Hurricane Katrina: Back from Iraq to find more horror – and incompetence

August 25, 2015
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A helicopter drops water on burning houses either ignited by broken gas mains or arson from looters, according to local residents on Napoleon Avenue. PHOTOGRAPH by ALAN CHIN

Ten years ago, I came home to New York after spending three months covering the savage war in Iraq. I was trying to enjoy doing nothing in late August when the phone rang: my friend and colleague Samantha Appleton was calling from Nigeria. She said to me words to the effect of “have you been watching the news? There’s a Category 5 hurricane barreling down on New Orleans. They are really going to get it.”

And I said, “Don’t worry. There’s always unlucky people that get killed and a lot of stuff smashed, but it happens all the time. They know how to handle natural disasters down there.” And I didn’t think about it more, even when Hurricane Katrina came ashore and the first reports claimed that New Orleans had been spared the worst, even as coastal Mississippi was hit directly with great loss of life.

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Tens of thousands of people sought shelter at the Convention Center where they were without power or adequate food and water for five days before they were finally evacuated. PHOTOGRAPH by ALAN CHIN

But over the next several days, it became clear that something was very wrong, and that something wasn’t only the levees breaking and 80 percent of the city disappearing under water. The fabric of rational disaster response came apart before our eyes. What turned out to be wild rumors were announced as facts: of a breakdown in law and order, of looters, of gun battles and worse. What was absolutely true was that tens of thousands of people were still stranded at the Superdome, the Convention Center, on rooftops, and everywhere.

I flew down to Baton Rouge on Friday, Sept. 2, 2005, with fellow photographer Thomas Dworzak, and we rented the last car available. As we got closer to New Orleans, we passed convoys of search-and-rescue crews stopped on the side of the highway. Later we would hear they had been told it was too dangerous to go in. But the road was open and empty. The few checkpoints we encountered waved us through. We saw many abandoned cars with broken windows and belongings strewn about. They had run out of gas.

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Thousands of people — including many rescued off of rooftops by helicopters — were were initially taken to an assembly area at the highway overpass intersecting Interstate 10 and Causeway Blvd, but they had to wait several days there without power or adequate food before they were finally evacuated.
PHOTOGRAPH by ALAN CHIN

At the cloverleaf intersection of Interstate 10 and Causeway Boulevard, a dozen miles from downtown New Orleans, thousands of people camped out in disarray. Every few minutes, military helicopters dropped off the rescued. I am sure many of them felt great relief that they had survived. But they didn’t know that those who had landed before them were waiting days for promised buses that did not come.

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Dead bodies were not removed for weeks. View from Interstate 10 at the Elysian Fields exit. PHOTOGRAPH by ALAN CHIN

The elevated expressways became ribbons of access into the flood, barring a few sections where they dipped down into the water. Detours on high ground meant there was always a way to drive into the city. At the Convention Center, we saw a scene of utter chaos: many thousands of people without power or much food and water. They had been there for five days already, and there was hardly anybody distributing supplies in the 90-degree heat. Danny Brumfield, 45, lay dead in the street, covered with a sheet, a pool of his blood dried on the pavement. A police officer had shot him to death the night before when he tried to flag them down for help.

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Milvertha Hendricks, 84, wrapped in an American flag blanket. She had been on the sidewalk for five days and was not evacuated until the following day. PHOTOGRAPH by ALAN CHIN

Dehydrated and exhausted, Milvertha Hendricks, 84 at the time, sat in a chair on the sidewalk covered with an American flag blanket for six days before she was evacuated. It made no sense. It never took more than three hours to drive from Baton Rouge during the whole ordeal.

Hendricks was comparatively lucky. Thirty-five senior citizens drowned at the St. Rita’s nursing home, and 40 patients died at Memorial Medical Center, some of them allegedly euthanized. Whatever the exact circumstances of these deaths, no one was convicted for any of them.

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A woman on flooded St. Bernard Avenue walking north. PHOTOGRAPH by ALAN CHIN

For the next four days, we crisscrossed the city as aid finally began to appear – a full week after the storm – and the Superdome and Convention Center slowly emptied out. We waded chest deep in water, bloated bodies floating next to us. We saw a makeshift grave dug into the pavement next to Magazine Street. We saw hand-painted signs warning, “Looters Will Be Shot” and “I Am Here. I Have A Gun.”

Police and private contractors roamed the roads on the backs of pickup trucks, with assault rifles at jaunty angles, loaded with clips taped to one another as if in preparation for extended firefights. They stopped us many times with gun barrels pointed at our heads. Brumfield at the Convention Center wasn’t the only black man killed by the cops. Henry Glover, 31, was shot and bled to death and his body burned by officers on the West Bank of the Mississippi River, and Ronald Madison, 40, and James Brissette, 17, were killed by police gunfire at the Danziger Bridge while walking to a grocery store. All were unarmed. Indictments and some convictions of the responsible policemen have led to re-trials, not-guilty verdicts, and dismissals.

