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?”
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
Willie goes on to explain that most of neighborhoods are going to be condemned, and that people will be asked to sell their properties: “They’re getting all of y’all out of state, sending you to different part of the country. And they’re hoping you don’t hold on to what you’ve got. They’re hoping you take the money and move. And then they’ll bring in the developers, and they’ll make new neighborhoods, with a new tax base.”
I am about to interrupt here, but white guilt slaps a hand over my mouth. What am I going to say – that white people aren’t dastardly enough to blow a levee on purpose? This is the wrong audience for that joke. As for the rest of it, it rings unpleasantly true. Deep in my white heart I can appreciate the brutal logic of shipping 300,000 blacks out of town and hoping they stay away at a barbecue somewhere while you auction off their houses. I am definitely not going to argue with that part of it.
“But what is your advice for poor black people?” asks Carter.
“Hold on to your properties,” he says. “Don’t let them take what you’ve got. And you can listen to me. I’m not in it for the money. I’m in it for the blessings of God.”
A few hours later, Willie and I sit in the office of the Noah’s Ark Baptist Church, which is surrounded on all sides by water. It is a small church, with just a few pews and a little table full of pamphlets along one wall providing information about STDs and low-interest home loans.
Back in the office it is about a thousand degrees, and we are eating MREs – I am the only one hungry enough to try the tortellini – by the light of Sterno lamps and flashlights. Willie, who first checks to make sure everything is there (“I’ve had eighty-six break-ins”), talks about the neighborhood. He’s never heard of “gentrification,” but this is what he is describing to us: parts of his community going to hell, vacant lots bought up by developers, the community slowly vanishing. It is his idea that the flood from Katrina will give him an opportunity to raise money to buy up the ruined lots himself – a process he’s already started with a few adjoining partitions behind his church.
His thoughts are grand in scale, and at times he is unable to separate the hurricane and the bureaucratic response to it from the other forces that have helped bring ruin to his neighborhood over the years – drug dealers, venereal disease, bankruptcy, municipal corruption. Katrina offers him a final showdown with all of these forces.
“An empty cart makes a lot of noise,” he says. “I don’t have anyone paying me to be quiet. I’m going to save this neighborhood.”
Eventually we all fall asleep; I sack out on the floor, amid mice and various other creatures. We are all tired, and despite the heat and the mean conditions, we are all deep asleep not long after midnight.
Sometime in the middle of the night, Willie wakes us up.
“They’re here,” he shouts.
“What?” I say. “Who’s here?”
“They’re kicking the doors in,” he says.
I get up. Willie is standing at the back door, his gun drawn. He is silhouetted by the light from a helicopter spotlight, which for some reason is trained on the swamp behind the church.
“They’re coming. I knew it,” he says.
“I don’t think so, man,” I say. “I think he’s just hovering.”
“If he comes,” Willie says, “I’m shooting.”
“I don’t think he’s coming,” I repeat.
Finally the helicopter flies away. Willie puts the gun down and goes back to sleep.
The next day, he goes back out on the water.
America is a country that has been skating for ages on its unparalleled ability to look marvelous on the outside. We’ve long had things arranged in such a way that our public exterior is always shimmering and clean – our airports, our food courts, our anchormen, our chain restaurants, our fleets of bombers and our warehouses full of nick-free products in polymer-coated packaging. For most of the uglier things that are under the surface – the bitterness, the rancor, the greed, the selfishness, the loneliness, the isolation we feel from each other, our inability to communicate and empathize – we’ve found ways to keep these things out of sight. They can be heard, maybe, and read all over the Internet and elsewhere, but not seen – and in any case they have always been subordinate to our legend of supreme competence and efficiency. We may be many things, we Americans, but we always get the job done.
But what happens when we stop getting the job done? What are we left with then?
September 11th, the first great paradigm-shifting event of our century, was a disaster that the American psyche was prepared for. As horrible as it was, it spoke directly to our most deliciously satisfying persecution fantasies: It was Independence Day, Deep Impact, War of the Worlds. Stinky Klingons attack Manhattan; America straps it on and kicks ass. We knew the playbook for that one.
But no one was ready for Katrina. He was ridiculed for saying it, but George Bush was absolutely right – painfully if unintentionally honest – when he said that “I don’t think anyone anticipated” this disaster. New Orleans falls into the sea; whose ass do we kick now? When that isn’t an option, we’re just left staring at each other. And that’s what really hurts.
This is from the October 6th, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone.
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