An American Tragedy: The Aftermath

17 minute read

New Orleans lives by the water and fights it, a sand castle set on a sponge nine feet below sea level, where people made music from heartache, named their drinks for hurricanes and joked that one day you’d be able to tour the city by gondola.

A city built by rumrunners and slave traders and pirates was never going to play by anyone’s rules or plan for the future. So as Katrina, wicked and flirtatious, lingered in the Gulf with her eye on the town, many citizens decided they would stay, stubborn or stoic or too poor to have much choice. As for the ones packing up to go, disaster officials told them to take a look around before they left, because it might never look the same again.

But by the time President Bush touched down in the tormented region on Friday, more than just the topography had changed. Shattered too was a hope that four years after the greatest man-made disaster in our history, we had got smarter about catastrophe, more nimble and visionary in our ability to respond. Is it really possible, after so many commissions and commitments, bureaucracies scrambled and rewired, emergency supplies stockpiled and prepositioned, that when a disaster strikes, the whole newfangled system just seizes up and can’t move?

It may be weeks before the lights come back on and months before New Orleans is mopped out, a year before the refugees resettle in whatever will come to function as home, even without anything precious from the days before the flood. But it may take even longer than that before the nature of this American tragedy is clear: whether the storm of ’05 is remembered mainly as the worst natural disaster in our history or the worst response to a disaster in our history. Or both.

Watching helpless New Orleans suffering day by day left people everywhere stunned and angry and in ever greater pain. These things happened in Haiti, they said, but not here. “Baghdad under water” is how former Louisiana Senator John Breaux described his beloved city, as state officials told him they feared the death toll could reach as high as 10,000, spread across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. No matter what the final tally, the treatment of the living, black and poor and old and sick, was a disgrace. The problem with putting it all into numbers is that they stop speaking clearly once they get too big: an estimated half a million refugees, a million people without power, 30,000 soldiers, up to $100 billion in damage. “This is our tsunami,” said Biloxi, Miss., Mayor A.J. Holloway. The overstatement is forgivable, for at some point suffering becomes immeasurable, reduced to a hopeless search for a place to sleep, or a bottle of water or a body to bury.

Mother Nature behaved as everyone warned one day she would, but human nature never fails to surprise. Stripped of safety and comfort, survivors made their choices: greed, mercy, mischief, gallantry, depravity or a surrender to despair. So nurses hand-pumped the ventilators of dying patients after the generators and then the batteries failed, while outside the hospitals, snipers fired at ambulances, and invading looters with guns demanded that doctors turn over whatever drugs they had. Hijackers shot the tires of fleeing vehicles, slapped the spares on after the owners escaped and drove the cars away themselves. Some police officers battled the looters; others joined them. As the floodwaters rose, EMS technicians told TIME they were left stranded at the downtown Hampton Inn by panicking cops who jumped into their private cars to flee the city. In the wretched Superdome, where several people died before they could get out, a young violinist took out his instrument and played a Bach adagio. “These people have nothing,” he told a Los Angeles Times reporter. “I have a violin. And I should play for them.”

Around the country, people watched the scene in growing horror, as babies and old people and diabetics and those worn out surviving the storm died on live television for all to see. Churches started assembling comfort kits; 500,000 hot meals a day are being prepared by Red Cross disaster volunteers. “I just had a gentleman walk in off the street and write a $10,000 check,” said a Red Cross director in Massachusetts. She’d never seen him before; he had no family down there. He just said it seemed the right thing to do.

The private response was all the more urgent because the public one seemed so inept. Somehow Harry Connick Jr. could get to the New Orleans Convention Center and offer help, but not the National Guard. Bush praised the “good work” on Thursday, then called the results “not acceptable” on Friday. By then, 55 nations had offered to pitch in–including Sri Lanka, whose disaster scars are still fresh. “Get off your asses, and let’s do something,” New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin raged in a radio interview that he ended in tears. But he of all people was in a position to understand the odds. A city known both for its charm and its rot, not just from the termites consuming whole neighborhoods but from a corrupt police force, dissolving tax base, neglected infrastructure, rising poverty and a murder rate that inspired old-timers to pack a gun beneath their tuxes on their way to the Mardi Gras parade, could hardly have been less equipped to cope with a catastrophe that everyone knew was coming. “Half of Louisiana is under water,” former lawmaker Billy Tauzin used to say, “and the other half is under indictment.” Three of the top state emergency officials were recently indicted for mishandling disaster funds.