Sleeping in a private home, one African-American photographer was roused without the chance to get dressed, thrown up against a wall with a pistol to the back of his head, and threatened with arrest by New Orleans police officers using racist language. He was released only after his white colleagues, who were also staying in the house, intervened. Jokingly, we talked about using gaffer’s tape to make big “TV” letters on our car windows, as we had done during the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, and then realized that maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea.

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Tens of thousands of people sought shelter at the Convention Center where they were without power or adequate food and water for five days. PHOTOGRAPH by ALAN CHIN

It struck me that I had just witnessed how poorly the American war effort was going in Iraq. The occupation’s leadership worked in isolation within the Green Zone. American soldiers went on patrol without enough translators. Power constantly failed in Baghdad, a city of 5 million people, as oil pipelines destroyed two years before by smart bombs lay unrepaired. The Army’s tactics mixed a veneer of naïve sensitivity – not flying the American flag, for example – with heavy handed violence of turret gunners on Humvees firing on anyone that came too close to them.

And I had not been surprised, because that was war in a foreign country, and although I could be critical, it was nonetheless tragic and understandable to a degree. To see the same type of failure on the streets of a major American city was shocking. In the aftermath of Katrina, there was no effective command or coordination on the ground until Lieutenant General Russel Honoré took charge of all FEMA and military efforts. Local, state, and national leaders were nowhere to be seen. A disproportionate number of police and soldiers pursued illusory looters and rioters rather than make the evacuation their first priority.

Even if some of the rumors of sniper fire were true — none have been proven — that seemed weak justification for allowing the very young, the very old, and the infirm to be ignored for a week. Fear had constrained an effective and rapid response in New Orleans. Even with limited resources — and they were, in fact, plentiful — triage could have identified the most vulnerable for evacuation while the healthy and fit waited longer.

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PHOTOGRAPH by ALAN CHIN

The right course of action under stress may not be legally or even morally enforceable, as the courts and public opinion in Louisiana have grappled with, these 10 years since. Individual doctors, nurses, nursing home owners, and perhaps some of the police officers may have acted with the best of intentions under excruciating circumstances that resulted in horrific outcomes. But the cultural and institutional patterns that led them to make poor choices speak to a larger failure. The myths of American ruggedness, improvisation, and community, qualities that are supposed to transcend racism and class bias — at least during a crisis — collapsed in a poisonous miasma of risk-averse paranoia. It may have always been so. But it was never driven home to me so brutally until Hurricane Katrina.

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A view of the flooded Lower Ninth Ward from the St. Claude Avenue Bridge spanning the Industrial Canal. PHOTOGRAPH by ALAN CHIN

In 1965, after Hurricane Betsy, Lyndon Johnson flew to New Orleans immediately. He visited a school on St. Claude Avenue in the Ninth Ward, packed mostly with African-Americans who had escaped flooded homes. In a room lit only with flashlights, he said to them, “This is your president! I’m here to help you!”

LBJ’s America was no better at waging war in Vietnam than George W. Bush’s in Iraq, but in an era of far greater overt racial strife, Johnson had not hesitated. His theatrics may not have significantly changed realities on the ground; but he had made sure to respect the myths, and to be seen in person on the scene less than 24 hours after the fact.

Ten years after Katrina, New Orleans feels like a whiter, wealthier city. The Lower Ninth Ward remains desolate, but most other neighborhoods have recovered, albeit in fits and starts. Elected officials assert that lessons have been learned, that never again will so many people be left behind. A scare over Hurricane Gustav in 2008 triggered another mandatory evacuation, and it went without a hitch. That storm barely did any harm as it turned out. Memories fade, and I wonder if we are doomed to repeat not just our mistakes but also our fears.

The rise of ISIS and the catastrophic collapse of the US-trained and equipped Iraqi Army have become the terrible postscript to our war there. At home, deaths of unarmed African-Americans in police custody have led to unrest and protest against persistent racism and inequality. The signs all forecast a grim prognosis for efficiency and fairness the next time a disaster eviscerates a poor and black American community.

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A damaged statue of an angel at the St. Bernard Catholic Cemetery in St. Bernard, Louisiana, is seen fallen to the ground and caked in mud after the floodwaters receded. PHOTOGRAPH by ALAN CHIN

One comment

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Ahh, the Bush years. Elect another one. You republicans are really smart :)

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive