Hurricane Katrina and the chaos of New Orleans
in her aftermath
by Jose Torres Tama
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Saturday, September 3, 2005 -- Amigos, how do I begin to speak a picture of the aftermath that was an even greater terror than the physical damage that Hurricane Katrina spawned as some kind of water fury birthing an urban Kali-like chaos fueled further by the incompetence of local, state and national officials? The continuous quantity of misinformation that the local and national media began spewing out was irresponsible and more than incorrect at times as the resilient and mythic city of New Orleans was already being pronounced dead and those of us who voluntarily chose to stay behind in hopes of helping to repair whatever damage Katrina might inflict were eventually sequestered by bad news, the ineptitude of local governance and the very late national disaster relief of FEMA's heavy handed "martial law" approach that created an even greater apocalypse.
I chose to stay because I am devoted to a city I love and was willing to ride out any natural storm in a metropolis that has survived yellow fever epidemics and two early fires that burned the old French Quarter to the ground so that the Spanish could rebuild it when it was the capital of its Providences -- even before there was a United States. New Orleans has a history before the imagination of thirteen colonies dreamed a revolution against the British to proclaim their independence. This city is African, Latin, Caribbean, French, Spanish, Irish, Italian, Vietnamese and Honduran and only after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 did it have an "American" presence and become part of the Union that is now denying it its last breath.
So I ask you where is the compassionate conservative regime that seems politically poised to punish this first multiracial port city in the hemispheric Americas that recently voted itself the color blue in a red state? Is a Christian maniacal executive chief whipping New Orleans into submission like so many African slaves were whipped by similar bible-toting masters only a century and half ago?
I am offering such a historical time line and perspective on how the past effects the present because we are generally uninformed about this city that is more than Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest and the party town of the Old South. I am pleading for a collective scream of outrage from coast to coast to save this eclectic relic of a city that has been a home for many -- from one century to another. New Orleans deserves an organized effort of heart and efficiency. It has survived hurricanes before, but it is having trouble surviving the official storm masquerading as a savior. How is it that this great empire of capital and industry cannot manage to organize its technology to mount a proper rescue for the most precious pueblo in its possession?
I was able to get out on the Wednesday after Katrina hit when the city officials ordered the water shut down. The water was cut and it was time to go. I had to flee this city that I have lived in for the past twenty years not via the efforts of "authorized personnel," but via a pirated bus, a yellow vehicle with the Jefferson Parish School Board brand on its side -- a bus that operated the kind of rescue mission only imagined in a Louisiana Hollywood bayou version of "Hotel Rwanda." I escaped with my partner Claudia Copeland, my writer friend Jimmy Nolan, who is a fifth-generation native born in the middle of an unnamed hurricane, and his neighbor who I only know as Kip. Kip was on his third day of survival without access to a dialysis machine that cleans his liver and allows him to live.
We, the ones who stubbornly stay from one hurricane to another that places us in the "cone of uncertainty," do so because we understand that our human resilience after the natural storm will help rebuild and weather whatever mother nature decides to throw at us. We know how to live with hurricanes and their aftermath, but we were not prepared for the official sequestering that unleashed an even more furious storm of urban desperation -- desperation that festered like an untreated wound in an August summer.
Yes, Katrina was a force to be reckoned with and her damage was more catastrophic than Hurricane Andrew which hit west of New Orleans in the early 90s. Yes, there was flooding in East New Orleans, the ninth ward, the Bywater, the Lakeside area, but it was never reported that most of the French Quarter and parts of the second historic neighborhood called the Faubourg Marigny, which borders the old city, was mostly above water and actually very dry only hours after the category five pounding of Katrina.
We were recipients of all the prayers and rituals that keep New Orleans from total destruction because the Virgin Mary, Yemaya and the river goddesses always protect us at the last possible minute and even Katrina did not hit us directly with her unrelenting winds and water. This city that knows respect for the ancients, this city of ghosts and ancestors is ultimately protected by the magic chants, offerings and incantations of the local voodoo priestesses and practitioners who are at work every hurricane season to make their voices heard so that mother nature veers her force just enough to allow us another year of life. I have more faith in the voodoo practitioners and their prayers for the city than the officials of local and state government whose initial perplexing decisions began plunging us into greater despair after the storm.
