I have just read a moving and heart breaking story about one Katrina survivor on Tim's blog. I urge you to read it.
There are so many stories here and they generally vary only in the degree that your heart breaks for the main protagonist. I spoke to a NOLA cop the other week who told me some of his experience in Katrina. He joined the force two weeks before the storm!!
There was no evacuating for him. As he said, as a cop his job is to go towards the danger not away. He said before the storm hit he cleaned his house from top to bottom. Yes that's right cleaned it. He filled his tub with water, left a big bowl of dog food for his dog and, rather crazily, drove through the storm to work in Uptown. He said they kept seeing great big pieces of metal slicing up the streets and they wondered where they were coming from until someone reported seeing the copper on one of the church steeples was being peeled off and hurled by the storm.
This man grew up in one of the projects as one of twelve kids with a single Mom. He grew up dirt poor, as so many have, and got himself out of the ghetto and bought a house. That house was flooded with the ugly waters from the lake and his precious dog perished. He had to explain to his elderly Mother why she couldn't go home and find a way of storing her precious possessions. He was lucky, the rest of his family had evacuated.
But his job meant that he witnessed the chaos, the suffering of the people he had grown up with and lived alongside all his life. He said that when FEMA was claiming they knew nothing about people at the convention center they were rescuing people and taking them there - on orders. The police had to commandeer any vehicle they could. He said the ones that worked the best were school buses - apparently they are easy to hot-wire!!
I told him that one of my colleagues had a mini-van with about 250,000 miles on it that was commandeered by the cops. Painted on the side was a huge Saints fluer de lis. My colleague saw his van on the TV footage and was proud that it was doing something to help someone somewhere in this city.
The cop told me that for days they went on like this - commandeering a vehicle and using it until it ran out of gas. It wasn't until the army arrived that there were supplies of gasoline for the vehicles and boats.
He said that the people at the convention center were huddled in the heat by the thousands. I learnt when I first saw the convention center here, that the national TV footage did no justice to the sheer numbers of people on the street out side it. The convention center is huge and goes on and on like a snake along the river. The cop told me he saw people inside the huge halls, outside on the sidewalk, camped out on the neutral ground (NOLA term for grass median) and on the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street.
He said that he had mixed feelings about what happened once the army arrived. Whilst they definitely needed structure and action they also needed sympathy and empathy. He said he saw the army dividing the men from the women and children, splitting up families and then herding them onto buses. He said it left him feeling very unsettled because he saw people being treated like a problem that had to be fixed, treated as if they had no humanity left. He said he never thought he would see scenes in New Orleans, his home, that would remind him of films he's seen of Germany during the 1930s and 40s.
He told me an interesting fact from New Orleans' history. He said that New Orleans traditionally should have very little violence. The tradition was that if two men had a problem to resolve they would fight hand to hand. To use any form of weapon was regarded as cowardice. Guns, he said, should not in New Orleans tradition even be in this city. But they are. He said that it was people from outwith the city that brought guns and their ensuing violence. He said as a New Orleanian it makes him very sad.
It also was a reality the cops had to face once the city was emptied. There were some people who managed to evade the mandatory evacuation of the city and they were generally armed and holed up in small pockets throughout the wreckage of New Orleans. He told me it was a situation he hopes never to experience again.
I think what the emergency personnel did during Katrina was astounding. During 911 the firefighters, and police were heroic, running towards the danger. In Katrina all those personnel were a part of the tragedy - they were already in the danger. They lost their communities, their homes, their pets and some, their loved ones. The cop didn't get back to see his house and confirm his suspicions of the level of devastation until fifteen days after the flood.
He said he didn't blame any of the cops that abandoned their posts. It was too terrible an experience and as he said, some people are just not equipped to handle such a situation. He also, sadly, told me that he doesn't know how long it will take him to recover mentally or even if he ever will.
The irony for him was that he had been discussing with his wife only the week before the storm that he wanted to raise his house at least six feet. He acknowledged that that wouldn't have saved his dog but it was pretty eerie that he somehow knew something of what was coming, even if only subconsciously.