We end up inveigled in these activities by a curious route. Earlier in the morning we'd gone into the downtown area to look either for a boat of our own or for passage on a an official rescue mission, the idea being to get to our original destination – 621 South Alexander – and find Dorian Browder's mother. But that section of the city was blocked off by New Orleans police, who were conducting their own rescue operations there. We gave the authorities Browder's address – and that's when we ran into a black pastor named Willie Walker, who running in between police airboats a waiting launch, telling anyone who will listen that there is a school on the other edge of town with hundreds of kids trapped inside. The police were blowing Walker off, but he quickly spotted us – and next thing I knew, he was sitting in the back of our pickup truck, giving us directions.
It is hard not to think that there is something serendipitous in our meeting with this Reverend Walker. The name of his congregation: the Noah's Ark Baptist Church.
At thirty-nine, Walker looks more like a club owner than a preacher. A former football star who once played wide receiver at Northwest Louisiana State, he says "dude" about 500 times a day. He is brimming with grandiose thoughts and profound spiritual ruminations, and Katrina, with her biblical overtones – the high water, the ravaged earth, the judged city prostrate in its collective suffering – is the perfect setting for his passions, He has spent days racing across the city to rescue survivors, spending his nights wherever he finds himself at the end of the day (including, the night before, on a highway overpass) and getting up early again the next morning to start over. "This is my time," he tells us. "All of this is happening for a reason."
We follow his directions and soon find ourselves back at the intersection of St. Charles and Napoleon, where Ryan Asmussen, Tim Thomas and the pack of civilians are running boats into the projects in search of survivors. Willie rounds up a few volunteers and persuades them to organize a mission to the school he knows about; everyone quickly agrees, and a small armada is immediately put together.
We have managed to purloin a boat from a Famous Television Personality who know Penn. His nervous British assistant doesn't want to let us take it, but the deal is sealed by another ex-preacher, a bombastic old white man named James Bundiff, who sends the frightened Brit scurrying away impounding his vessel "in the name of the lieutenant governor of Louisiana."
I lean over to Willie. "Can he do that?" I whisper.
"Heck if I know, dude," he says, and gets in the boat, now officially ours.
Thus the, crew for the boat is settled: Willie, James, Sean, Doug and me. The five of us will end up spending a very long day on the black water. With James, a longtime fisherman, at the helm, and Willie giving directions, we head out onto the water.
Everyone by now has seen the video and knows what much of New Orleans looked like that week. But it's worse than it looks on television. What you miss on TV is the panoramic view, the dead stillness on the edges of the horizon in all directions, the whole sky filthy with helicopters. The vast scale of death and ruin is something that's impossible to grasp until you're in the middle of it. The black water sitting on top of New Orleans itself feels like a living thing, like a sci-fi creature that has swallowed a whole country and throbs faintly with malevolent life. It sends a chill up your spine to be out on top of it; it's as if you can feel it breathing.
We head down Napoleon Avenue to a neighborhood known as the Claiborne Avenue district, which happens to be not far from Willie's church. Not the worst ghetto in the city but a rough place nonetheless, with narrow streets full of warped wood houses stacked on top of one another, common areas filled with trash and cannibalized vehicles, chain link and barbed wire the main decorations. Like many neighborhoods in the city, this is a place where the local Winn-Dixie looks like the palace of Versailles.
The centers of the streets are mostly still; the edges ripple slightly with floating things. In all directions the house and buildings are smashed and every nook and cranny is fouled with garbage, sewage and debris. The first body we see is an older man face-down on the edge of a narrow street lined with crooked houses; we later see a woman bobbling in a parking lot, her skin bursting with huge gas bubbles. Most of the houses still contain the family dogs, who sit on the porches, keeping guard. This adds to the impression that these battered, broken-down neighborhoods have not been destroyed at all but have simply changed form, like an animal with two sets of skin – that these neglected, pissed-on city blocks have really looked like this underneath all along.
The stench is indescribable and everywhere. It will never go away. This city is gone, already dead, certain to be condemned and bulldozed to the ground – only not everyone knows it yet.
It turns out that another group of volunteers has already evacuated the school Willie heard about, and it is empty when we arrive. So we head off in a different direction, toward a series of apartment projects Willie knows about.