Louisiana staggered under the blow, but others all along the Gulf Coast were ravaged as Katrina, still spitting tornadoes and spraying wood and shingles and glass, made her way slowly up to Canada to die at last. A sudden twirl coming ashore meant that the Mississippi coast got smacked the hardest. In many towns, what the winds spared the floods claimed, as the gusts flung water into the streets in storm surges as high as 25 ft. “It was like the houses were playing bumper cars around here,” said Biloxi fisherman Alan Layne. There were cemetery coffins tossed around the beach, and disemboweled slot machines, and boats perched up in trees like ridiculous overweight birds. In Gulfport, Miss., the sea-salty air smelled of corpses. At one Catholic church, only the foundation remained–and a sign that read MASS AT 9 A.M. BRING A CHAIR.

John Padgett, a boat captain in Pass Christian, Miss., who runs supplies to the off-coast oil rigs, saw his cottage disappear. But he was able to throw his dogs, a tent, a sleeping bag and a Coleman stove and lantern into his pickup before the storm arrived. He’s living in the woods just north of Gulfport off Highway 49. “Everything I own now is in that truck,” he told TIME, “but the shelters are too overcrowded and uncomfortable. I was born and raised on this coast, so I’m a good little redneck. I got a bow and arrow to kill food, and that’s what I’m going to be eating.” Where will he go from here? “I don’t know,” he said. “But at least in the woods I don’t have to smell the dead bodies.”

But it was in New Orleans where the cameras converged, a city that had braced for the worst, then briefly exhaled when it looked as if the threat had passed. Several hours after the storm moved through on Monday, some streets were essentially dry. Then shortly after midnight, a section almost as long as a football field in a main levee near the 17th Street Canal ruptured, letting Lake Pontchartrain pour in. The city itself turned into a superbowl, roadways crumbled like soup crackers as the levees designed to protect them were now holding the water in. Engineers tried dropping 3,000-lb. sandbags, but the water just swallowed them. As the days passed, the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the levees, admitted they weren’t able to assess what might work. Part of the problem was a lack of heavy helicopters; the choppers were all busy doing search and rescue.

The levee breach left 80% of the city immediately submerged and 100,000 people stranded. Canal Street lived up to its name. As the temperature rose, the whole city was poached in a vile stew of melted landfill, chemicals, corpses, gasoline, snakes, canal rats; many could not escape their flooded homes without help. Among those who could, only a final act of desperation would drive them into the streets, where the caramel waters stank of sewage and glittered with the gaudy swirls of oil spills. A New Orleans TV station reported that a woman waded down to Charity Hospital, floating her husband’s body along on a door.

For the first time ever, a major U.S. city was simply taken offline, closed down. Food and water and power and phones were gone; authority was all but absent. Most of the people left to cope were least equipped: the ones whose Social Security checks were just about due, or those who made for the Greyhound station only to find it already closed, or those confined to bed or who used a wheelchair. “We’re seeing people that we didn’t know exist,” declared Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director Michael Brown in a moment of hideous accidental honesty. Rescue workers could hear people pounding on roofs from the inside, trapped in attics as the waters rose. The lucky ones were able to cut holes with knives and axes to reach the open air. Emergency workers hovered from house to house, plucking out the living, leaving bodies behind. The potential for a disaster in the air was such that pilots told TIME reporter Adam Pitluk, who was embedded with them, to help scan the skies for stray news helicopters and sightseers in Cessnas among the flocks of military craft. “It was like a pickup game,” said Lieut. Commander Bill Howey, a Navy helicopter pilot. “You got three or four different types of Army helicopters, same for the Navy. Then there’s Customs, Coast Guard, Marines, and then there are the news helicopters.” While rescuing a group of blind people trapped for five days, a Marine helicopter pilot told TIME’s Tim Padgett, “It’s like flying into a hornets’ nest.”

