On Saturday September 3, award-winning filmmaker Gloria La Riva, internationally acclaimed photographer Bill Hackwell and ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) Youth & Student Coordinator Caneisha Mills arrived in New Orleans as an ANSWER delegation to document an accurate account of the situation and provide solidarity and support to those in need.
These four young men used an air mattress and later a boat to take over 275 people to safety, in the absence of any government rescue effort.
Photo: Bill Hackwell
The following is an eyewitness report of the crisis in the area.
Media reports on Sept. 2 described anarchy and general chaos as the climate in all of New Orleans. The national media reported that supplies and food were then being distributed in the area. However, once we arrived in the Algiers district of New Orleans after seven checkpoints, the reality showed otherwise.
Algiers: �I can�t leave�
While 80 percent of New Orleans was submerged in water, Algiers is one of the few districts that was spared because it sits higher than most of the city. A historic district established in 1719, Algiers is on the east bank of the Mississippi River, across from the French Quarter. Probably 15 percent of the residents remained behind, most of them determined to stay in their homes. The majority of homes were still intact, although many had suffered damage. While their houses survived, people�s chance of survival seemed very bleak since there was no electricity or disbursement of food, water or other supplies.
�Imagine being in a city, poor, without any money and all of a sudden you are told to leave and you don�t even have a bicycle,� stated Malik Rahim, a community activist in the Algiers section of New Orleans. �Ninety percent of the people don�t even have cars.�
One woman told us it was not possible for her to evacuate. She said, �I can�t leave. I don�t have a car and I have nine children.� She and her husband are getting by with the help of several men in the community who are combining resources to provide for their neighbors.
The government claims they can get water, but residents have to travel at least 17 miles to the nearest water and ice distribution center. Only one case of water was available per family. Countless people had no way to drive.
Military forces no help
There was a huge military and police presence, but not to provide services. All the police and military forces, east and west of the river, were stationed in front of private buildings and abandoned stores protecting private property.
The goods they were bringing in were supplies for their own forces.
Not one of them had delivered water to Algiers or gone to the houses to see if sick or elderly people needed help. There was no door-to-door survey to see who was injured. The overwhelming majority of people who have stayed in Algiers are Black, but some are white. One white man in his late 50s pointed across the street to a 10-acre grassy lot. It looks like a beautiful park. He said, �I had my daughter call FEMA. I told them I want to donate this land to the people in need. They could set up 100 tractor trailers with aid, they could set up tents. No one has ever called me back.� He was clearly angry.
Some residents did express fear of burglaries. But acts of heroism, sacrifice and solidarity were evident everywhere.
Steve, a white man in his 40s, knocked on Malik�s front door. He told us, �Malik has kept this neighborhood together. We don�t know what we�d do without his help.� He had come in because he needed to use the phone. Malik�s street is the only one with phones still working.
Malik and three of his friends have been delivering food, water and ice to those in need three times a day, searching everywhere for goods.
There was a strong suspicion among the residents that they would be forced to leave their homes. Algiers is full of quaint, historic French-style houses, with a high real estate value, and signs of gentrification are evident.
Downtown New Orleans: deaths were preventable
Although entry into downtown New Orleans was prohibited north and east of the Mississippi because of extensive flooding and the almost total evacuation, we were able to enter the area on Sunday.
The Superdome was still surrounded by water. All types of military vehicles�helicopters, army trucks, etc.�were coming in and out of the area. Most of the people had already left, however. On U.S. Route 90, the only road out of New Orleans, convoys of National Guard troops were pouring into the city�too late for many. According to an emergency issue of The Times-Picayune, 16,000 National Guard troops occupied the city.
Water is at a premium and not generally available. One African American couple approached our car. The woman asked us, �Do you have water you could give us? We have four kids. When they told us to leave before the hurricane we couldn�t. We have no car and no money.�
Undoubtedly it is similar in the other states, Mississippi and Alabama, that got the direct hit of Katrina. On the radio we heard reports of completely demolished towns. What differentiated the rest of the Gulf Coast from New Orleans is that the many deaths in New Orleans were absolutely preventable and occurred after the hurricane. On everyone�s lips is the cutting of federal funds to strengthen the levees of Lake Pontchartrain.
Two reporters from New York told us they had just come from the New Orleans Airport emergency hospital that had been set up.
New Orleans Airport: evacuees stranded
The New Orleans International Airport was converted into an emergency hospital center. Thousands of people were evacuated there to get supplies and food, and for transportation that would take them out of the city. Many people arrived with only one or two bags, their entire lives reduced to a few belongings.