In our first hours on the water we come across dozens of people and encounter what I imagine is the full gamut of reasons they have for not coming to share. There is the mechanic staying home to protect his tools from the looters who pass through the neighborhood in boats every night; the pair of Middle Eastern shop owners who appear leery of immigration authorities and choose to sleep in an exposed second-story bedroom over their store without walls or a ceiling; and the young man who's been hired by a landlord to watch over a housing project and is taking his job far too seriously.
There are plenty of young people caring for elderly relatives who won't move, and many of the people we see, according to Willie, are drug dealers who have remained behind to protect their turf.
One very old man not far from Willie's church refuses to budge from his seat just inside his front door, which is one of those reinforced security doors with bars. Young people in the neighborhood pointed him out to us, saying he'd refused all entreaties to go. When we get there, Willie tries to tell him that the water is not subsiding and that he has to leave, for his own safety.
"No," says the old man. "Everything's fine. That's what they say on the news."
"What news?" Willie asks.
The old man gets up and, taking a full minute, walks two long steps over to the dead TV set across the room.
"This news," he says, pointing to the gray screen. "I been watching it."
"Jesus," I whisper.
Just then Penn wades over; he's been across the street, talking with one of the old man's neighbors.
"Is he coming?" Penn asks.
"Dude," Willie says. "He thinks his TV still works." Sean shakes his head. Together with one of the neighbors, a burly, soft-spoken builder named Willie Richardson who is staying in the area to protect his things, it is decided that they should try to remove the old man against his will. There is no one to take care of him, and he is too weak to move more than a few feet. Unless he is taken out of here soon, he has very little chance of getting out alive. So Willie the builder rips off the old man's barred window grate and tries to jump inside.
The old man responds by pulling out a machete and waving it out the window.
"You want to kill me, old man?" the builder shouts. "Come on, then, kill me!"
"I don't want to kill you!" cries the old man, practically in tears.
"Come on, Grandpa," the builder says gently, changing his tone. "Let us in, sir. We've got to get you out of here, do you understand? You've got to help us help you!"
"I ain't leaving!" he cries, still waving his machete out the window. "I ain't leaving!"
He starts crying. It is an awful scene. He won't budge, and in the end we have to leave him behind.
On the way back to the boat from the old man's place I wander up the adjacent block to check on a door; I thought I'd seen an old woman disappear into it a few minutes before. When I get there I find the front gate open but the door bolted. Whoever is here has ducked inside to hide. Only a few hours into the trip, I am already familiar with this routine; Folks just flat-out hide from anyone who comes by. I am standing outside the door calling out an offer to give a ride back to shore when suddenly a powerful wind appears out of nowhere, and the water kicks up all around me.
The street turns into a wild black mist as an Army helicopter, apparently having spotted me from afar, decides to swoop down to investigate. It was hard enough to jump into the filthy sludge up to my waist the first time; now, with the helicopter hovering right overhead, my whole body is being soaked by this diseased water.
"I'm all right!" I call out. "You can go!"
A soldier in helmet and black goggles peers at me curiously, not offering so much as a thumbs-up sign.
"I'm OK, really!" I shout. "I'm press! You can go!"
No answer. He looks behind himself and seems to point me out to someone else in the chopper.
"Listen!" I scream. "Get out of here! Fuck off!"
Just then something lands with a loud splash right in front of me, sending even more water shooting up into my face. I look down and read:
Meal, Ready To Eat Cheese Tortellini in Tomato Sauce
"Oh, for fuck's sake," I think.
I pick up the package and look back up at the helicopter. He whips another package at me; this one misses me by less than a foot. Then he signals to his pilot and the chopper peels out with a whoop and a whoosh, disappearing behind the row of houses.
I stand there in semi-amazement, drenched in black sludge and clutching my two MREs, digesting the situation. I look down the street; the old man has finally pulled his machete out of the open window. I guess he's gone back to watching TV.
