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SPECIAL EDITION: NEWS - First Person Accounts
Below are first person accounts provided to help volunteer managers with disaster recovery efforts from Hurrican Katrina. Please email us at: email@example.com if you have additional information or links that you would like to share with your professional counterparts around the country. We will post them as we receive them.
Hurricane Katrina-Our Experiences by Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky
Two days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the Walgreen's store at the corner of Royal and Iberville streets remained locked. The dairy display case was clearly visible through the widows. It was now 48 hours without electricity, running water, plumbing. The milk, yogurt, and cheeses were beginning to spoil in the 90-degree heat. The owners and managers had locked up the food, water, pampers, and prescriptions and fled the City. Outside Walgreen's windows, residents and tourists grew increasingly thirsty and hungry.
The much-promised federal, state and local aid never materialized and the windows at Walgreen's gave way to the looters. There was an alternative. The cops could have broken one small window and distributed the nuts, fruit juices, and bottle water in an organized and systematic manner. But they did not. Instead they spent hours playing cat and mouse, temporarily chasing away the looters.
We were finally airlifted out of New Orleans two days ago and arrived home yesterday (Saturday). We have yet to see any of the TV coverage or look at a newspaper. We are willing to guess that there were no video images or front-page pictures of European or affluent white tourists looting the Walgreen's in the French Quarter.
We also suspect the media will have been inundated with "hero" images of the National Guard, the troops and the police struggling to help the "victims" of the Hurricane. What you will not see, but what we witnessed, were the real heroes and sheroes of the hurricane relief effort: the working class of New Orleans. The maintenance workers who used a fork lift to carry the sick and disabled. The engineers, who rigged, nurtured and kept the generators running. The electricians who improvised thick extension cords stretching over blocks to share the little electricity we had in order to free cars stuck on rooftop parking lots. Nurses who took over for mechanical ventilators and spent many hours on end manually forcing air into the lungs of unconscious patients to keep them alive. Doormen who rescued folks stuck in elevators. Refinery workers who broke into boat yards, "stealing" boats to rescue their neighbors clinging to their roofs in flood waters. Mechanics who helped hot-wire any car that could be found to ferry people out of the City. And the food service workers who scoured the commercial kitchens improvising communal meals for hundreds of those stranded. Most of these workers had lost their homes, and had not heard from members of their families, yet they stayed and provided the only infrastructure for the 20% of New Orleans that was not under water.
On Day 2, there were approximately 500 of us left in the hotels in the French Quarter. We were a mix of foreign tourists, conference attendees like ourselves, and locals who had checked into hotels for safety and shelter from Katrina. Some of us had cell phone contact with family and friends outside of New Orleans. We were repeatedly told that all sorts of resources including the National Guard and scores of buses were pouring in to the City. The buses and the other resources must have been invisible because none of us had seen them.
We decided we had to save ourselves. So we pooled our money and came up with $25,000 to have ten buses come and take us out of the City. Those who did not have the requisite $45.00 for a ticket were subsidized by those who did have extra money. We waited for 48 hours for the buses, spending the last 12 hours standing outside, sharing the limited water, food, and clothes we had. We created a priority boarding area for the sick, elderly and new born babies. We waited late into the night for the "imminent" arrival of the buses. The buses never arrived. We later learned that the minute the arrived at the City limits, they were commandeered by the military.
By Day 4 our hotels had run out of fuel and water. Sanitation was dangerously abysmal. As the desperation and despair increased, street crime as well as water levels began to rise. The hotels turned us out and locked their doors, telling us that the "officials" told us to report to the convention center to wait for more buses. As we entered the center of the City, we finally encountered the National Guard. The Guards told us we would not be allowed into the Superdome as the City's primary shelter had descended into a humanitarian and health hellhole. The guards further told us that the City's only other shelter, the Convention Center, was also descending into chaos and squalor and that the police were not allowing anyone else in. Quite naturally, we asked, "If we can't go to the only 2 shelters in the City, what was our alternative?" The guards told us that that was our problem, and no they did not have extra water to give to us. This would be the start of our numerous encounters with callous and hostile "law enforcement".
