Stories from Hurricane Katrina

On Saturday, a cry for help from Franklinton, La.: "We are panicking!" More reader tales of heroism and despair.

Published September 3, 2005 8:04PM (EDT)

Franklinton, La., in Washington Parish is without any federal assistance, and there is only a small Red Cross office open. The entire parish is without food, water and electricity. We are panicking. The citizens here are wondering why no one is helping us. From what we can pick up, FEMA and the rest of the government didn't know we were in need because no one called them and told them. Hello!

There is no land-line phone service, radio service or cellphone service. The lines are down and electricity runs the cell towers. Hello! We need electricity at least for critical areas so there can be communications. Why didn't FEMA send in people to survey the damage and needs of people in a 100-mile arc north of the area where the hurricane came ashore?

We have been told that power will be restored sometime in December! From all indications the parish itself received damage. There was little loss of life from the hurricane, but there will be loss of life from starvation and dehydration if conditions continue. Please send us help!

And they are saying that once electricity is restored, the schools can reopen in December!

I am relaying this from my dad's computer. He had the presence of mind to get a generator from Home Depot.

Not all food stores have power, and the ones that are open are only taking cash. People aren't working, so they can't get paid, and no could cash paychecks even if they were, since the banks are closed. So cash is in short supply. I had to travel 40 miles to get gasoline, and only got enough to get home. I have no money now; we spent it on food and gasoline. I am limited in where I can go until my father can send me cash.

A neighbor raises pigs. He is going to start butchering one in a few days and have a barbecue to feed the neighborhood. His pigs will eventually starve and die. My horses will eventually starve and die. There are no jobs because there is no power and limited gasoline.

The federal government has got its priorities skewed. Electricity brings the ability to work and clean up. Water and food bring the ability to live. People can clean up their own streets temporarily if they have gasoline, but they have to drive great distances to buy gasoline in places where the electricity is still on. They are spending what little money they have on gasoline to get to stores and buy what limited food is available. Where is FEMA?

We are now living in a community that feels like the 18th century, with no electricity, or water, or natural gas, or gasoline, but at least in those days they had food or a means of getting it. I cry for the poor people in New Orleans, Gulf Shores, Biloxi and Mobile who have lost everything.

It is tremendously worse in other communities -- areas where bodies float in the streets and lawlessness runs rampant, because Bush sent the National Guard to Iraq and Afghanistan. The Guard could be here now, but my brother, William B. Wheeler IV, is in the Georgia Reserves and is at a camp in New Jersey waiting to go to Iraq. He should be down here helping Louisiana and Alabama and Mississippi. I'm sure he's feeling terrible.

We don't get much news except from battery radios and people who happen to stop who are themselves lost. I had to travel a great distance to get this message out.

Where is FEMA, where is the National Guard, where is the Red Cross? Where is help? I have three boys. I need food; I need dog food if anyone could send it; I am going to soon need horse food. I have 12 horses that I had just moved down to our property from Georgia. But I have no way of caring for them unless we get electricity. And I have no way of selling them.

A large number of residents around rural Franklinton have wells that are pumped by electricity. If we just had electricity we could begin to get our life back. Gasoline could be pumped and distributed -- what little there is available.

And the horrible thing is, I'm sure my story is being duplicated in hundreds of communities from Franklinton to Mobile, Ala., and beyond because of poor planning on the part of the federal government, which is supposed to have the resources to help. Planning: "You plan for the worst situation and hope for the best." They didn't do that. My fear is that we are only in the beginning of the hurricane season and we might see this happen again in a few months!

Doesn't the federal government know how to plan? I am a housewife and I could have planned for disaster assistance better than FEMA did. I heard that when it came to disaster assistance money for FEMA and Army Corps of Engineers money to strengthen the levees in New Orleans, Bush denied the items because it "wasn't in the budget." It was more important to stay the course in Iraq than to prepare for Katrina. It is more important to help his oil buddies make billions than it is to help the citizens of the United States.

I voted Republican in the last election. I will vote Democratic in the next one. Bush and his Republican friends have been exposed for the incompetent, uncaring, uncompassionate people they really are. They are not compassionate and they certainly aren't Christian. Everyone down here feels the same.

I am also sending this cry for help to other countries' embassies that we have helped in the past. Maybe they can help us, since our own government seems unable to.