When Dr. Greg Henderson, a pathologist turned field medic, arrived at the Convention Center on Friday, he was the only doctor for 10,000 people. “They’re stacking the dead on the second floor,” he told TIME by phone. “People are having seizures in the hallway. People with open running sores, every imaginable disease and disorder, all kinds of psychiatric problems. We have people who haven’t had dialysis in several days. They’ll be going into kidney failure. I just closed the door on a man who ran out of medicine for his kidney transplant. Very soon his body is going to go into rejection.” Henderson went in with New Orleans police, and when people saw him in scrubs, they surged at him from every side. He tried to tend the sickest and the babies first. “The crowds here have gotten a bad rap. There are not many human beings you could cram into a building with 10,000 others, in 105° heat, that wouldn’t get just a little pissed off.” He tried to get them settled and asked them to show him the sickest. “And they lead me. It’s not a subtle thing. It’s generally the ones who are seizing on the floor.”

Helicopters airlifted the sick from around the city to the airport, converted into a field hospital where patients were being pushed around on luggage carts and triaged for evacuation. At Lakefront Airport on the edge of the city, fights broke out for seats on the departing choppers. “The gang bangers,” said Jimmy Dennis, 34, a Lakefront Airport fire fighter who had been up for two nights trying to keep order, “couldn’t understand that we had to get the sick people out first.” Frightened, the small band of fire fighters called in 10 New Orleans police with semiautomatic weapons to settle the crowd.

In the few hospitals left operating, the staff fought to keep people alive until rescue came, only to have days pass with no relief. At Charity Hospital, in the dark but for a lone generator and dying flashlights, nurses who hadn’t bathed in days tried to sterilize themselves with hand sanitizer. Two patients on the parking deck died waiting to be evacuated. Caregivers wept as they begged for help that did not come. “They’d been keeping these patients alive for a week with very little in terms of resources,” says TIME contributor and CNN correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, “and to see them die on the deck–it really was very difficult.”

After Gupta arrived by helicopter on Wednesday, hours passed before it was safe to ferry him past the snipers and across a putrid moat into the hospital building. With a full evacuation still several days away, “people came to me and said, ‘Why haven’t they taken care of us? Why did they forget us?'” The food supply was down to beans and a few raw vegetables; candy vending machines had long since been emptied. “One of the guys here has been trying to call FEMA, and all he gets is a busy signal or voice mail,” Gupta said. The stress was so overwhelming that perhaps half a dozen hospital staff members had to be treated in the psychiatric ward. The basement morgue was flooded, so the growing numbers of bodies were stacked in body bags in the stairwells.

The seething center of the angry Crescent City was the Superdome, refuge of utterly last resort for 25,000 people who had waited out the worst of the storm while the sheet-metal roof peeled like fruit, letting the rains pour in. Soon there was no light, no air, no working toilets. Reports came that four of the weakest died that first night. An elderly man, playing cards and seemingly fine, threw himself over a railing inside the stadium and committed suicide, witnesses told TV reporters. Members of the city’s EMS team made their way there only to find anarchy. “We tried to start triaging and getting the special needs in one section,” a technician recalls, but his team was overwhelmed by the hungry crowd and retreated with armed guards to Army trucks outside. When a 4th Infantry Division helicopter arrived, all but three of the evacuees had to be wheeled onto the Chinook, the elderly panting like animals suffering heatstroke, their mouths sagging and their tongues heavy and swollen. One paraplegic woman looked as if she had been broiled, her motionless legs beet red on the front and ghostly white on her calves. The evacuees were frightened, of both their plight and the booming helicopter that was there to save them. As the chopper pulled away, mothers down below screamed after it for rescue, holding their children high and sobbing.

