A daily journey amid the lost of New Orleans
Los Angeles Times
NEW ORLEANS — This city is bleeding. New Orleans is not dying; there will be some semblance of a metropolis again one day. But it is bleeding.
Since Hurricane Katrina came ashore Monday, I have walked these streets every day. The images have been searing:
The woman who died in a chair, in the middle of a road. Someone covered her with a tarp and left her. The girl walking along the terrace of the Superdome who had lost both shoes and one sock. The fancy convertible in the French Quarter crushed by the brick facade of a four-story building.
Water is the enemy. It drips steadily into the lobby of my hotel. It gurgles up from storm drains, splashes against shattered storefronts and front doors when rescue trucks go by. It hides snakes, dead bloated rats and, in the areas with the worst flooding, untold numbers of bloated bodies.
There is no air conditioning. There are no fans. There is no ice. Katrina knocked out part of a wall in the Hyatt hotel downtown; some people I've met are envious because that has given my room a little breeze at night. Still, I perspire through my clothes by 8 a.m. every day. Nothing dries.
An inescapable stench
No one can bathe. The entire city smells, a syrupy, putrid smell of death and disease and rot. There is no sanitation. Toilets do not flush and are full. Well-to-do tourists who have been trapped and protected for the most part from the suffering of the locals were, by Thursday, using plastic cups as toilets.
Hurricanes are fickle and cruel. Some of the wealthiest areas of town — most of the French Quarter, the Garden District — were spared significant damage. While desperate people stood on their roofs for a third day and tried to wave down rescue helicopters, I found Debbie Lavender sitting on the steps of her well-appointed, 150-year-old house in the Garden District, pondering whether to leave.
Lavender, 52, was debating with her sons whether to leave town. Although there was no flooding in their part of the city, water was rising elsewhere.
Trees were down in her neighborhood. Her garden was destroyed. But there were still jalapeño peppers growing in a pot on the back porch. Inside, the cat food was still in the bowl. The lipstick in the bathroom was still clustered delicately in a cup. The candelabras were still on the table.
"What can I say? This house was built to last," Lavender said.
Gunfire and silence
Occasionally, noise breaks the quiet of the city. Gunfire. A small platoon of soldiers splashing through the streets, index fingers poised on the triggers of M-16s. The squawks of police radios: "We need medics!" "We need shotguns!" The mob that escaped from the Superdome on Wednesday night and massed in the water outside my hotel, banging on a window, pleading to get inside.
Most of the time, though, the city is oddly silent. Commerce is at a standstill. Phones have stopped ringing. Planes aren't taking off from the airport, and no cars and taxis are in the streets.
Everyone has a story. The older woman who shared a tree branch with a hissing raccoon, holding on with one hand as the floodwater rose and hanging onto her ailing husband with the other. The woman who said she wishes she had died. The man evacuating his family who had to gun his engine through an angry crowd as people desperate for a ride out rocked the car and banged on the windows.
People are everywhere, but everyone seems to be in the wrong place.
I saw a man sleeping on the counter at a Wendy's. The window was broken and water lapped around him, high enough sometimes to splash up on the cash registers.
There's the poor soul I can see from the window of my hotel room downtown, on the 22nd floor. I look for him every morning when I wake up. He is alone on the roof of a Cadillac dealership. It looks like he can't get down. He looks comfortable enough, but I wonder each time I leave for the day whether he will be there when I get back.
It is an inescapable fact that he is black. African Americans make up nearly 70 percent of the population of New Orleans and nearly all of the people stranded.
In two days at the Superdome, I saw four white people among the estimated 16,000 there.
The looting started not long after the storm and has worsened each day, even as soldiers flood the city. Mayor Ray Nagin is a tall, buff man and an African American. He was wearing a T-shirt yesterday that said: "This is no place for trash." He tried to explain how the crime wave began.
"Most urban people are not like you and me, don't grow up like you and I did," he said. "They don't have mothers who have a stocked fridge that they can rely on at times like this. They have nothing. There are a significant number of people who are flat running out of food and water."
Crossing the line
But what began with people looking for loaves of bread, water and medicine has degenerated into criminality.
Men standing on the side of the road carry laptop computers and fistfuls of DVDs. "Like my pants?" one man said as he walked by. "Brand new." By Thursday, looters had broken into gun shops, officials said, and a few were as well-armed as the soldiers. They had begun shooting at boats trying to save people trapped on roofs and in attics; in one boat, two rescue workers wore bulletproof vests over their rain gear.
"We're under siege," said Sheryl Johnson, whose 79-year-old mother's walker was stolen while they slept in a shelter. "From within."
I wandered out of the hotel Thursday afternoon, plunging into the warm floodwaters as bottles of medicine and pieces of insulation floated by. My high boots filled with water. I walked through the business district, down Loyola Avenue, and ran into John Love, 47, and Rita Burbin, 45.
They are engaged and live in the Ninth Ward, a largely African-American neighborhood on the east side of the city, site of some of the worst flooding. Love and Burbin stayed home for the storm. They wanted to leave, but they had little money and an aging pickup. So they hunkered down.
They were awakened Sunday morning by the whimpering of their dog, Pup, who had crawled under the house as the storm approached.
In the next two days, the water rose — to ankles, to knees and, finally, to their chins. They made themselves a fort, stacking a sofa on top of two end tables, a futon on top of the sofa and a rubber mattress on top of the futon. The ceiling was a foot from their face when they climbed up the furniture.
Snakes came. Dead squirrels floated by. Love tried to rescue the neighbor's dog that was chained to a nearby fence, but the animal tried to bite him. The dog died, and his carcass, draped over the fence under the blazing sun, began to rot. A dead body also was drifting nearby. The smell became unbearable.
On Thursday, fire ants floated in and attacked Love and Burbin, crawling onto their legs, into their hair. That was the last straw. They grabbed their last pack of hot dogs and a package of dry ramen noodles and made a run for it, slogging through water four hours before reaching downtown.
"This place will never be the same," Burbin said. "It might look the same one day. But it will never be the same."
As journalists, we keep a wall between our emotions and our stories. I had been holding up fine until Wednesday night, when I made my way through the masses at the Superdome and found a young mother. Her name is Tonisha Jones. She is 24. Her daughter, Justice, is the same age as my daughter — 17 months.
Justice was perched on Tonisha's lap. She had chubby cheeks and pigtails and eyes like black pearls. I noticed that Tonisha was feeding her trail mix that emergency crews had handed out.
"You're really not supposed to let babies eat raisins," I blurted out.
Tonisha stared at me until we both realized the profound folly of what I had said.
For a few minutes, I sat with them, as Justice happily popped in peanuts and raisins. The sun erupted through the holes in the roof left by Katrina, sending dazzling rays of light onto the field.
Then I went back to the hotel and cried, wondering what will become of all of these people, wondering about little Justice, and whether she will ever again have a place she can call home.
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company