-- Alicia Crider

I recently left my job as an emergency medical technician in Baltimore and moved to Austin, Texas, to accept a James Michener fellowship in writing. Austin is about 500 miles from New Orleans, so on Sunday evening, when I heard what the news was predicting about Hurricane Katrina, I packed my car and headed for New Orleans.

I drove all night and got to the suburbs of the city around 11 a.m. Monday. The hurricane was still blowing and though the winds had slowed somewhat, the rain was sideways and visibility was almost nothing. Interstate 10 was blocked with downed streetlights, the roofs of homes, and every other kind of debris imaginable. It was like driving through a junkyard. Every so often a big piece of steel roofing would go skating across the interstate or down a side road. For the most part I was numb to it, but when the big debris started blowing I would tell myself: "Stay alive, stay alive, stay alive."

As I got into New Orleans proper, the freeway descended slightly and there was between five and 10 feet of water blocking it. At the edge of the flood, there was a full-size pickup sunk to its roof. I turned around and drove back the wrong way on the highway, hoping another car wouldn't run into me head-on. Finally I noticed a bunch of empty police cars parked on an overpass. I parked behind them and headed toward a building I hoped was the police station. It turned out to be the Kenner Police headquarters. Kenner is a city a few miles west of New Orleans, right on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain. Like New Orleans, Kenner is just at or below sea level. The police station itself, though, was built on slightly higher ground than the immediate area. The building was dry and the generators were running.

I was passed up the chain of command until I got to the captain, who promptly put me on a team that was going out to restart the pumping stations. New Orleans is kept dry by a network of massive pumping stations, and several of them are in Kenner. All were shut down. The conditions were so dangerous and unpredictable that everyone thought someone on the repair team might get seriously injured, so they were happy to have an EMT to go along.

The water in the streets was between three and five feet deep, and the only vehicles that could travel in it were military-style two-and-a-half-ton trucks, aka deuce-and-a-half trucks. I rode in one of them with about a dozen police officers and National Guard soldiers. There were downed power lines everywhere, across every block, it seemed. We swerved to avoid them but some were so low that we brushed them anyway. The driver would yell "Duck!" as if it mattered. If one of the lines was still energized, we would all be killed instantly.

There were façades ripped off hotels and apartment buildings, beds and furniture visible through the gaping holes, huge trees uprooted and flung down streets. Many of the big billboards were bent double to the ground, smashing whatever was beneath them. Where it was dry, there were bricks, wall sections, pipes and jagged tree limbs everywhere. Then there were the power lines. One was so low that I had to lift it up over the truck as we went under it. As I write now about the power lines it sounds like the stupidest thing I ever did, but the electricity was out everywhere, so you just did it and prayed.

We spent all day Monday getting the pumping stations restarted. The regular pump operators were nowhere to be found, so everyone pitched in and tried to figure out how to get the pumps working. The diesel engines that ran the pumps were big enough to power a battleship. Figuring out how to start them was impossible. After several hours, tempers were flaring and some of the police officers and National Guardsmen were having heated exchanges about what to do next.

Finally the pump operators showed up and got the pumps online. As it turned out, the stations were soaked but in good shape, so with the exception of wading all day in water and sewage among pieces of sharp debris, it was pretty safe. When we got back to the station, they fed me and bunked me with the officers. I examined my sewage-soaked feet and rubbed them with hand sanitizer. There was no running water anywhere.

The next morning they sent me out on a deuce-and-a-half to respond to emergency calls. The area hospitals were completely overflowing, and the city had set up a temporary clinic/hospital/triage center on the second floor of the airport. With the pumps running, the water levels had gone down a few inches overnight, but there was still three or four feet of water in the streets. Stores were already being looted -- every store I saw had its door kicked in or ripped off and a line of people going in and out of it. People were floating merchandise out of Wal-Mart on boats. The police tried to stop it but were completely overwhelmed. I know that President Bush has called for the police to stop the looting, but at the moment this is an impossible and ridiculous request. There are thousands and thousands of looters and only a handful of police. And there are thousands more people who still need to be rescued. If 25,000 military policemen had been sent in from the beginning, there would have been no looting. Another thing I'll say is that most or all of the civilians I saw were poor and humble folks. No one I saw (with the exception of the police officers) had decided to stay behind during the hurricane to "brave it out" -- they stayed because they had no means to leave.