In the end, we spend the whole day out on the water – until sundown, anyway – and bring about nine or ten residents back to shore. One of our passengers is a schizophrenic whom Sean jumped in the water to save when the kick from the rotors of a hovering helicopter forced her underwater. Another passenger is a homeless man named Robert whom we found wading up to his chest in the filth-water with a huge smile on his face; he is carrying a giant pork roast wrapped in plastic that someone gave him, and once inside the boat he clutches the roast like it is a newborn baby. I notice he has a big open cut on his knee.
"Hey, Robert," I say. "You better get a shot, man. That knee is going to get infected."
"Heh, heh, it's fine," he says, smiling. "It's nothing. Just got to find somewheres to cook this meat."
"No, seriously," I say. "This water is diseased. It's gonna get in that cut and you're gonna be real sick." He laughs and rolls his eyes. "Heh, heh. No shit," he says. "Bet you're serious at that. Nope, it's fine."
Pastor Willie pipes in. "Hey, listen up," he says. "Man telling you you gonna be sick. Germs are going to get in that knee. All it takes is a little cut. You hear me?"
Robert looks up at Willie and his smile vanishes. "No shit?" he says.
"Yeah," Willie says. "We're taking you to a doctor." Robert frowns and clutches his roast. Willie looks up at me, shakes his head and taps the black skin on the back of his own hand.
So here we are, heading back to shore with our passengers – one an outpatient who barely knows her name, the other a derelict about five minutes off from making love to a pork roast. All of us are soaked to the gills in death-bilge and smelling, with the possible exception of Robert, as badly as we will ever smell in our lives. And what happens? When we reach dry land, the boat is stopped by someone planting a shiny black boot heel on the bow. I look up to see a tall, jowly good-ol'-boy policeman in a gleaming blue uniform. Under the circumstances, with us pulling into an ad-hoc weigh station where everybody coming in and out of boats is filth-covered, a clean uniform is already a bit of an outrage. Then he opens his mouth:
"I'd like to question some of these people, if you don't mind," he says.
I look up at him. "Excuse me?"
"Some of these people you're bringing in – let's just say we know them pretty well," he says. "You know what I mean?"
"You mean these particular people?" I point at our two spaceshot passengers. Robert is rocking back and forth with his roast.
"No, not these particular ones," he says. "The general ones."
"Well, can we let these particular ones go?" I ask.
We argue for a moment; finally he lets our two clearly infirm passengers waddle past.
Minutes later a different squad of police appears. It is a unit of five, dressed in khaki-colored paramilitary uniforms. I don't quite get what they are asking, but it has something to do with needing our boat to help catch car thieves, who are tearing through a hospital parking garage nearby. A humanitarian disaster is still going on less than a mile and a half away – and these guys have the balls to stand around in clean unis and try to drum up posses to stop property crime. New Orleans, I conclude, is one fucked-up city.
Many days later, after I'd followed evacuees back to Houston, I find people from this very neighborhood who tell very similar stories. Ollie Hull, a mother who was evacuated to the Astrodome, says she and her family had to make their own way out of her home on Claiborne and Martin Luther King Boulevard, as the police were too busy chasing thieves to help. "They was looking for looters," she says. "We dying and they looking for looters. We had to save ourselves, our children and babies."
"They were chickenshit motherfuckers," chimes in Pat Downs, an older woman who was one of the few white people in the Astrodome. "They were aiming guns at women and children."
Like many of the controversies borne by Katrina, this is an issue colored significantly by race. "We in the black community felt like the Guardsmen were there to protect the property," says Phyllis Johnson, who spent most of the first week after the storm in the Superdome. "Nobody was helping us. They had empty trucks leaving the city while we were stuck in the Superdome. They were there to keep us from running loose in the streets of New Orleans."
When Johnson tried to escape – fleeing the disaster area on foot, in a stolen bottled-water truck and in a runaway city transit bus that had been commandeered by evacuees – the cops tried to prevent her from leaving. "In the water truck we made it as far as Westwego before we were stopped," she says, "The cops took us out of the truck and threw us facedown in the wet grass with the ants – including the children and the old people. Then they just took the truck and left us to fend for ourselves. Empty car after empty car drove by, and no one offered to help."
She pauses. "All you people who came down here and partied with us, who came to Bourbon Street to hang out with us, who got drunk with us, now you acting like you don't want to know us. Now, all of the sudden, you scared of us."
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