We walked to the police command center at Harrah's on Canal Street and were told the same thing, that we were on our own, and no they did not have water to give us. We now numbered several hundred. We held a mass meeting to decide a course of action. We agreed to camp outside the police command post. We would be plainly visible to the media and would constitute a highly visible embarrassment to the City officials. The police told us that we could not stay.
Regardless, we began to settle in and set up camp. In short order, the police commander came across the street to address our group. He told us he had a solution: we should walk to the Pontchartrain Expressway and cross the greater New Orleans Bridge where the police had buses lined up to take us out of the City. The crowd cheered and began to move. We called everyone back and explained to the commander that there had been lots of misinformation and wrong information and was he sure that there were buses waiting for us.The commander turned to the crowd and stated emphatically, "I swear to you that the buses are there."
We organized ourselves and the 200 of us set off for the bridge with great excitement and hope. As we marched past the convention center, many locals saw our determined and optimistic group and asked where we were headed. We told them about the great news. Families immediately grabbed their few belongings and quickly our numbers doubled and then doubled again. Babies in strollers now joined us, people using crutches, elderly clasping walkers and others people in wheelchairs. We marched the 2-3 miles to the freeway and up the steep incline to the Bridge. It now began to pour down rain, but it did not dampen our enthusiasm.
As we approached the bridge, armed Gretna sheriffs formed a line across the foot of the bridge. Before we were close enough to speak, they began firing their weapons over our heads. This sent the crowd fleeing in various directions. As the crowd scattered and dissipated, a few of us inched forward and managed to engage some of the sheriffs in conversation. We told them of our conversation with the police commander and of the commander's assurances. The sheriffs informed us there were no buses waiting. The commander had lied to us to get us to move.
We questioned why we couldn't cross the bridge anyway, especially as there was little traffic on the 6-lane highway. They responded that the West Bank was not going to become New Orleans and there would be no Superdomes in their City. These were code words for if you are poor and black, you are not crossing the Mississippi River and you were not getting out of New Orleans.
Our small group retreated back down Highway 90 to seek shelter from the rain under an overpass. We debated our options and in the end decided to build an encampment in the middle of the Ponchartrain Expressway on the center divide, between the O'Keefe and Tchoupitoulas exits. We reasoned we would be visible to everyone, we would have some security being on an elevated freeway and we could wait and watch for the arrival of the yet to be seen buses.
All day long, we saw other families, individuals and groups make the same trip up the incline in an attempt to cross the bridge, only to be turned away. Some chased away with gunfire, others simply told no, others to be verbally berated and humiliated. Thousands of New Orleaners were prevented and prohibited from self-evacuating the City on foot.
Meanwhile, the only two City shelters sank further into squalor and disrepair. The only way across the bridge was by vehicle. We saw workers stealing trucks, buses, moving vans, semi-trucks and any car that could be hotwired. All were packed with people trying to escape the misery New Orleans had become.
Our little encampment began to blossom. Someone stole a water delivery truck and brought it up to us. Let's hear it for looting! A mile or so down the freeway, an army truck lost a couple of pallets of C-rations on a tight turn. We ferried the food back to our camp in shopping carts. Now secure with the two necessities, food and water; cooperation, community, and creativity flowered. We organized a clean up and hung garbage bags from the rebar poles. We made beds from wood pallets and cardboard. We designated a storm drain as the bathroom and the kids built an elaborate enclosure for privacy out of plastic, broken umbrellas, and other scraps. We even organized a food recycling system where individuals could swap out parts of C-rations (applesauce for babies and candies for kids!).
This was a process we saw repeatedly in the aftermath of Katrina. When individuals had to fight to find food or water, it meant looking out for yourself only. You had to do whatever it took to find water for your kids or food for your parents. When these basic needs were met, people began to look out for each other, working together and constructing a community.