By Tuesday morning, basic transportation was still a major problem -- the Kenner Police Department's functional vehicles consisted of its own two deuce-and-a-half trucks, plus one from the National Guard (under loan and command of the National Guardsmen), and one swamp boat (also on loan). Two of the trucks were assigned to drop officers at strategic locations where they would keep the peace. I was assigned to the third truck, with three officers going along with me as escorts. Folks in the street were already getting pretty desperate, most of them were running out of food and water, so while some were respectful, many others yelled profanities at us as we went by. Luckily the three officers I was with were pretty experienced --one of them was a long-time narcotics officer, another was on the SWAT team -- so I felt relatively safe. Later, we found out that in New Orleans, people were beginning to shoot at the police. But at the time, we didn't know it.

All of the patients I saw were trapped and had no way out. They were all living on the second and third floors of motels and apartment buildings. The first call was for a lady who was six months pregnant and thought she was going to deliver her baby right then (her other four children all were born at seven months). All I had was a blood pressure cuff and stethoscope and a couple of bandages. I tried to remember the section of the EMT textbook that talked about delivering babies. I thought I could do it if it was a normal birth but otherwise I was scared shitless. She was shouting at me, "I have to go to the bathroom, I have to push it out," and I was shouting at her, "Don't push, don't push, don't push!" I slipped aside her underwear and saw that she wasn't crowning, but I didn't know how far the airport clinic was. On the inside, I was thinking, "Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit." There was a downed power line blocking the road and we had to park far from the complex and wade a long way because of it. I yelled at the officers to get the truck right up to the complex. Somehow, they did it. Right then, an EMT from the fire department showed up and he had a bunch of experience delivering babies, and then everything seemed much easier. We got the lady to the airport triage center with no trouble.

The rest of the patients that day were people that in any normal situation should have been taken to the emergency room -- sick elderly folks, heart patients and diabetics, sick children and infants, people with sky-high blood pressure or fluid in their lungs, a guy with a deep cut in his arm six inches long and three inches wide. All of them were out or nearly out of food and water. Some had had their food and water stolen at gunpoint. All of the people were very, very afraid. One was shaking so hard he couldn't hold his medicine bottle. It was a hundred degrees out and incredibly humid.

I saw all this and my immediate reaction was "Get this person out of here right now," and then I would remind myself that all over the area, people were dying. I knew that in New Orleans, they were leaving the corpses in the water, tying them down if they had time, hoping they wouldn't float away. I'd also heard that when the power had gone out at one of the local hospitals, the backup generators didn't turn on and all the patients on life support died.

In the end, I didn't take any more patients to the hospital that day. I reassured them, took their vital signs, gave them medical advice, gave away my own food and water, gave away antiseptic wipes and bandages, taped and bandaged their injuries as best as was possible. For the most part, my thinking was: "OK, this person will survive another few days, and someone else is dying right now." Definitely some of the hardest decisions I've ever made, and there is no way to know if they were the right ones.

Tuesday night around dark we got back and had dinner. Someone had donated a bunch of meat and we ate good barbecue. We hadn't had a patient in an hour or so. The sun was going down and the clouds were beautiful and the air felt dry. Then word started going around about New Orleans Police Department officers being shot, and there was a feeling in the police station that everything was about to change. I felt sorry for everyone -- for the people inside and the people outside. On the most basic level, everyone was just trying to stay alive. I headed up to the command post and waited for my next assignment.

At the time, the pumps were still working and the water was coming down. The previous day, my car had been parked in a foot of water, but now the pavement underneath it was dry. Most important, the lower water level meant that the fire department would be able to get their engines down some of the streets, which meant that other EMTs with real equipment and probably some paramedics would be available in Kenner. As I saw it, it was time to get transferred to New Orleans, where I'd be more useful doing search and rescue.

At 7:45 Tuesday night, I walked into the command post to speak to the captain about my transfer. In general, it was a very serious place, but I could tell something terrible had just happened. There had been a 400-foot breach in one of the levees that afternoon. Word had just come down that the breach could not be fixed. In a matter of hours, New Orleans would be under an additional 10 to 15 feet of water. The situation was already terrible, but it was about to get much, much worse. And as I've said before, many or most of the civilians I saw were already out of food and water, wading through three or four feet of filthy water to get anywhere. There was no running water within miles. With the exception of a few hospitals and police stations with backup generators, there was no electricity, either.