I live on Dauphine Street in the Marigny neighborhood that extends down river east of the Quarter. We were mostly dry and the camel-back house that I rent had very little damage with some of the siding blown along the side yard. I am a pantheist, meaning that I respect many religious beliefs, and like other New Orleanians, I have altars at my house. I am in certain belief that the one altar to "La Virgen Maria" inspired the large fig tree in my back yard to fall towards the spacious open green space and away from the back porch. In fact, I have a cement statute of the Virgin Mary that had been positioned in a grassy cove between the two backyard trees, and before Katrina arrived, I placed her in the safety of the kitchen hallway. The large fig tree that fell would have crushed her and had it fallen in the opposite direction, it would have crushed half of the house.
As such, most of the houses in this area were intact -- structurally with one or two houses compromised by a fallen tree. Yes, trees lined a variety of parallel streets with names like Royal, Burgundy and Chartres. These streets were impassible, but this was minor as compared to the more eastern sections of the city that were closer to the eye of the storm. We were spared Katrina's eye and the Northeastern quadrant that always carries a greater punch as demonstrated by the destructive remnants seen in Biloxi and Gulfport, Mississippi. Overall, this area and the middle of the French Quarter where I rode out the storm at Jimmy's house was not flooded in contrast to local and national reports that were carelessly assessing the Quarter as being "destroyed."
Can you imagine the terror that this bad information evoked in my mother who lives in Jersey City, New Jersey and had been praying for me, Claudia and my friends since before Katrina hit on Sunday night? My mother is a devout Catholic and she prays with heartfelt belief that God will hear you in times of despair.
But the misinformation and irresponsible reports began at 10pm that night when the local CBS affiliate Channel 4, which had relocated a crew to Baton Rouge, began reporting that the weather conditions in the French Quarter had already deteriorated. They began sounding off a false alarm to anyone that had changed their minds at this time of night and were considering to seek safer shelter. Their "news" was that it was too dangerous to walk the streets of the Quarter now in search of shelter at the Superdome because the weather conditions had "deteriorated." This was absolutely untrue -- false, a fabricated "news" lie by reporters who were 85 miles away at the state capitol. I was there in the middle of the French Quarter and the conditions were such that some light rain and wind was all that you could experience.
In fact, I was on a second floor balcony in the heart of the Vieux Carre at Dumaine and Royal Street, and certainly if anyone was in belief of this information, they would have lost a chance to seek shelter. Where these reporters were getting their misinformation from and recycling it out to the local community is unknown to me, but for a crew safely stowed away in Baton Rouge, they had no right to spew out this nonsense. Not only was this more of the sensationalized rubbish disguising itself as journalism, but these reporters began selling panic as a consumer item. Yes, it was beyond being irresponsible because while they were sitting over-caked in make-up in a safe makeshift studio, they became an ugly metaphor for the spewing of misinformation and panic mongering that grew into an apocalyptic speculation that already had the city under twenty-feet of water even when Katrina was 100 miles away and moving eastward.
They digressed into a reality TV news show that was now using Katrina as a measure for high ratings. Be aware that when a hurricane is in the Gulf, the reporters and weather men and women are the stars of the show. These were not journalists bringing you information, for they resembled chattering egos positioning themselves for "glorious coverage" -- not unlike the city council officials who were also gloating in the applause for themselves for their "contra-flow" evacuation strategies that again turned the interstate 10 East and West into a parking lot of more desperation. It seemed that very little had improved from last year's highway experiment that clogged evacuees for ten hours to move thirty miles outside of the city in either direction as Hurricane Ivan "the terrible" had us in its "cone of uncertainty" then.
Come every June, we, as citizens of New Orleans, know that we will be placed in the "cone of uncertainty" again and again by newly-named storms and depressions that may organize themselves into hurricanes of categories from one to five. We prepare as always by shuttering our homes, boarding any exposed windows, gathering batteries, canned foods, candles, flashlights, wine and bottled water. We are efficient in such rituals and can make our environments hurricane ready in a few hours of concentrated energy. We are not made desperate by the threats of hurricanes that come into the Gulf of Mexico every year, but after Katrina hit, we became some kind of social experiment as water supplies were cut off, private rescuers were blocked by officials acting on martial law and rumors that the French Quarter was going to be submerged on Tuesday afternoon because of the levee breaches and the failure of the national rescue efforts to secure that damage spread panic to the point that the fire department at the residential end of the Quarter abandoned their station.
