2005: Dead city - accounts of Hurricane Katrina

A summary of New Orleans reports from the ground in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, about community self-organisation

Hurricane Katrina could have killed tens of thousands of people, aided and abetted by the actions of an American government who, in the words of Kanye West, 'don't care about black people'. Below are edited versions of some of the best reporting on Indymedia New Orleans.

Self organisation sans the state

Two paramedics stranded in New Orleans give their account on September 2nd, as the first reports of looting and anarchy start to surface:

"Two days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the Walgreen's store at the corner of Royal and Iberville streets remained locked. The dairy display case was clearly visible through the widows. It was now 48 hours without electricity, running water, plumbing. The milk, yoghurt, and cheeses were beginning to spoil in the 90-degree heat. The owners and managers had locked up the food, water, pampers, and prescriptions and fled the City.

"Outside Walgreen's windows, residents and tourists grew increasingly thirsty and hungry.

"The much-promised federal, state and local aid never materialized and the windows at Walgreen's gave way to the looters. There was an alternative.

"The cops could have broken one small window and distributed the nuts, fruit juices, and bottle water in an organised and systematic manner. But they did not. Instead they spent hours playing cat and mouse, temporarily chasing away the looters.

"We were finally airlifted out of New Orleans two days ago and arrived home yesterday (Saturday). We have yet to see any of the TV coverage or look at a newspaper. We are willing to guess that there were no video images or front-page pictures of European or affluent white tourists looting the Walgreen's in the French Quarter.

"We also suspect the media will have been inundated with "hero" images of the National Guard, the troops and the police struggling to help the "victims" of the Hurricane. What you will not see, but what we witnessed,were the real heroes and sheroes of the hurricane relief effort: the working class of New Orleans.

"The maintenance workers who used a fork lift to carry the sick and disabled. The engineers, who rigged, nurtured and kept the generators running. The electricians who improvised thick extension cords stretching over blocks to share the little electricity we had in order to free cars stuck on rooftop parking lots. Nurses who took over for mechanical ventilators and spent many hours on end manually forcing air into the lungs of unconscious patients to keep them alive.

"Doormen who rescued folks stuck in elevators. Refinery workers who broke into boat yards, "stealing" boats to rescue their neighbors clinging to their roofs in flood waters. Mechanics who helped hot-wire any car that could be found to ferry people out of the City. And the food service workers who scoured the commercial kitchens improvising communal meals for hundreds of those "stranded.

"Most of these workers had lost their homes, and had not heard from members of their families, yet they stayed and provided the only infrastructure for the 20% of New Orleans that was not under water."

Words from the refugee camps

Jordan Flaherty on 2nd September writes:

"I just left New Orleans a couple hours ago. I traveled from the apartment I was staying in by boat to a helicopter to a refugee camp. If anyone wants to examine the attitude of federal and state officials towards the victims of hurricane Katrina, I advise you to visit one of the refugee camps.

"In the refugee camp I just left, on the I-10 freeway near Causeway, thousands of people (at least 90% black and poor) stood and squatted in mud and trash behind metal barricades, under an unforgiving sun, with heavily armed soldiers standing guard over them.

"When a bus would come through, it would stop at a random spot, state police would open a gap in one of the barricades, and people would rush for the bus, with no information given about where the bus was going. Once inside (we were told) evacuees would be told where the bus was taking them - Baton Rouge, Houston, Arkansas, Dallas, or other locations. I was told that if you boarded a bus bound for Arkansas (for example), even people with family and a place to stay in Baton Rouge

would not be allowed to get out of the bus as it passed through Baton Rouge.

"You had no choice but to go to the shelter in Arkansas. If you had people willing to come to New Orleans to pick you up, they could not come within 17 miles of the camp.

"I traveled throughout the camp and spoke to Red Cross workers, Salvation Army workers, National Guard, and state police, and although they were friendly, no one could give me any details on when buses would arrive, how many, where they would go to, or any other information.