The official estimate was that the town of Kenner was going to get 10 more feet of water. The first floor of the police station would be swamped, the generators and radios would be knocked out, and the only transportation would be on the single flatboat. Not to mention the jail, which would be flooded also. The captain assigned a sergeant to get cheap battery-powered walkie-talkies from Wal-Mart -- the kind you use for hunting or skiing and have a range of a few hundred yards -- because with the power out, the police radios were going to be useless. A lieutenant was ordered to come up with a simple system of hand communication that the officers could learn in a few minutes. Despite all their preparations, the Kenner Police Department was headed back to the Stone Age. The situation at the New Orleans Police Department was even worse.

I followed the captain downstairs and asked when he thought the water level would get back to normal. "Months," he said. "Maybe never. This is much worse than the worst-case scenario. No one knows how to think about it."

Outside there was a steady convoy of emergency vehicles, hundreds of them, leaving the city along I-10. I watched them leave. The waters were coming and I had a very short time to make my decision. Stay for the duration -- a month, at least -- or leave that minute.

The argument in favor of leaving was that every day, thousands more rescuers were arriving with serious equipment and gear (mine was limited to what I'd been able to buy at the Target in Austin). The biggest difference I'd made was that I'd arrived during the hurricane, hours or days ahead of most rescuers -- FEMA and all the official agencies had understandably waited at a safe distance. There was also the question of continuing my own life -- keeping the fellowship I'd just been awarded, not being kicked out of school, etc. Still, at first, I knew I would stay. Then, a few minutes later, I knew I should leave. It was the hardest decision I've made in my life.

I grabbed my gear from the bunkroom and made my way downstairs. At the same time the previous night, the bunkroom had been full of exhausted officers trying to sleep. That night, it was empty. When I went to the briefing room, it was packed with every officer in the building. They were listening to the news about the coming flood -- about the annihilation of their town. I said quick goodbyes and felt incredibly guilty. The meeting ended and dozens of officers rushed by me, all talking about how to save their family members who had been safe that day, but might be in danger now that the levees had broken.

Outside, I ran into the SWAT team officer who'd been one of my escorts. He was compassionate and tried to reassure me that people were extremely thankful I'd showed up at all. I shook his hand. I felt like the worst human being on earth.

When I got to my car, I realized it was facing the wrong way on the highway. I drove for several miles, toward New Orleans, toward the coming flood. I couldn't find a place to turn around. Finally I saw an opening in the guardrail and wrenched my car into the grassy sinkhole between the two sides of the highway. The mud was a foot deep and the car bogged down and for a second I was sure I would be stuck there. Then the tires caught and I lurched back onto the highway. I slipped in with the convoy of ambulances and police cars leaving the city.

As everyone can see now, the situation in New Orleans is only getting worse. People inside have been out of food and water for days. The million or so people who used to live in and around New Orleans now have no homes, no jobs, and no paychecks. I was in New York during Sept. 11 and the weeks that followed, and I say the following with complete certainty: This disaster is so much worse than Sept. 11 that they are not even comparable. Maybe people are already saying this, or maybe it's not a fashionable sentiment. Either way, it's true.

I'd like to end this by talking about the police officers. All of them had lost everything -- their homes were destroyed, their families scattered far and wide and out of communication. Despite all of it, every one of the officers kept working to save their town and the citizens who'd been trapped there. They are all heroes. It was an honor to know them.

-- Philipp Meyer

It was only a quick trip home to see family and eat as many shrimp as possible. It quickly deteriorated into a flight for our lives.

After checking the national weather, as I always do before departing for New Orleans, I found there was a hurricane on the east side of Florida. Its projected course put its landfall at Tallahassee. It was not a huge hurricane. I departed early the next morning and did not give Katrina a second thought.

When I arrived in New Orleans, Katrina had moved into the warm waters of the Gulf and strengthened considerably. We began to pack to leave immediately for Houston.