If the relief organizations had saturated the City with food and water in the first 2 or 3 days, the desperation, the frustration and the ugliness would not have set in. Flush with the necessities, we offered food and water to passing families and individuals. Many decided to stay and join us. Our encampment grew to 80 or 90 people. From a woman with a battery powered radio we learned that the media was talking about us. Up in full view on the freeway, every relief and news organizations saw us on their way into the City. Officials were being asked what they were going to do about all those families living up on the freeway? The officials responded they were going to take care of us. Some of us got a sinking feeling. "Taking care of us" had an ominous tone to it.
Unfortunately, our sinking feeling (along
with the sinking City) was correct. Just as dusk set in, a Gretna
Sheriff showed up, jumped out of his patrol vehicle, aimed his
gun at our faces, screaming, "Get off the fucking freeway".
A helicopter arrived and used the wind from its blades to blow
away our flimsy structures. As we retreated, the sheriff loaded
up his truck with our food and water. Once again, at gunpoint,
we were forced off the freeway. All the law enforcement agencies
appeared threatened when we congregated or congealed into groups
of 20 or more. In every congregation of "victims" they
saw "mob" or "riot". We felt safety in numbers.
Our "we must stay together" was impossible because
the agencies would force us into small atomized groups.
The next days, our group of 8 walked most of the day, made contact with New Orleans Fire Department and were eventually airlifted out by an urban search and rescue team. We were dropped off near the airport and managed to catch a ride with the National Guard. The two young guardsmen apologized for the limited response of the Louisiana guards. They explained that a large section of their unit was in Iraq and that meant they were shorthanded and were unable to complete all the tasks they were assigned.
We arrived at the airport on the day a massive airlift had begun. The airport had become another Superdome. We 8 were caught in a press of humanity as flights were delayed for several hours while George Bush landed briefly at the airport for a photo op. After being evacuated on a coast guard cargo plane, we arrived in San Antonio, Texas.
There the humiliation and dehumanization of the official relief effort continued. We were placed on buses and driven to a large field where we were forced to sit for hours and hours. Some of the buses did not have air-conditioners. In the dark, hundreds if us were forced to share two filthy overflowing porta-potties. Those who managed to make it out with any possessions (often a few belongings in tattered plastic bags) we were subjected to two different dog-sniffing searches.
Most of us had not eaten all day because our C-rations had been confiscated at the airport because the rations set off the metal detectors. Yet, no food had been provided to the men, women, children, elderly, disabled as they sat for hours waiting to be "medically screened" to make sure we were not carrying any communicable diseases.
This official treatment was in sharp contrast to the warm, heart-felt reception given to us by the ordinary Texans. We saw one airline worker give her shoes to someone who was barefoot. Strangers on the street offered us money and toiletries with words of welcome. Throughout, the official relief effort was callous, inept, and racist. There was more suffering than need be. Lives were lost that did not need to be lost.
Click on the following link to view a first person account from an EMS volunteer, including excellent pictures: http://www.volunteerfd.org/katrina/.
Hurricane Katrina Mobcast Launched
I understand that there is tremendous frustration and righteous anger with the delays in getting aid on the ground. I can't speak for other agencies, but I can share my impressions regarding the Red Cross. I just returned from a nine-hour crash course offered by the regional Red Cross chapter in Sacramento, CA to prepare new volunteers to be deployed to the Gulf region. There were over 100 folks from young adults to graying maturity willing to lend a hand. The seasoned instructors repeatedly stressed that the Red Cross does not ever deploy their staff or volunteers to situations where their safety cannot be assured-with the possible exception of a few highly-trained professionals on the front lines--to do otherwise would be to invite more chaos and potentially more casualties.
Every agency has its own mission plan-what I learned today is that the Red Cross sees its immediate task as to receive the dislocated persons at one of the numerous shelters that are already set up away from the area directly impacted-you don't erect a shelter in the swamp--shelters need to have adequate supplies and staff (a few paid staff and tons of volunteers) to make such a monumental task possible, otherwise we will see smaller, numerous "superdomes" with all the attendant chaos and dangerous conditions. Red Cross staff left California before Katrina made landfall to begin staging equipment. In the weeks and months to come, the Red Cross and others will move to the cleaning and rebuilding stage of the recovery.
