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Friday, September 02, 2005

New Orleans S.O.S

Four days after Hurricane Katrina roared in with a devastating blow that inflicted potentially thousands of deaths in the US southeast coast, the fear, anger and violence mounted yesterday.

New Orleans descended into anarchy Thursday as corpses lay abandoned in street medians, fights and fires broke out, cops turned in their badges and the governor declared war on looters who have made the city a menacing landscape of disorder and fear.

"They have M-16s and they're locked and loaded," Gov. Kathleen Blanco said of 300 National Guard troops who landed in New Orleans fresh from duty in Iraq. "These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so, and I expect they will."

Meanwhile, the Mayor of New Orleans has issued a desperate statement for help.

"I'm not sure I'm going to get out of here alive," said Canadian tourist Larry Mitzel, who handed a reporter his business card in case he goes missing. "I'm scared of riots. I'm scared of the locals. We might get caught in the crossfire."

The chaos deepened despite the promise of 1,400 National Guardsmen a day to stop the looting, plans for a $10 billion recovery bill in Congress and a government relief effort President Bush called the biggest in U.S. history.

New Orleans' top emergency management official called that effort a "national disgrace" and questioned when reinforcements would actually reach the increasingly lawless city.

About 15,000 to 20,000 people who had taken shelter at New Orleans convention center grew ever more hostile after waiting for buses for days amid the filth and the dead. Police Chief Eddie Compass said there was such a crush around a squad of 88 officers that they retreated when they went in to check out reports of assaults.

"We have individuals who are getting raped, we have individuals who are getting beaten," Compass said. "Tourists are walking in that direction and they are getting preyed upon."

Col. Henry Whitehorn, chief of the Louisiana State Police, said he heard of numerous instances of New Orleans police officers, many of whom from flooded areas, turning in their badges.

"They indicated that they had lost everything and didn't feel that it was worth them going back to take fire from looters and losing their lives," Whitehorn said.

It seems that civilization has a thin veneer.

Echoing images people are used to seeing in Iraq, a military helicopter tried to land at the convention center several times to drop off food and water. But the rushing crowd forced the choppers to back off. Troopers then tossed the supplies to the crowd from 10 feet off the ground and flew away.

In hopes of defusing the situation at the convention center, Mayor Ray Nagin gave the refugees permission to march across a bridge to the city's unflooded west bank for whatever relief they could find. But the bedlam made that difficult.

"This is a desperate SOS," Nagin said in a statement. "Right now we are out of resources at the convention center and don't anticipate enough buses."

At least seven bodies were scattered outside the convention center, a makeshift staging area for those rescued from rooftops, attics and highways. The sidewalks were packed with people without food, water or medical care, and with no sign of law enforcement.

It seems that those with the least have lost the most.

An old man in a chaise lounge lay dead in a grassy median as hungry babies wailed around him. Around the corner, an elderly woman lay dead in her wheelchair, covered up by a blanket, and another body lay beside her wrapped in a sheet.

"I don't treat my dog like that," 47-year-old Daniel Edwards said as he pointed at the woman in the wheelchair.

"You can do everything for other countries, but you can't do nothing for your own people," he added. "You can go overseas with the military, but you can't get them down here."

The street outside the center, above the floodwaters, smelled of urine and feces, and was choked with dirty diapers, old bottles and garbage.

"They've been teasing us with buses for four days," Edwards said. "They're telling us they're going to come get us one day, and then they don't show up."

Every so often, an armored state police vehicle cruised in front of the convention center with four or five officers in riot gear with automatic weapons. But there was no sign of help from the National Guard.

At one point the crowd began to chant "We want help! We want help!" Later, a woman, screaming, went on the front steps of the convention center and led the crowd in reciting the 23rd Psalm, "The Lord is my shepherd ..."

"We are out here like pure animals," the Issac Clark said.

"We've got people dying out here - two babies have died, a woman died, a man died," said Helen Cheek. "We haven't had no food, we haven't had no water, we haven't had nothing. They just brought us here and dropped us."

Tourist Debbie Durso of Washington, Mich., said she asked a police officer for assistance and his response was, "'Go to hell - it's every man for himself.'"

"This is just insanity," she said. "We have no food, no water ... all these trucks and buses go by and they do nothing but wave."

The main question being asked concerns why it seems that the world's richest country is struggling to rescue its poorest citizens?

Associated Press reporters Adam Nossiter, Brett Martel, Robert Tanner and Mary Foster contributed to this report.

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