Some people did not want to leave their homes, but said they were forced to do so. One white woman and her husband, Pauline Noble and Jerome Hill, were forced to evacuate. Pauline said, �The military told us that we had one minute to evacuate. We said that we weren�t ready and he said they can�t force us to leave, but if we don�t leave anybody left would be arrested � But it was the end of the month. The two of us have been living for a couple of months on $600 a month and rent is $550. At the end of the month, we only had $20 and one-eighth of a tank of gas. There was no way we could leave.�
Under threat of arrest if they didn�t vacate, the couple walked five miles to the airport to see if they could get help.
The majority of people in New Orleans blame the local and national government for the catastrophe. One young Black man said, �The government abandoned us � [it�s] pre-meditated murder.� Another said, �Why would [the government] protect a building � instead of rescuing people that have been without food or water for three or four days? It seems like that was the plan. � We couldn�t starve them out, the hurricane didn�t kill them, it seems planned.�
Baton Rouge: horror stories abound
As we drove to Baton Rouge to visit evacuated people, we heard on local radio that possibly 10,000 people had died in the flooded areas of New Orleans. In one announcement, we heard of some of the missing people still being searched for: a 90-year-old woman named Lisa, a 102-year-old man and two women in their 80s. The elderly, the most vulnerable, were left to their own devices.
Bodies were lying everywhere, hidden in attics and apartments. The announcer described how one body, rotting after days in the sun, was surrounded by a wall fashioned from fallen bricks by survivors and given a provisional burial to give the deceased woman some dignity. The sign placed next to her body read, �Here Lies Vera, God Help Us.�
At a Red Cross shelter outside of Baton Rouge, we met Emmanuel, who couldn�t find his wife and three sons after the floods. His story was shocking. His home was near the 17th Street Canal, where the Pontchartrain levee broke through.
�I stayed behind to rescue my neighbors while I sent my wife and kids to dry land,� he said. It is difficult for him to even talk about what happened. He had a small boat, so he went from house to house picking up neighbors. While doing so, he encountered many bodies in the water.
�My best friend�s body was floating by in the water. One mother whose baby drowned tied her baby to a fence so she could bury him after she returned.� Because troops kept driving by him and others without helping them, he had to walk 30 miles north until he was picked up.
The Houston Astrodome
Thousands of people were evacuated to the Astrodome in Houston, Texas.
Photo: Bill Hackwell
Outside of Baton Rouge and other nearby cities in Louisiana, many people who were forced to evacuate were relocated to the Astrodome in Houston, Texas. We decided to go there as well.
The first thing we noticed once inside the Astrodome was the thousands of people whose entire existence was reduced to a small cot. It was like a sea of people in a small cage. Unlike the chaos and complete neglect of the victims in New Orleans, in Houston there seemed to be some attempt to help those who were forced to evacuate. The first thing that people would say when you met them was, �This is better than the Superdome in New Orleans.�
But the situation for families was bleak. On one end of the Astrodome, on a wall were hundreds of pieces of cardboard and cardstock paper used to post names of those still separated from their families. One 17-year-old young man said, �I have not spoken to my parents in over a week. I think they are in Dallas. I don�t know when I will see them.�
We met many people who described the real situation during the evacuation. Rechelle described her family�s harrowing experience: �We had to punch ten holes in our ceiling for ten people to get fresh air. They [the military] would not pick us up. They would say we are only taking three people at a time, three people. They said they were coming back, but they never came back. They never came.�
Her ex-husband rescued her and the other nine members of her family with a boat he found.
Outside the dome were four young people, 17 to 31 years old, who brought their listeners to tears as they modestly described their heroic feat of rescuing almost 300 people in a series of evacuations over a period of 30 hours. They first evacuated children and women, starting with an air mattress, then in a boat they found abandoned. In a touching comment, Errol Brown, Jr. said, �Our goal was saving children and women first, because without them, there is no us.�
Cary Preston ironically said, �They will probably charge us with looting for using the boat, but we did what we had to do.�
Driving to the Houston airport the next morning, we heard inspiring news. The ANSWER Coalition�s call supporting Cuba�s offer to send medical doctors and emergency aid received the biggest response ever on the ANSWER website�s letter-writing campaign to Congress and Bush. The letter demanded that the Bush administration allow Cuba�s doctors into the United States to provide the medical attention so badly needed.
In just 30 hours, 39,452 letters were sent to Congress and Bush, and the numbers keep growing.
This crisis is a crime of the highest magnitude. The Bush Administration is always able to find money to fund wars that benefit the rich of this country; however, when it comes to providing aid to respond to a disaster of this magnitude, funds, supplies and resources are lacking. From Bush on down, they should be indicted.