By the afternoon of Wednesday, August 31, on other rumors that private hotels like the Hotel Monteleone at the Canal St. end of the Quarter were possibly having buses evacuate their guests to safety, we purchased the hope of a $45 dollar ticket to Houston, TX on a fleet of vehicles that were to arrive by 6pm. The hotel management, encouraged by its desperate guests, had organized a twenty-five-thousand-dollar rescue mission of chartered buses escorted by state police to take their trapped tourists to safety. A few hundred residents had learned of this priceless information, and most notably only a few feet away Alan Toussaint, the legendary composer and Jazz musician, was standing in line with myself, Claudia, Jimmy, and Kip, the three hundred hotel guests and the other two-hundred lucky residents holding tickets out of the apocalypse.
Nightfall arrived and it was 9pm. The private buses were missing. The hotel management was as confused us all of us waiting as to why we were still standing there at this time of night with only the city police escort they had also hired just in case their missing buses were rushed by people without the proper tickets to board. When the yellow pirate school bus cut the dark like some night creature on the street pointing its blinding headlight eyes to the waiting hundreds, some cheers broke the whisperings, and we finally thought our hired fleet of heroic rescue vehicles had arrived. The lone bus only arrived with the information that the fleet had been commandeered -- confiscated -- stolen by local police officials acting on martial law.
All along, I had placed myself in waiting close to the hotel management at the corner of Royal and Iberville Street to be in proximity to overhear any information on what was unfolding. Only then did I speak to one of the yellow bus crew of two who told me there were no buses coming and that they were there relaying this difficult news while offering passage to Baton Rouge at fifty dollars a head. Imagine how this conversation was taking place in the flashlight lit dark of night on a French Quarter street corner where the sounds of madness were audible a block away on the infamous Bourbon Street that normally hosts an all-night party for Puritans and yahoos that come to unwind, drink, and throw up from all parts of the country because they cannot have that much fun in their own cities of social convention and Christian repression.
Certainly, we made an offer to the bus driver for the four of us that was quite below their asking rate, and like any other transaction under the table in this city, it was accepted. We got on the bus as the Monteleone management was trying to figure out what to do and if to relay the bad news to the five hundred people that were losing hope as the night grew more ominous. We handed over our collection of dollars to the bus driver and sat on the cold steel floor, with Alan Toussaint already having been the first to mount this pirate bus when it pulled up to the street. He sat among a small group of folks that were already on board -- occupying one of the coveted seats. I was ecstatic to be on any vehicle ready to drive me out of town and would have sat on the roof if I had to.
If the Monteleone could privately engineer a rescue effort to bring in ten buses, then how is it possible that the city and state could not organize a fleet of 100, 200 or 300 buses to rescue all the people left behind? These officials could have used the stealth training of the pirate bus crew that seemed to come in and out of town through back roads that were quite dry as opposed to "official news" accounts that flood waters compromised all land rescue efforts.
We, the citizens of New Orleans who have managed to escape, are willing to mount our own pirate and private efforts to come and rescue our friends and family members who are still trapped by the infinite and mounting incompetence of those in command.
I ask you to mount a collective scream of outrage into cyberspace, the radio and TV stations, so that we can come in to do what we have always done in times of disaster and that is to lend a genuine human effort that is tribal, community oriented and truly compassionate. We are being played as a reality TV show for political sadists who have the audacity to publicly say we are not worthy of governmental support because we are an old city. On Thursday of last week after my escape, I heard that a Republican politician spewed some vitriol to that effect. Yes, we are an old city in these young United States, and we have survived a few bad governments, slavery, and tropical plagues. Right now we are bearing witness to the social plague of heartlessness, racism and political inefficiency and it is denying life to this gumbo city of African, Caribbean, Spanish, French, Irish, and Italian influences. We are being denied the opportunity to rise into the future of this century. We are being denied the opportunity to return to the city we love and rebuild it as only we can "re-shape" it into the grand Madame that it has been from one century to another.
Published in In Motion Magazine September 14, 2005.
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