Swimming to New Orleans
I just returned this past weekend from my first trip to Louisiana since Katrina. It's beyond what you can imagine -- it's hell on Earth.
I flew into Baton Rouge, which sits about 80 miles northwest of New Orleans, and the city is destroyed, but not by the storm. There are hundreds of thousands of refugees from New Orleans in Baton Rouge. People are camping on the side of the roads, in their cars if they have them, and all over the LSU campus. The first thing you notice is how outraged everyone is.
The people of Baton Rouge don't want us here, and you can't blame them. There seems to be no plan for the New Orleaneans once they are dropped off in Baton Rouge, and locals are confused, horrified or worse. They know this is potentially a permanent situation, or at least the way it will be for the next several months. It's safe to say they're as scared as the homeless and exhausted refugees that litter their streets.
We rented four houses in Houma, La., which is about 50 miles south of Baton Rouge or about 30 miles west of New Orleans. We spent the weekend moving our family there, then our friends, and then people we met who had no other options. When I left, we had perhaps 40 people and another 20 on the way. It's an amazing thing to see -- your best friends, family and everyone in between huddled on floorboards, makeshift beds and sleeping bags. It's truly like a nuclear bomb hit our city, and we are doing everything we can just to keep everyone housed, fed and with clean water.
I decide to go into New Orleans as there are far too many people from our home unaccounted for. It's Saturday, September 3.
There is no way to get into the city. The roads that are open are being used to bring people out, and no traffic is headed in. I drive a rental car 30 miles on backroads that I guess won't be flooded. I make it about half way until can no longer get into the city by car. With a backpack loaded with as much water as I can carry, two packs of breakfast bars, three canisters of bug spray, and an extra pair of shoes, I start walking.
First, there's the climate. It's almost 90 degrees, and the humidity and the still water have made the swamp come alive with bugs. The mosquito swarms and other bugs make sound like a blizzard. I have to wear long-sleeve shirts and pants, and I'm drenched with sweat.
The first group of people I meet are very friendly. I trade my ipod for a kid's dirt bike so I can make better time, and they give me extra water. They try to warn me it isn't safe to head into the city. They warn me about what neighborhoods to avoid, and that above everything else, it was critical to stay away from the police. They'll force you to leave by putting you on a bus destined for who knows where, and if you resist, they'll arrest you. It's the first time I sense that the police and government are seen as enemies by Katrina survivors. At first, I simply consider that shortsighted, but over the next two days, I start to understand why they think that way.
I get to the outskirts of the city by about 2 p.m. -- an upscale neighborhood called Metaire, where most of the money of New Orleans lives. To get that far already involved about half a mile of swimming. Everything is destroyed. The area isn't just underwater, it's more that the swamps have risen over New Orleans. There are snakes and alligators everywhere, and the more you see, the more you realize the city isn't going to be livable for who knows how long.
Then there are the bodies. I first start seeing them as I cross from Metaire into what is called Midcity, the neighborhood you drive through to get to Jazz Fest and the fairgrounds. Until now, I've only seen a few dead bodies in my entire life. Some have been pushed against dry spots by, I presume, rescue workers. Others are just floating in the water. There are houses with red marks on them, meaning there's someone dead inside. The most horrifying part of all is what happens when a body is floating in the water for two or three days. It's barely recognizable as a person. When you see one, it's riddled with mosquitoes and who knows what else.
The city is not at all empty as the news says it is. I find hundreds if not thousands of people in all the different neighborhoods, and they have no intention of leaving. First and foremost, they have nowhere to go. Many people don't want to leave. They don't trust they'll ever be let back in, and they certainly aren't going to allow their homes to be pillaged by people crafty enough not to get kicked out. Finally, they just don't believe the argument that the city will be unsafe and infested with disease.
They're armed and angry. They have already survived five straight days of no food and no water, and they don't believe those who haven't gotten them food or water are going to find a place for them to live.
I grew up in the 9th Ward, one of the lowest income areas in the city and the site of the first levee break. To get to my childhood home, I would have to dive underwater just to get to the roof. I go to the second house we lived in. Its roof has been torn off and there's a body floating not 50 feet away from the front porch. I wish I can say my friends' houses fared better. Most were either completely submerged in 10 to 15 feet of water or just not standing anymore. I find three people I know, and they set off for Houma that afternoon.
People are furious. They feel they've been abandoned. You have to understand, there's no power anywhere. The rescue crews are going through New Orleans proper but not all the neighborhoods where people live. Most people don't even think there's a rescue effort underway at all. It becomes clear to me the one thing people need is communication; without it fear takes over. There's nothing more important to restoring order than giving the leaders an ability to get messages to everyone.
I know everyone has heard about people firing on helicopters. I'm certainly not saying it is right, but after being there, I understand. For five days, helicopters are flying overhead, but none of them are dropping water or food down for anyone. They fly by using load speakers saying that anyone found looting or stealing will be arrested, and those are the helicopters that are followed by gunshots, from what I see.
The only government group anyone has seen are the police with sawed-off shotguns threatening to arrest everyone who is walking around on the streets.
Everyone is fearful for his future, and fear leads people to do amazing, extraordinary things. It's a state of war. People don't even know who they're fighting, but they know they're at war. Twice, I bike away at full speed from people that come at me. Before I leave the city, my cash, backpack loaded with food and change of clothes and my camera are stolen. The final time, two people robbed me of my water. They didn't even ask for cash or my watch, just my water. It is desperation, and the last thing I could ever feel is anger.
I'll never forget this weekend. I'll probably spend years wishing I could. You just can't describe what it's like to see the hometown that you love, that's a part of everything you are, littered with floating dead bodies, and to see "your people" firing guns at strangers and hating everyone and everything. It's one of the worst things I've ever felt or seen. It's a war being fought against no one.