"I spoke to the several teams of journalists nearby, and asked if any of them had been able to get any information from any federal or state officials on any of these questions, and all of them, from Australian tv to local Fox affiliates complained of an unorganized, non-communicative, mess.

"One cameraman told me "as someone who's been here in this camp for two days, the only information I can give you is this: get out by nightfall. You don't want to

be here at night."

"There was also no visible attempt by any of those running the camp to set up any sort of transparent and consistent system, for instance a line to get on buses, a way to register contact information or find family members, special needs services for children and infirm, phone services, treatment for possible disease exposure, nor even a single trash can.

"While the rich escaped New Orleans, those with nowhere to go and no way to get there were left behind. Adding salt to the wound, the local and national media have spent the last week demonizing those left behind. As someone that loves New Orleans and the people in it, this is the part of this tragedy that hurts me the most, and it hurts me deeply.

"No sane person should classify someone who takes food from indefinitely closed stores in a desperate, starving city as a "looter," but thats just what the media did over and over again. Sherrifs and politicians talked of having troops protect stores instead of perform rescue operations.

Images of New Orleans' hurricane-ravaged population were transformed into black, out-of-control, criminals. As if taking a stereo from a store that will clearly be insured against loss is a greater crime than the governmental neglect and incompetence that did billions of dollars of damage

and destroyed a city.

"This media focus is a tactic, just as the eighties focus on "welfare queens" and "super-predators" obscured the simultaneous and much larger crimes of the Savings and Loan scams and mass layoffs, the hyper-exploited people of New Orleans are being used as a scapegoat to cover

up much larger crimes.

"City, state and national politicians are the real criminals here. Since at least the mid-1800s, its been widely known the danger faced by flooding to New Orleans. The flood of 1927, which, like this week's events, was more about politics and racism than any kind of natural disaster, illustrated exactly the danger faced.

"Yet government officials have consistently refused to spend the money to protect this poor, overwhelmingly black, city. While FEMA and others warned of the urgent impending danger to New Orleans and put forward proposals for funding to reinforce and protect the city, the Bush administration, in every year since 2001, has cut or refused to fund New Orleans flood control, and ignored scientists warnings of increased hurricanes as a result of global warming.

"And, as the dangers rose with the floodlines, the lack of coordinated response dramatised vividly the callous disregard of our elected leaders."

Don't forget the prisoners

One local wonders, where have all the prisoners gone?:

"I joined members of Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children (FFLIC) these past few days walking through shelters in Louisiana and Texas trying to help families connect up with their children who had been locked up in detention centers and/or loved ones who had been in OPP.

"All adult OPP prisoners who are still in state custody are currently being held at either Angola or Hunts. There is word also that people who were being held at OPP on less than a $1,000 bond either will or could (depending on who you talk to) be released if a family calls and is able to provide some kind of address. Other family members have been told that records are not available yet, but once the computer system is up, they intend on holding hearings in "a couple of weeks" to process releases.

"We have not been able to find out how many of the 6000+ OPP prisoners are accounted for. The New York Times today reports that Sheriff Gusman claims the prisoners have all been moved outside the city. As of this morning, however, it seems the OPP computer system was still down, so it is hard to fathom how the Sheriff could credibly make such a claim.

"We have heard disturbing accounts of the evacuation of OPP. It seems Gretna in Jefferson Parish was evacuated as well, but we have no information on when or how it was evacuated.

"We also know now that at least some of the people who were arrested during the general evacuation are now being held at Gretna (504) 374-7700 in Jefferson Parish. The media reports earlier in the week reported people arrested were being held in the Greyhound station. We don't know whether this is still the case, and haven't been able to get a phone number for families to call.

FFLIC has not confirmed that all youths have been accounted for.

"We do not yet know where people age 16 or under who were arrested during the general evacuation are being held. Families scattered around 9 states are desperately trying to find out where their kids and other family members are being locked up."

Edited from raw Indymedia text, these accounts appeared in Freedom, Anarchist News and Views