New Or­leans chaos is re­mem­bered, ten years af­ter Ka­t­rina

The China Post - - LIFE - BY MIRA OBER­MAN

Ten years ago, my New Or­leans ho­tel shook like a speed­ing freight train.

Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina’s deadly winds tore up roofs, yanked trees from the ground, and pushed tow­er­ing walls of sea­wa­ter miles past the coast.

I am still haunted by what I saw as the Big Easy col­lapsed into chaos.

A dead man lay slumped in a chair out­side the New Or­leans con­ven­tion cen­ter, his el­derly body cov­ered in a yel­low blan­ket.

A sea of hun­gry and thirsty peo­ple sat nearby, their faces sunken in de­feat and de­spair as they waited day af­ter day for help to ar­rive.

An ex­hausted mother limped bare­foot across a me­tal bridge as she clutched her five-day-old baby and told me of a fran­tic es­cape across a plank and through a neigh­bor’s win­dow as the flood­wa­ters swal­lowed her home.

A squad of heav­ily armed sol­diers — who had been given shoot-to-kill or­ders — marched into the glow of our head­lights as we drove through the pitch-black French Quar­ter.

More than 1,800 peo­ple were killed af­ter Ka­t­rina rav­aged the U.S. Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005. Most of the dead were in New Or­leans.

Some 80 per­cent of the low­ly­ing city was en­gulfed by filthy wa­ter that rose as high as six me­ters af­ter poorly main­tained lev­ees burst.

Tens of thou­sands of peo­ple were trapped when the city be­came a swel­ter­ing swamp. Sup­ply trucks didn’t ar­rive with food and fresh wa­ter un­til the fifth day. Those five days felt like five years.

Rooftops Barely Vis­i­ble

Free­lance pho­tog­ra­pher James Nielsen and I slipped out of our ho­tel not long af­ter the eye of the storm passed on the morn­ing of Aug. 29, a Mon­day — brac­ing our­selves against build­ings as we looked for signs of dam­age amid the pound­ing rain and pow­er­ful wind.

The older parts of New Or­leans — the French Quar­ter, Gar­den Dis­trict and cen­tral busi­ness dis­trict — es­caped the worst of Ka­t­rina’s wrath be­cause they were built on higher ground.

So it took a few hours for us to un­der­stand how bad things were.

My heart sank when we pulled up be­hind an am­bu­lance parked on a free­way over­pass and I re­al­ized the tri­an­gles pok­ing out of the wa­ter were rooftops.

We watched a boat pull up to a nearly sub­merged house where an el­derly man needed help get­ting out through his win­dow.

We woke Tues­day to find that the wa­ter had risen even higher af­ter a canal was breached.

Nielsen and I fol­lowed a mil­i­tary con­voy to a bridge lead­ing into the flooded Lower Ninth Ward, where I met the young mother and a woman who saw her hus­band get swept away by the storm surge as they tried to reach shel­ter.

We saw some loot­ing in the French Quar­ter, but the mood re­mained rel­a­tively fes­tive that day.

I found a res­tau­rant that was serv­ing warm beer and hot gumbo: the power was out, but the gas stove was still work­ing and they wanted to cook up all their food be­fore it spoiled. I spoke to res­i­dents with bar­be­cues who were do­ing the same that night.

De­spair, Des­per­a­tion, Fear

The mood Wed­nes­day.

Peo­ple grate­ful to be res­cued from their flooded homes had found them­selves dumped at the down­town con­ven­tion cen­ter with no food, wa­ter, med­i­cal at­ten­tion or func­tion­ing toi­lets. A fire broke out in a looted shoe store on flooded Canal Street. Ho­tels were kick­ing out their guests.

Fright­ened, thirsty peo­ple fled ru­mors — mostly false — of may­hem and vi­o­lence and camped out on the free­ways un­der a pun­ish­ingly hot sun.

A shell-shocked in­ten­sive care nurse told me how med­i­cal evac­u­a­tion he­li­copters car­ry­ing ba­bies were grounded by the sound of gun­fire.

Thurs­day was a night­mare. I spent the morn­ing talk­ing to refugees on the free­way who kept ask­ing me how the U.S. gov­ern­ment could send help across the world but could not man­age to take care of its own cit­i­zens.

Then I waded through the foul flood­wa­ters to check on the evac­u­a­tion of the Su­per­dome, a sports arena used as an emer­gency shel­ter where 26,000 peo­ple had been trapped with scant sup­plies. The stench of urine and fe­ces was un­bear­able.

Peo­ple were so des­per­ate for help that ba­bies were be­ing passed for­ward over the throngs press­ing up against the barri-


on cades to get out. I wept at that mem­ory this week and still can­not be­lieve I saw it hap­pen in Amer­ica.

On Fri­day, a tough- look­ing sher­iff’s deputy broke down into tears as he told me of in­mates who drowned in their cells or got caught in ra­zor wire af­ter try­ing to jump out of the flooded prison.

He could not un­der­stand why the deputies and their fam­i­lies were left be­hind to spend Thurs­day night on a free­way af­ter the pris­on­ers were evac­u­ated.

While we were talk­ing, a he­li­copter landed nearby. Help had fi­nally reached him.

Life-chang­ing Ex­pe­ri­ence

I stayed another week as the mil­i­tary man­aged to re­store or­der and evac­u­ate all but the most stub­born res­i­dents.

I have re­turned to New Or­leans many times to re­port on its re­cov­ery from Ka­t­rina and then on the im­pact of the BP oil spill. I even man­aged to learn to love the Big Easy.

But those changed me.

I was a cub re­porter when my ed­i­tors sent me to cover Ka­t­rina.

I lost my faith in gov­ern­ment and am still an­gry about the peo­ple who suf­fered or died be­cause of the botched re­sponse.

I found my faith in hu­man­ity deep­ened by the count­less acts of self­less brav­ery and kind­ness that I wit­nessed — like the man who spent days fer­ry­ing his neigh­bors out of the flood zone and wouldn’t waste a minute to talk to a re­porter. I never learned his name.





(Top) Mem­bers of the Ha­cienda Brass Band march while per­form­ing for a bach­e­lor party in the famed French Quar­ter, a mag­net for tourists in New Or­leans, Louisiana on Fri­day, Aug. 21. (Above) Peo­ple gather at a mu­sic club on French­men St., a live mu­sic area tra­di­tion­ally known by lo­cals but now pop­u­lar with tourists in New Or­leans, Louisiana, Fri­day.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Taiwan

© PressReader. All rights reserved.