I was so thankful to have transportation and ready funds to do so. So many of my former neighbors did not have such advantages. I felt so sorry for the poor, sick and the elderly left behind. I hitched a ride with my sister, and we fled like so many to Houston. Everyone I know is homeless. The infrastructure is completely destroyed. Most will not be able to drive to work across the watery state of Louisiana without the aid of bridges. There is no future for them in their hometown. With any luck they may have electricity and water services within six months. Disease will kill more than the storm and flooding. They do not know when they can get the water from the streets.

Although I did not lose a house, I did lose a home. Everything I know of home is destroyed. I have spent the three days since my escape to higher ground trying to reach my missing brother. Has anyone seen Whitie Michael Roshto?

There are so many people worse off than myself, but I did want to tell my story. I have sat here paralyzed like the rest of the country watching the horror unfold. Then suddenly today my sadness turned to anger. I saw several unbelievable things on CNN and Fox.

Bush was acting like he had no idea this was going to happen. He may be able to lie to the rest of the country, but he can not lie to the New Orleanians. We were there in 2002 when he was warned that this could happen and he still reallocated our levee money to Iraq. Our levees have needed to be reinforced for years because of coastal erosion.

Large storms such as Katrina were traditionally broken up by small coastal barrier islands. Because of Mississippi River pollution from chemical plants upstate, our river is no longer building its delta. Louisiana is quickly deteriorating. How could the president not know?

The first President Bush was on TV today too. He said the administration was doing well with a rough situation. He defended the president's performance. Maybe we could comfort the rape victims of the Superdome with that. Maybe we can comfort the people without food and water with that.

Then it occurred to me. I may be safe from Katrina, but I do not trust this administration to give me aid in the aftermath of a terrorist attack! How well has our government done? How can I feel safe?

-- Carol Roshto-Smith

I've been talking to my relatives in Mobile, Ala., every day. My uncle is an attorney in Mobile. Wednesday he started calling clients, mostly seniors, checking up on them. He got in touch with one, a 60-year-old man who lives outside of town. Fella's lived in his house all his life, his parents lived there, his grandparents lived there, his great-grandparents lived there. Maybe his great-great-grandparents, too, that I'm not sure about. But the house was in the family for four generations.

He and his family evacuated, headed north before Katrina hit, leaving behind (among other things) a couple of older cars. When they came back to the property, there was nothing there. No cars, no house, not even rubble. It was like in the "Wizard of Oz," when the tornado lifts the farmhouse up off its foundations. Telling my uncle what happened, the man broke down and cried. His ancestral home was gone.

My grandfather's cousin came to visit my grandparents Wednesday night. Told them about this guy, friend of his, used to be his neighbor, now lives way up in Baton Rouge, whose parents are an elderly couple who live in a small town outside Mobile, about a hundred feet from the Gulf coast. Water came up, flooded the first floor; they went into the second story. Water came up further; they went into the attic. Water came up into the attic, but didn't fill it. They counted themselves lucky when the National Guard pulled them out.

Somehow they called their son up in Baton Rouge, and he drove down back roads and made it to them, and started to drive back to Baton Rouge and ran out of gas. Which is a problem -- almost all the gas stations in Mobile are closed. So their son called my grandfather's cousin, who had a full tank of gas, and my grandfather's cousin drove out and met them, and siphoned 10 gallons into their tank, which was enough for them to get out of Alabama and far enough toward Baton Rouge they could buy more gas. The elderly couple was talking about how lucky they were, because they'd made it into their attic. Their next-door neighbors hadn't been so lucky.

"These stories have been coming in all day," my grandfather told me this morning.

-- Jeff Wikstrom

I live in Zachary, a northern suburb of Baton Rouge. Zachary is the northernmost point of East Baton Rouge Parish and the last city with state-of-the-art anything -- everything north of Zachary is extremely rural. Thus many people are being shipped here.

Zachary has its own school district. The city was planning on keeping the schools open today, Wednesday, as they did yesterday. But then the governor ordered all buses be sent to evacuate Superdome and Convention Center refugees. The buses were all ready to go but were stopped because unfortunately the safety of the drivers couldn't be assured. This was supposed to be handled by added National Guardsmen and military personnel who haven't made it here yet.