Opportunity and desperation make a flammable mix. All along the coast, people broke into parked cars to siphon gas. Police reported that a man in Hattiesburg, Miss., shot his sister in the head in a fight over a bag of ice. A rescue team from Texas that had ferried hundreds of people to safety in their flat-bottom boats were told by a New Orleans sheriff that unless they were armed, they should get out of the city. At one point, rescuer Randy White says, “Someone yelled out to me, ‘If you don’t get us out by 12 o’clock, we’re going to start shooting all the rescuers.'” One man was standing on Canal Boulevard with water up to his chest wearing a mink coat that he had liberated from a store. “This natural disaster is beginning to look like a Watts riot,” said a worried congressional aide in Washington as he watched the chaos. “There’s something really ugly going on here, something wrong at a deeper level.”

One thing that was wrong may have been that right and wrong had jumped their tracks. For all the scorching images of armed thugs making off with sneakers and wide-screen TVs, the larger reality wasn’t as simple as the President’s call for “zero tolerance”of looting. Was it wrong to take a bottle of milk from a store when your baby was sobbing and there was no way to pay for it if you tried? When cans of food are scattered in the debris, does taking them amount to theft, or salvage? At one point, police with guns drawn escorted Dr. Henderson through a Walgreens as he emptied the pharmacy of drugs to use in a French Quarter bar turned makeshift clinic. Dudley Fuqua, tall and lean in baggy blue shorts, broke into neighborhood shops and took canned goods, frozen chicken and ribs and cigarettes to his neighbors, who called him a hero. “I was in a building with no food, no water for five nights,” Fuqua’s neighbor Mohammed Ally, 70, told TIME’s Brian Bennett. “They were taking care of the elderly people.” Fuqua saw a neighbor using his empty refrigerator as a rowboat to paddle through the water to get help for his pregnant wife. When the buoyant refrigerator tipped, Fuqua dove off a second-story balcony to help and sliced his feet on a rain gutter. “I was going to make sure everyone was O.K.”

Only by Friday did some palpable help arrive, in the form of thousands of National Guard troops and lumbering convoys of supplies. Virtually alone, Lieut. General Russel Honore, commanding Joint Task Force Katrina, whom Mayor Nagin referred to as the John Wayne dude, seemed to be moving pieces into place. He was out in the streets with his troops, directing convoys and telling anxious Guardsmen to keep their weapons pointed down. He “came off the doggone chopper,” Nagin said, “and he started cussing, and people started moving. And he’s getting some stuff done. They ought to give that guy full authority to get the job done, and we can save some people.”

Americans sometimes ask what the government does and where their tax money goes. Among other things, it pays for all kinds of invisible but essential safety nets and life belts and guardrails that are useless right up until the day they are priceless. Furious critics charged last week that the government had not heard the warnings. Instead it cut the funds for flood control and storm preparations, mangled the chain of command, missed every opportunity. And an angry debate opened about how much the demands of the Iraq war, on both the budget and the National Guard, were eating into the country’s ability to protect itself at home. Louisiana Republican Congressman Jim McCrery–working the phones with FEMA, the Army, the White House, state officials–argues that Katrina revealed how much doesn’t work. “Clearly, with all the money we’ve spent, all the focus we have put on homeland security, we are not prepared for a disaster of this proportion whether it’s induced by nature or man.”

And this time a crucial consolation was missing. After 9/11, whatever the evidence of intelligence failures, many people still saw that attack as almost unimaginable, so brutal and brazen an assault. But Katrina was in the cards, forewarned, foreseen and yet still dismissed until it was too late. That so many officials were caught so unprepared was a failure less of imagination than will, a realization all the more frightening in light of what lies ahead. For if we couldn’t help our citizens in an hour of desperate need, how well will we do in six months or a year, when many are still jobless and homeless, but no longer center stage?

With reporting by Mike Billips/Biloxi, Massimo Calabresi, Sally B. Donnelly, Mark Thompson and Douglas Waller/Washington, Ellin Martens, Coco Masters and Carolina A. Miranda/New York and Greg Fulton/Atlanta

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