2006Public Service

Old West has nothing on Katrina aftermath

Death, violence, lawlessness
put cities under martial law
By: 
Brian Thevenot, Keith Spera,
and Doug MacCash
Staff writers
August 31, 2005

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Sitting on a black barrel amid the muck and stench near the St. Claude Avenue bridge, 52-year-old Daniel Weber broke into a sob, his voice cracking as he recounted how he had watched his wife drown and spent the next 14 hours floating in the polluted flood waters, his only life line a piece of driftwood.

"My hands were all cut up from breaking through the window, and I was standing on the fence. I said, 'I'll get on the roof and pull you up,'" he said. "And then we just went under."

man rescued from roof

Lakeview: Members of Texas Task Force 1, a FEMA search and rescue team, call out for a man they were told was calling for help from his attic all night. When they finally found him, he was pronounced dead. (Staff photo by Ted Jackson)

Weber sat among hundreds of refugees rescued Tuesday from rooftops, attics and floating debris in the 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish by an armada of more than 100 boats. Officials from the Coast Guard estimated they pulled thousands of people off of rooftops and attics, many with stories as grim as Weber's. Officials believed hundreds and maybe thousands more remained in peril. They declined to estimate the number of dead. That will come later.

"We've got cadaver dogs, but we're only looking for the live people at this point," said Rachel Zechnelli of the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, which deployed all available boats to the Industrial Canal Monday night. "We're dealing only with live voices and heartbeats."

While the 9th Ward remained the focus of the search and rescue effort, refugees from other neighborhoods flooded by the massive breach of Lake Pontchartrain streamed to the Superdome and CBD, trudging through deep waters to get there.

Then, in an evening press conference, Mayor Ray Nagin announced that the already crippled city would take yet another blow: Another surge of water from the failed 17th Street Canal levee could push an additional 10 feet of water into already waterlogged neighborhoods, flooding the remaining dry sections of Uptown.

The expected surge stems from a failure to execute a plan to dump sandbags via helicopter into the 200-meter wide breach. Nagin offered up no culprit but promised to investigate the matter.

"I thought everyone understood this morning that that was the highest priority," the mayor said. "It didn't get done. Now there's nothing to slow down the pace of the water."

That was enough to prompt some of the city's few remaining residents to start packing.

Uptown resident Margeaux Gonzalez rode out Katrina at the Queen and Crescent Hotel, then returned to find her Laurel Street home dry. As she and her neighbors watched Nagin on Tuesday night on a TV rigged to a car battery, they reluctantly made plans to evacuate to Baton Rouge.

"We were feeling really positive three hours ago," Gonzales said. "The storm is long gone, we suffered through the wind and the rain and survived the flood. It's ridiculous that we can't get the help we need from the government to keep the city intact. That's sad."

Earlier in the day, as floodwaters rose to knee-deep levels along Poydras Street, the city's top brass evacuated to Baton Rouge via the Crescent City Connection, the only clear route out of town. They recommended others follow.

"Get out," said City Attorney Sherry Landry from the window of the SUV she would use to evacuate. "I'm serious."

For many, that wasn't an option. In the impoverished 9th Ward, many didn't flee the storm in the first place because of lack of money and transportation, as well as a belief the storm wouldn't be nearly as bad. On Tuesday, they remained the focus of efforts to evacuate the homeless to the already crowded Superdome.

That left thousands of people in other neighborhoods close to the lake, whose homes had not flooded until late Monday when the canal gave way, with no option other than to walk to the few dry areas of the city. Interstate 10 remained largely devoid of cars, but a steady stream of pedestrians seeking food, water and shelter walked along the highway.

More than 100 New Orleans police officers riding out the storm in the LSU Medical Center were still trapped by high water on Tuesday. Assumption Parish deputies in boats rescued them.