I have heard many heartbreaking, depressing stories that are extremely hard to take. Some people tried to ride the storm out and stay. Some, believe it or not, didn't know a hurricane was coming, while others either simply got the warning too late or couldn't afford to leave. Many have talked about having to fight their way into attics from raging flood waters. Others have talked of talking to loved ones who were in the attic, with little breathing room left, when their phones went dead.

Flooding is obviously a major problem. But what people fail to realize are the psychological problems that can be caused by flooding, by not having food or water or just watching people die. One lady said some people became so psychologically unstable that they started a shootout with one another, screaming that they were going to die anyway and didn't care if they lived.

All in our community welcome our fellow Americans warmly and many are willing to share homes, churches, damn near anything. But depression has started to set in. It isn't just knowing that our quiet community has completely changed, but that we are now in a situation where our town's banks, convenience stores and gas stations are being robbed.

I won't pretend to understand the plight and pain of those who have lost everything. Throughout this whole storm our electricity never even went out. I am an African-American man fortunate enough to live in an ultra-safe town, with great schools, front and back yards, a basketball court, money in my pocket and hundred-dollar sneakers. But I am one of the very few. The people who are looting in New Orleans have none of them, and now they are in a dire situation. People in America have to understand their mindset.

But having said that, we've lost something more valuable than electricity -- our comfort level, our bubble of safety and security. All of a sudden we have to start locking doors and being fearful of just going to get milk. Help is here in my community and we will do as much as possible, but  well, I'll just end it here by saying it sucks.

-- Kevin Criss

I gotta 'fess up to being one of those insensitive souls who dropped in to watch the Houston-Oregon football game on Thursday. As an Oregon grad living in Texas, one doesn't often get to see them play, and a few friends and I had had the tickets for months. Nevertheless, we debated whether or not to make the three-hour drive from Waco down to Houston and decided what the heck, it will be interesting to go see what's happening anyway. Maybe we could also find some way to be useful and help out.

As we were driving into the stadium, you could see all the Houston fans wearing red and a few Oregon fans wearing green and yellow milling around and occasional clusters of refugees walking around taking in the sights of Houston. You could tell the refugees not just because they were black and didn't look like sports fans, but also because they had neon-colored arm bands on. Apparently, as part of the processing for entrance to the Astrodome they were being given tape armbands to ensure they could get back in.

I stopped and talked to a few to welcome them to Texas and wish them luck and they were all nice and just seemed relieved to be out of New Orleans and to have gotten food, showers and clean clothes.

Upon entering the stadium there was a gantlet of stadium staff holding giant red bags for donations for the refugee effort. I don't know where the money was actually going and didn't ask. But I peered in the bag as I dropped in a 20 and there was probably a couple bushels of cash, mostly 10s and 20s, so I expect they probably made several hundred thousand dollars in donations just from fans attending the game, judging by how many bags of cash I saw.

As for whether Reliant could have been used for refugees: Probably not. It has a grass field, so it's not really the best for heavy traffic and setting up cots. The better alternative is the convention center next door. As we were leaving, I could see that the Astrodome overflow was starting to be housed there.

Personally, I think this effort to house refugees in football stadiums smells wrong. Do you really think that a lot of middle-class white refugees would be warehoused by the thousands in open stadiums? Hardly. They would be dispersed throughout the area with hotel vouchers and that sort of thing. In addition, there are dozens of military bases scattered throughout this region with large amounts of surplus military housing due to the shrinking of the military post-Cold War and because so many of the remaining troops are in Iraq.

Military barracks are a far superior form of refugee housing because they have adequate cots, showers, privacy, and cooking and medical facilities. I bet white refugees would be dispersed immediately to many of these military bases, which have ready housing for families to have a bit more space and privacy. But these are poor black folks, so best herd them into a giant cage where we can keep an eye on them. Can't have them running around the place "unsupervised."

This whole operation smells a lot like that to me. Like only a small step up from the 1927 flood, when black sharecroppers were herded together at gunpoint into chain gangs to work the levees while white residents were evacuated away by steamboat.

In any event, we were going to see if we could find a refugee family to bring back to Waco, as we have a big house with extra room, but when I called my wife back at home it turns out that one of her co-workers is from New Orleans and has 20 family members arriving and needing shelter, so we'll take some of them in instead.

-- Kent Lind

By Salon Staff

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