Hurricane survivors tell their stories

HOUSTON — As I drove to the Astrodome, Sept. 3, I got caught in a major traffic jam caused by an outpouring of working-class people who wanted to help the survivors of Hurricane Katrina on this Labor Day weekend.

Although local media had been exhorting people to volunteer their time and services, a big sign was posted at the entrance saying, “No more volunteers needed.” I was struck by the generosity of the working people who were there to help those in need. Their actions stood in stark contrast to the lack of responsiveness by the U.S. government before and immediately after the storm.

The streets surrounding the Astrodome were lined with survivors walking around, confused and distressed, trying to get their bearings and make sense of the tragedy that had befallen them. I interviewed a number of survivors outside one of the buildings on the sports complex grounds.

So many dead

Lynn Jackson, 32, of New Orleans said that her fiancé Thurman Wornner, 31, was missing, as well as her mother Joyce Jackson. She said she lived in public housing and the day after the storm there was five feet of water in the development.

“They told us we didn’t have to evacuate, but in the middle of the evening [the water] got higher,” she said. So Jackson took her three children, who are 12, 6 and 5, and swam in six- or seven-foot water from the project to Claiborne Avenue, “which is a good little swim.” From there the family had to get to a bridge. “We slept there two nights. Then the third night they let us in the Superdome, which was ridiculous. We should have slept on the bridge instead of going inside the Superdome because the bridge had fresh air.” In the Superdome, she said, there was “no air, no water, no nothing.”

There was shooting all around, Jackson said. “Every 10 seconds,” she said, something happened and the state troopers pulled their guns and shouted “Duck!” which scared “our elderly people, newborn babies” and caused everyone to push. “They had so many dead bodies out there and dead bodies at the Superdome,” she said, adding that she saw at least five corpses there.

“I’m glad they brought us here because then we got a lot of help. I really appreciate everything. It’s just a wait trying to locate the family members,” Jackson said quietly. Her voice cracked when she spoke of the dead and her missing family members.

An inhuman horror

Harold Heim, 54, was “born and raised” in New Orleans. The hurricane was “hard”, he said. “especially Sunday. I wanted to stay home and ride out the storm. The mayor kept telling us it was going to be a hard one, the biggest one of all. So my brother and I decided to leave and go to the Superdome, not imagining what we were going to go through. It started off Sunday night raining, everything was cool. That was the first night I slept. I was there Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday night. It was a horror. No human being should have to go through what we went through those past few days.”

Heim continued, “The mayor, Ray Nagin, tried to do everything possible to calm the city, but it was too late. Everybody panicked. They panicked after the storm. Everybody was afraid — they didn’t know what was going to happen, what their house was going to look like.”

Heim got to Houston on a bus. “The people just opened their arms to us. It’s amazing the love that they gave us. They didn’t have to do this, but they did. It’s that Southern hospitality and it feels so good.”

His mother, 94, lived in a nursing home in New Orleans and was taken to another city before the storm. They’ve lost touch with each other. “It is hard to deal with, very hard to deal with, not talking to my mom,” he said.

New Orleans is gone

Charles Barra, 23, from the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans, and Elijah Murray, 20, also from New Orleans, are both missing family members. Barra is looking for his 3-year-old son Charles Flemings, his mother Devonne and his sister Raquel. He is also missing his father Charles Whitley, from Gretna, La.

Murray is looking for his mother and stepfather Carolyn and Lenlored Jasmine, his 4-year-old nephew James Franklin, his 2-year-old nephew Anthony Newton and his 78-year-old grandmother Mary Murray, all from New Orleans.

The young men, who worked jobs in construction and lawn maintenance, were in Algiers, across the Mississippi River from the city’s center, when the hurricane came through. Barra and Murray escaped by walking out of town, carrying bags and family members. But they were treated “like dogs” by the authorities because they didn’t have any vehicle for transportation. The storm “tore a lot of stuff up, so whoever is planning on going back to New Orleans, there ain’t no New Orleans. New Orleans is gone.”

Wakeup call

Nicole Sullivan, 30, a homemaker from New Orleans, Lloyd Davis, 30, a welder and their son Milton Pepp reported missing Davis’ brothers: Dawane Davis, 23, and Milton Davis, 25, both from New Orleans. They said that Milton had been incarcerated at the time of the storm, and they had heard that 100 to 150 prisoners drowned.

Sullivan described their experience. “Honestly, I was going to sit it out. I sat it out for three days. Once the water got to four feet I just came on to the Superdome and once we got there they didn’t treat us right at all. I never been through anything like that. All the days of my life I never thought New Orleans would go like that. The bathrooms, everything, was just horrible, babies dying, people fighting, getting killed, shot at, it was just ridiculous.”

Davis added, “It was like the movie ‘Day After Tomorrow.’ The way things were going in the Superdome, I thought they were just going to let us die.”

The couple had to walk three and a half miles in four feet of water to get to the Superdome.

Davis described the water as oily and having a bad odor. “It looked like they put something in the water, it had your body feeling greasy from some kind of oil or chemical they had in the water.”

Sullivan said her other son was exposed to “fumes and the water” and “as soon as he saw me, he was excited and he passed out. They had to rush him to the hospital and he didn’t get out until 3 o’clock this morning. Vomiting, he had diarrhea, he had just about everything because of the fumes in the water.”

“They are treating us real nice here,” Sullivan said, but “I want to go back to New Orleans. I don’t care about the material things. I just want to see the house.”

Davis said, “We lost a lot of things. The truck we had was completely under the water. We lost everything.”

“Imagine sitting on the roof of your house and watching dead bodies floating by in the water,” he said.

Predominantly white neighborhoods like Metairie, Davis said, seemed to get preferential treatment by the authorities. They were “making sure they was all right, trying to keep the water from getting them instead of in the Black neighborhoods. To me it was like they was trying to kill us.”

But Sullivan said it wasn’t race: “We was all getting killed, it was pathetic.”

I asked the couple if they thought the authorities could have done something to better prepare for the emergency. Davis replied, “They knew there was at least a 95 percent chance the storm was coming to New Orleans. They should have prepared better. They have to realize people have no money, nowhere to go. We live from paycheck to paycheck, surviving.

“Evacuate where? Where do you want them to go? The buses came and got them after what happened. They could have prepared for them to leave before it happened.”

Sullivan and Davis were offered no assistance with transportation before the storm hit.

After the catastrophe hit the city, Sullivan said, people should “come together as one — everybody in the world. Let’s stop all this hatred against each other. This is a wake up call.”

Teens worry about school

Adrian Peters, 17, and Albert Bickham, 15, both of New Orleans, described their experiences as well. Peters said he is missing his grandmother Catherine Anderson, his uncle Marcel Anderson, his sister Tekel Peters and her children Terance Peters, 3, and Tekela Peters, 1, his 9-year-old sister Mykeisha Peters, his 11-year-old cousin, Roland Peters and his uncle Kyle Anderson, all of New Orleans. They had to walk three miles through four feet of water to get to the Superdome. Both Peters and Bickham are concerned about missing school.

Free-market fails

All the people that I interviewed were African American. New Orleans is 67 percent African American and almost one-third of the city lived below the poverty line before the storm. As Houston Chronicle columnist Rick Casey observes, the inherently-flawed free market system has failed New Orleans and the nation: “We have adopted a mantra of smaller government, but there are some things too big and too important for private charity and the private sector to handle. These include educating our children, protecting our people from tempests as well as terrorists, and policing our neighborhoods from armed thugs and our markets from corporate thugs. It also includes bringing the poor, most of whom work and many of whom go to church, into the community. To do this requires a change of consciousness. But it also requires governmental action.”

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