Some who left their flooded homes faced heart-rending dilemmas. Bethaney Waith of Mid-City, who walked in chest high water with a neighbor to the Superdome, had to leave her disabled housemate behind. The woman suffered from epidemia and can't walk.

downtown

Downtown: Rising water that began to cover the streets of New Orleans forced many residents to flee the city, as well as take the law into their own hands. (Staff photo by Ted Jackson)

Those trapped in the city faced an increasingly lawless environment, as law enforcement agencies found themselves overwhelmed with widespread looting. Looters swarmed the Wal-Mart on Tchoupitoulas Street, often bypassing the food and drink section to steal wide-screen TVs, jewelry, bicycles and computers. Watching the sordid display and shaking his head in disgust, one firefighter said of the scene: "It's a hurricane, what are you do with a basketball goal?"

Police regained control at about 3 p.m., after clearing the store with armed patrol. One shotgun-toting Third District detective described the looting as "ferocious."

"And it's going to get worse as the days progress," he said.

In Uptown, one the few areas that remained dry, a bearded man patrolled Oak Street near the boarded-up Maple Leaf Bar, a sawed- off shotgun slung over his shoulder. The owners of a hardware store sat in folding chairs, pistols at the ready.

Uptown resident Keith Williams started his own security patrol, driving around in his Ford pickup with his newly purchased handgun. Earlier in the day, Williams said he had seen the body of a gunshot victim near the corner of Leonidas and Hickory streets.

"What I want to know is why we don't have paratroopers with machine guns on every street," Williams said.

Like-minded Art Depodesta sat on the edge of a picnic table outside Cooter Brown's Bar, a chrome shotgun at his side loaded with red shells.

"They broke into the Shell station across the street," he said. "I walked over with my 12-gauge and shot a couple into the air."

The looters scattered, but soon after, another man appeared outside the bar in a pickup truck armed with a pistol and threatened Depodesta.

"I told him, 'Listen, I was in the Army and I will blow your ass off,'" Depodesta said. "We've got enough trouble with the flood."

The man sped away.

"You know what sucks," Depodesta said. "The whole U.S. is looking at this city right now, and this is what they see."

In the Bywater, a supply store sported spray-painted signs reading "You Loot, I Shoot" and "You Bein Watched." A man seated nearby with a rifle in his lap suggested it was no idle threat. At the Bywater studio of Dr. Bob, the artist known for handpainted "Be Nice or Leave" signs, a less fanciful sentiment was painted on the wall: "Looters Will Be Shot. Dr. Bob."

As the afternoon faded, aggression filled the air on the neutral ground of Poland Avenue as well, as people grew increasingly frustrated with the rescue effort. Having already survived one nightmare, a woman with five children feared going to go to the Dome, saying that some of the men preparing to board transport vehicles had smuggled razor blades with them.

On the other side of the bridge, rescue boats continued to offload as many as 15 people at a time late into the afternoon, with no end in sight. Some said they had seen dead bodies floating by their boats.

Many stumbled from dehydration as they made their way onto dry land. Several rescue workers said some of the people trapped were so shell-shocked or stubborn they refused to leave their houses. "If you can figure that one out, let me know," said Oscar Dupree, a volunteer who had been trapped on a roof himself and returned to help save others.

The scene called to mind a refugee camp in a Third World nation.

Liquor flowed freely and tempers flared amid complaints about the pace of the relief effort, which seemed to overwhelm the agencies involved and the city's inability to contain floodwaters.

As they emerged from rescue boats, at times wobbling and speaking incoherently, many of the rescued seem stunned they had not died. Johnell Johnson of Marais street said she had been trapped on her roof " with a handicapped man with one damn leg."

Gerald Wimberly wept as he recounted his unsuccessful effort to help a young girl, who rescuers ultimately saved.

Dupree said he had seen a young man he knew drown. "I just couldn't get to him," he said. "I had to tell his people."

Weber, the man who lost his wife, seemed at the breaking point as he waited, surrounded by anger and filth, for a National Guard truck to ferry him to the Dome. After 14 hours of floating on a piece of wood, volunteers who knew him had fished him out.

"Another hour, I would have just let myself drown," he said.

A moment later, staring ahead to a bleak future without his wife, he said he almost wished he had.

"I'm not going to make it. I know I'm not."

Public Service 2006