Apocalypse in New Orleans

Page 4 of 5

The flip side of that story, of course, is that New Orleans looters, once the lights went out, tried to steal everything that wasn't nailed to the floor. While Phyllis Johnson was moving from the inside of the Superdome to the ramp outside to escape the smell, forty-six-year-old Tim Johnson – one of just a few hundred whites who ended up in the stadium – was searching out safe places to sleep at night. I find Tim just a few dozen yards away from Phyllis at the Astrodome in Houston, sitting with a shell-shocked look on his face in a park outside the facility. He looks like a man who's just emerged from two weeks of electrical torture.

"They were animals," he whispers. His eyes darted back and forth as black residents of the Convention Center passed. "The animals came out. They broke into everything. They took what they want... I saw a guy getting his ass killed…and nobody would do nothing."

Stories I hear from both black and white evacuees who had been in the Superdome and the Convention Center suggest that both places turned into Lord of the Flies-like hellholes for days. I hear tales of gangsters jousting with hot-wired forklifts, New Orleans Saints merchandise stores turned into brothels, ten-year-old boys selling cases of Absolut on the Superdome floor. When I see the Convention Center a week after the storm, it looks like Genghis Khan's army had put up there for a year. Piles of garbage six feet high clutter the outside; the inside is ruined to the very limit of human aggression, with every conceivable form of debris, from bloodstained curtains to putrid sides of beef to urine-soaked Coke machines to feces smeared on the walls.

Even now, days after the Superdome has been evacuated, the authorities seem unable to cope with the scale of the disaster. Earlier that morning, before we went out on the boats, the New Orleans police chief, W.J. Riley, announced that two officers had committed suicide. Moreover, he announced that an unspecified number of police had resigned. We found only one place in the city where there were a lot of cops: police headquarters. Under an awning at the Harrah's casino downtown, the police had formed a makeshift command center. We'd been there in the morning and found about 250 officers standing around, looking a lot happier than the ones we'd seen out in the city. The very moment we'd arrived, news chimed in over the police radios that cops had shot and killed five looters at a bridge somewhere outside town. The news was met with a high cheer ("That's right, motherfuckers!" was one cry), and the whole crowd was buzzed, like a bar after midnight.

While Sean and Doug plunged into the crowd to talk to someone about a boat, I wandered over to the food table and made the mistake of wrapping a few Krispy Kremes in a napkin.

"Hey," shouted a SWAT officer in a plaintive voice. "Don't take them all!"

"Sorry," I said, putting one of the doughnuts back. He frowned and went back to chatting with his crew.

The police in this city were on an island, fighting for their own survival. Saving people was never going to be their business.

At the end of the day, we find ourselves back at the intersection of Napoleon and St. Charles. All of the people that we and the other volunteers have pulled out by boat are now huddled under a store awning – about fifty people total, the work of a half-dozen boats. But the military and the police are not particularly interested in helping or processing anyone rescued by private citizens, so the evacuees sit there under the sun – as buses and ambulances whiz past – waiting for the volunteers to take them to hospitals or shelters.

Not that there isn't plenty of available manpower. By the end of the day, word has gotten around that Sean Penn was out in a rescue boat, and a large contingent of the international press is waiting for us when we get back from our last run. One scene I'll never forget: a still photographer stepping over a sick one-legged black man lying on the ground in order to take a picture of Sean carrying a rifle. There have to be sixty or seventy reporters here, and of those, only a reporter from the New York Daily News and a photographer from the Village Voice so much as offer to give any of the evacuees a ride to the hospital.

By the next morning – a full week after the storm – the authorities have finally taken control of the rescue operations. Sean and Doug decide to leave, but I stay on to spend a few more days with Willie, along with a pair of young New York newspaper reporters that he's picked up along the way. Willie has made arrangements with a friend of his, an air-conditioning salesman from the suburbs named John Ratcliffe, to take a boat out into the Ninth Ward – the worst neighborhood in the city. Ratcliffe has access to a much bigger boat than the one we'd been on the day before, a serious lake-fishing vessel, and he was to meet us early in the day and have Willie take us to the flooded areas.

But now that the state is in charge, they seem determined to stick it to the civilian rescuers. We are on our way to the East district when a Coast Guard roadblock stops John from driving through with his boat trailer. A young Coastie of about twenty, with the face of a constipated bureaucrat, leans into the driver's window of the truck, the whole time keeping his finger on the trigger of his weapon, which is pointed down at the ground.

"No, we don't need your help," he snaps. "We've got things under control."

Willie leans over and explains that he's been out running rescue boats for more than a week. The Coastie frowns and points at John's boat.

"These helicopters would flip that little thing in a second," he says. This, of course, is untrue; I'd seen Coast Guard helicopters flying over much smaller boats the previous day, to no effect. I point that out to the kid, explaining that we'd been under helicopters all day the day before.

"Yeah, those aviation guys are slammed," he says – like the aviation guys, not the people still stuck out there, are the ones having the rough day.

Finally he orders us to turn back, explaining that the rescue is a "coordinated operation" and that no help is necessary. We are told the same thing in the nearby neighborhood of Gentilly, where Coast Guard officers repeat to us that they have the area under control. Fortunately, Willie and John ignore them and simply find another launch point.

When we head into the neighborhood – a middle-class area of one-story single-family homes with little yards set off by chain-link fences – we find many of the same things we'd seen the day before. The authorities have clearly decided not to pick up the bodies: At one intersection, a man who had handcuffed himself to the top of a Stop sign, apparently with the aim of not sinking below the water, hangs upside down, his eyes popping out of his head like baseballs. And once again there are plenty of residents who don't want to leave their homes – only in this case, the reasons are different.

"I'd rather be a refugee here than sit with my thumb in my ass in Houston or wherever," says Steve Smith, a fifty-four-year-old white man who is sitting in an abandoned bar, drinking homemade whiskey. Like most of the people we come across, Steve has heard horror stories of people being evacuated to distant cities against their will, or of families being separated, or of the government otherwise fucking things up.

This particular neighborhood of Gentilly has been fairly heavily patrolled by Coast Guard boats for four or five days now – compared to the black neighborhood we'd been in yesterday, where the military had yet to appear in force. Here, the modus operandi is as follows: The Coasties come out in little launches and offer to take people out. If the residents say yes, they are airlifted to the airport, where they join the cattle-car evacuee circus. In theory, evacuees can go wherever they want, but in practice…no one wants to take that chance.

John and Willie manage to persuade four people to leave Gentilly, promising to personally drive them to meet relatives in other parts of the state. "If you're going to go out and rescue people here, you have to have someone local to talk to them," John says, "It's just common sense." As we return to shore, sailors on the Coast Guard boats, all empty of passengers, glare angrily at us.

A lot of John and Willie's success has to do with attitude. Everywhere you go in New Orleans, the military imports strike the same pose. There is an unmistakable air of You Fucked Up Badly Enough to Require Our Presence, So Now You're Going to Shut the Fuck Up and Let Us Do Our Job. At one point, Willie and I try to drive out of the city; we are stopped by a young National Guardsman. The Guardsman has been told to reroute everyone whose home address on their driver's license includes a certain ZIP code. As it happens, Willie's license features that ZIP code, although he no longer lives there.

"You have to take the Jefferson Highway to 1--10 West, sir," the kid says.

"But I'm trying to leave – " Willie begins.

"Turn around, sir!" the kid barks.

Willie starts turning around, but traffic is backed up behind us. A few minutes later, Angry Guardsman returns. "Sir! You're leaving and not coming back?"

"Yes," Willie says.

"Then get the fuck out," the kid says, waving his arm frantically.

Willie hesitates.

"Take your crew and get the fuck out of here!" he repeats.

We drive off.

Nearly 100 years ago, after the great Mississippi flood of 1927, white business leaders in New Orleans pressured the state to blow a levee, flooding mostly black areas in the Delta and forcing the rural poor into the cities. Thus part of what gave birth to the vast ghettos of black poor that Katrina wiped out was a man-made disaster in the distant past. Can something like this be remembered in the genes?

That night, no longer basking in the largess of Academy Award winner Sean Penn, I find myself homeless. Willie invites me to spend the night in his church. I am initially not enthused about the plan. I'd seen his church while out on the boats on Sunday. It is across the street from a gigantic cemetery where we'd seen numerous fresh graves – not exactly the kind of place you want to be wading around in waist-deep water, particularly at night. The longer you stay in New Orleans, the scarier that water seems. You start to imagine gangrene, tetanus, a life without legs, family members wheeling you around on your birthday. But Willie seems weirdly insistent about getting us out to his neighborhood that night, to I agree.

By the time we get there, night has fallen. The good pastor is strapped, carrying a Rueger automatic. As we head deeper into the neighborhood, he actually draws his gun and carries it at his side as he walks.

Willie had been strangely quiet the entire time he'd been with us out in the boats for the past two days. Not that he wasn't sociable – he just didn't say much about the storm or talk much about anything serious. But now that he is back in his own territory, he has some things to say.

Not far from his church we come upon a house full of elderly people who are sitting out on their porch. Their house is in only about three feet of water, but no police or Guardsmen have come by to talk to them yet. Upon seeing Willie, Warren Champ and Jeannette Carter ask what the latest news is.

"Well, these reporters are here to see what y'all think about the storm," he says.

"You tell us, preacher," says Jeannette.

"You're always reading the Bible and what-not, doing all that reading."

"Well, you know this is all about bankruptcy," he says. "That levee? They letting it fail."

"Why would they do that?" Jeannette asks.

"All those years when they were stealing…all those failed schools, all those debts on the city rolls… it's all going to be washed away now. They're getting a clean slate, a brand-new slate."

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