a barrel chest and a set of spindly legs poking out of baggy khaki shorts, he shakes our hands with one hand and keeps his other hand on his pistol.

The Attorney's guards have transformed his elegant home into a floating military base. The interior has the feel of one of Saddam Hussein's commandeered palaces, with its portrait-lined corridors and stately sitting rooms now filled with weapons and supplies. An ostentatious vibe of rugged manliness pervades the whole compound; it is the kind of place where you can walk into any room at any hour and find groups of men either cleaning their weapons or munching something out of a can. When I enter my room to unpack, I find the team leader of the security guards – a young Special Forces type who not only calls himself "Johnny Fast" but insists that this is his real name – getting dressed after a bath. Stripped to the waist, muscles rippling and tattoos exposed, he regales me with tales of mysterious missions in the mountains of Afghanistan – places where he'd "done what he had to do" to "take the bad guys out."

"The most frustrating thing," he says, "is that most of the time, you don't get to do the job you've trained for. I'm not saying there's anything intrinsically satisfying about killing people, but... I mean, imagine practicing for a sport you never get to play."

Fast soon gets a chance to snap into action. The house has no running water, and when I go to use the facilities, the toilet backs up. The Attorney is summoned to the scene, and he interrogates me in great detail about how I had flushed. Then, satisfied with my answers, he considers the situation, scratching his chin.

"We've got to get a plunger," he says. Since there is no plunger in the house, it is decided that an armed detail must be dispatched to procure one. A general alarm is sounded and the guards begin filing into the living room and grabbing shotguns off the floor. Sean immediately volunteers to go out on the mission as well and disappears into the living room with the rest of the team.

In general I've been very surprised by Penn. In every way he's been engaging, solicitous and friendly. He seems deeply, almost neurotically concerned with not coming off like a pretentious big-timer, and if he has one trait that stands out above all others, it is that he is always listening to what the other person has to say, which is actually a pretty rare quality. Basically he is a decent guy – normal, rational, easygoing.

That said, he has a thing about guns. In a previous life he was probably a cop or some jungle revolutionary's usefully paranoid bodyguard. Now, in the living room, he's admiring the barrel of an enormous shotgun.

"This thing loaded?" he asks.

"You," affirms one of the guards.

"All right," Penn says. "Let's go."

They rush out the house. Doug, apparently not wanting to miss this, grabs a gun and comes along as well. In the end, six of us squeeze into a Jeep Cherokee – everyone but armed with a shotgun. After a long search we finally stop at the home of a friend of the Attorney. Sean and a guard secure the area while another of the mercenaries goes inside and locates a plunger, a box of Handi-Wipes and a bottle of Clorox. The items are dumped on my lap as we speed back to the house. Here we are in the midst of the worst flood in the country's history, and I am in the middle of an armed convoy, holding a plunger.

"Hey, guys," I say. "I think this might be the funniest thing I've ever been involved with."

"Shut up," says someone in the front seat.

Any country that enjoys fighting and bitching as a recreation as much as America does will always be, in some way or another, walking along a knife's edge. We're a nation that spends its afternoons watching white trash throw chairs at each other on Jerry Springer, its drive time listening to the partisan rantings of this or that hysterical political demagogue, and its late-night hours composing feverish blog entries full of anonymous screeds and denunciations. All of this shit is harmless enough so long as the power comes on every morning, fresh milk makes it to the shelves, there's a dial tone and your front yard isn't underwater. But it becomes a problem when the magic grid goes down and suddenly there's no more machinery between you and whomever you happen to get off on hating.

Sunday, September 4th, the first full day I spend in New Orleans, ends up being one of the most harrowing and unforgettable of my life. In many parts of the city, a full seven days after the storm, chaos still reigns. Rescue operations are mostly being left in the hands of ordinary people. We get our first hint of that early in the morning. On our way into town, we come across a small group of shirtless civilians tinkering with a couple of beat-up motor-boats. They have the look of fishermen getting ready for a long day's work.

There are no firm shorelines to the flood zones. You'll be driving down a street in a dry area and you'll look down a side street and see water glimmering in the distance. In some places the flood is just a three-inch puddle stretching ten blocks; in other places you can launch a Boston Whaler a few yards in from the water's edge. In this case, the men are launching their boats just a few blocks from the intersection at St. Charles and Napoleon, which is completely dry.

The boaters explain that they are ordinary city residents who have spent the last six consecutive days going out, pulling people out of their houses and bringing them to dry land. At first they are civil and friendly, but when we ask where the police and National Guard boats are, they suddenly take on the character of an angry, pitchfork-wielding mob.

"Ain't nobody helping these people except us," says Ryan Asmussen, a young man with a shaved head and a workingman's deep tan. "All these people are dying and nobody's helping us with them. We're out here all day long."

"They fly overhead," adds Tim Thomas, a slightly older man with a mustache. "But they're not out there on the boats. What they do is fly overhead in the helicopters, and when they see someone trapped, they hover. And then we've got to go fish 'em out."

"What about FEMA?" I ask.

The men erupt in snorts and derisive laughs. "If FEMA was here, people like us wouldn't be in a goddemn boat," Asmussen snaps. "They left it to us."

It's a clusterfuck," says Thomas, shaking his head. "A total clusterfuck."

A phenomenon I notice throughout my stay in New Orleans is that a sort of unfriendly competition has broken out between civilians and the military when it comes to how many people they've rescued. People like Asmussen become furious when the radio reports some FEMA crew boasting about rescuing five or even ten people. The civilians measure their rescues in the dozens. Almost everyone you meet rescued sixty people yesterday and seventy the day before that, and the numbers get bigger each time you ask about them.

On the other hand, the military guys are pompously dismissive of any efforts made by civilians. I get the impression, in fact, that the military guys look at flood victims as prizes and seek to keep civilians off their turf so they can have more to them-selves. "It's like they're after trophies, or heads to put on their walls," says one civilian, who was turned away from a particular neighborhood by the Coast Guard.

But there is no question that the civilians have done the bulk of the boat-rescue work in the crucial first week after the storm. A kind of society of volunteer rescuers has formed organically in places like this section of Napoleon Avenue; they are all over the city, and all have similar stories of being forced into action by the sheer incompetence of the authorities.

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