Can the Red Cross improve their systems of response? Sure, and they are certainly a large organization with a bureaucracy and culture that may not be as quick to change as one might desire. There can be better coordination with other agencies and new communications tools can help. Still, they get the job done. I am sure that every agency will need to do some post-response analysis and indeed, soul-searching to measure their effectiveness. As to the questions regarding non-financial donations--used clothing for example-- the Red Cross told us that the agency does not have the infrastructure to process such well-meaning donations--not to mention the finances to cover the tremendous cost of packing and shipping such items to a disaster scene. At the end of last year's devastating spate of hurricanes in Florida, the Red Cross was stuck with a warehouse full of donated but unusable (for their particular mission) items-used and sometimes ragged clothes, used furniture, all of which had to be either redirected to other agencies or hauled to the dump.
By the way, at the end of the day, the entire class was assured that if we are willing, we will be deployed ASAP. I hope to be on the ground somewhere in the region by Thursday. If I have any phone access (we were told not to count on it) I'll try to post some audio on Andy Carvin's Katrina Aftermath page.
Volunteer Doctors Hamstrung in Relief Efforts
BATON ROUGE, La. - Volunteer physicians are pouring in to care for the sick, but red tape is keeping hundreds of others from caring for Hurricane Katrina survivors while health problems escalate. Among the doctors stymied from helping out are 100 surgeons and paramedics in a state-of-the-art mobile hospital marooned in rural Mississippi.
"The bell was rung, the e-mails were sent off. ...We all got off work and deployed," said one of the frustrated surgeons, Dr. Preston "Chip" Rich of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"We have tried so hard to do the right thing. It took us 30 hours to get here," he said. That government officials can't straighten out the mess and get them assigned to a relief effort now that they're just a few miles away "is just mind-boggling," he said.
While the doctors wait, the first predictable signs of disease from contaminated water began to emerge on Saturday: A Mississippi shelter was closed after 20 residents got sick with dysentery, probably from drinking contaminated water.
The North Carolina mobile hospital stranded in Mississippi was developed with millions of tax dollars through the Office of Homeland Security after 9-11. With capacity for 113 beds, it is designed to handle disasters and mass casualties. Equipment includes ultrasound, digital radiology, satellite Internet, and a full pharmacy, enabling doctors to do most types of surgery in the field, including open-chest and abdominal operations. It travels in a convoy that includes two 53-foot trailers, which as of Sunday afternoon was parked on a gravel lot 70 miles north of New Orleans because Louisiana officials for several days would not let them deploy to the flooded city, Rich said.
Yet plans to use the facility and its 100 health professionals were hatched days before Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, doctors in the caravan said.
As they talked with Mississippi officials about prospects of helping out there, other doctors complained that their offers of help also were turned away. A primary care physician from Ohio called and e-mailed the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services after seeing a notice on the American Medical Association's Web site about volunteer doctors being needed. An e-mail reply told him to watch CNN that night where U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt was to announce a Web address for doctors to enter their names in a database. "How crazy is that?" he complained in an e-mail to his daughter.
Leavitt, U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, and Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were in Louisiana on Sunday, and Gerberding planned to go to Texas where many evacuees are now housed. Many other doctors have been able to volunteer, and were arriving in large numbers Sunday in Baton Rouge. Several said they worked it out through Louisiana state officials.
Dr. Bethany Gardiner, a 36-year-old pediatrician who just moved to Santa Barbara, Calif., from Florida, had been visiting parents the Sunshine state when the hurricane hit. "I left my kids and just started searching places on the Web" to volunteer, eventually getting an invitation to come to Baton Rouge, she said.
For more info on the Mobile hospital: http://www.carolinasmed-1.org/index.cfm
You can find the full story on Yahoo news -- it's by Marilynn Marchione of the Associated Press.
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