"They've got to open the base"

Louisiana black leaders, along with Maxine Waters and Jesse Jackson, want to take Katrina victims to a shuttered Air Force base instead of shelters. And I'm going with them.

Published September 3, 2005 11:15PM (EDT)

I got on a bus with California Rep. Maxine Waters Saturday afternoon, not sure where we were going, just knowing we were headed to New Orleans to pick up Hurricane Katrina victims. Even as television news is showing pictures of people being rescued by military helicopters and chartered buses, local and national black leaders are seething at the mismanaged evacuation, as well as the haphazard way even the rescued people are being handled. So they've come up with their own plan: to load the remaining residents on buses they've chartered and bring them to England Air Force Base, a shuttered military installation in Alexandria, La.

"My soul wouldn't let me sit and watch this on TV," says Waters, who represents South Central Los Angeles. "I'm just shocked that people have been living for five days, and dying, on the streets of this country. So I came down here, and my friend Cleo Fields came up with this wonderful possibility."

That wonderful possibility, hatched by state Sen. Cleo Fields and the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus, is to house the displaced residents at the Air Force base instead of shelters and sports stadiums like the Astrodome, many of which are full anyway. They haven't gotten permission to do that, but that's not stopping them. The black leaders say racism is behind both the late response to the emergency and the dispersal of rescued residents far away from New Orleans.

This morning I saw City Council President Oliver Thomas near tears at the Federal Emergency Management Agency office. He'd just heard the story of a bus of 200 refugees that had been turned away the night before, because all of the city's shelters were full. "So what if the shelters are full?" Thomas asked. "What do you mean full?"

Thomas complained that many people had been turned against New Orleans refugees because of media emphasizing stories of looting and violence, and he asked why they couldn't be housed closer to home. "Texas is being neighborly, while Louisiana is rejecting people. Why do we have to send our people to Texas?"

"The people in Jefferson Parish," Thomas continued, referring to a mostly affluent and white area to the northwest of New Orleans, "have been very clear; they don't want them here." Jefferson and other neighboring parishes were also hit hard by Katrina, and many have no electricity and little or no water pressure. But while Thomas acknowledged that Jefferson had its own problems, "they wouldn't even allow their parish to be used as a staging area."

Thomas' complaint is part of why the Legislative Black Caucus, headed by Fields and state Rep. Cedric Richmond, announced they would bring three buses to pick up those still stranded in New Orleans. The base has not been opened to admit people, but Fields says, "it's better than what they have now. People were airlifted from their homes four days ago and left on the highway. They've got to open the base to these people. It's ridiculous in America that people are sitting on a highway for four days without food and water." Fields reportedly appealed to federal officials to open the base Friday but didn't get an answer. The Rev. Jesse Jackson will also reportedly accompany the bus caravan to England Air Force Base.

I decided to get on one of the buses headed for New Orleans, even though our exact destination wasn't certain. As we left there were reports that people were still stranded along Highway 10, and I was told the intention was to go get them. But Waters was under the impression we were headed for the New Orleans convention center. After we'd driven a few miles we got word that both the highway encampment and the convention center had been evacuated, and it was decided that we'd head to the airport, where thousands of people had been moved from downtown.

"I hope to get people on this bus, and also to see for myself where people are being sent," says Waters, who's the ranking member of the subcommittee on housing of the House Financial Services Committee. "This is Labor Day weekend and it's normally time for a little R&R, but my conscience would not allow that." The feisty Waters almost sounded like she was enjoying herself, though.

But nobody could enjoy themselves once we got to the airport. We were not prepared for what we found. Though it has been touted as a solution to the squalor of the convention center and the Superdome, Louis Armstrong International Airport is on the way to re-creating it. Already there's a huge pile of stinking garbage, and thousands of people outside who can't get in. They're being promised that planes and buses will evacuate them yet again, but they're still waiting. There's no violence because police and soldiers are everywhere, but there's filth and despair.

Our buses filled up quickly, and most people aren't even asking where we're headed.

Coming Sunday: Will we make it to the base?

By Stephen Elliott

Stephen Elliott is the author of six books, including "Happy Baby." His next book, "The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism, and Murder," is forthcoming from Graywolf Press.

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