Saturday, September 10, 2005

The thin blue flatline

I first found this through a mailing list, and then found it online in Counterpunch. It's the story of two paramedics, Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky, and their experiences in New Orleans. Though these are excerpts, I recommend reading the whole thing to truly feel the frustration of the rescue effort. If, after reading this, I was given the choice between dealing with the hurricane and its ugly aftermath, I'd pick the wind, easy.

This piece implicates several groups with accusations ranging from overburden to southern hostility. If these are indeed true stories--even if they aren't representative as a whole--then I hope they open millions of eyes to the ugliness that pervades this area in times of crisis.

The National Guard comes off bad, but mainly because of the idiotic decisions they keep getting handed:

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 to the City limits, they were commandeered by the military.

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."

This reminds me of a far-less-serious, but still parallel, incident that happened to me in 10th grade. After eating lunch one day, I had about 20 minutes to kill, so I stood in the lobby of the lunchroom. Being sick at the time, I stayed there in order to keep the freezing wind and rain outside from making things worse. Despite the fact that I was alone, and that several students were eating lunch at tables mere feet away, the duty teacher asked me in a particularly rude manner to hightail it outside. "Why?" I asked. "I'm sick, and I'm not bothering anybody." Visibly irritated, she replied, "You have to leave once you're done because there isn't room for you here." Panning my eyes around the almost empty cavern of a lobby, I actually had the nerve to ask, "So it's better to shove me outside, where it's freezing and raining and everyone's huddled up under the commons area?" So I walked out into the virus-abetting, snot-festering winter cold, making sure the lunch wench saw me getting my ass kicked by her sister, Elvira Nature. Is there any worse pestilence on this land than assholes with authority?

Of course, I'm all for good law enforcement; it's necessary, and I've benefited from it numerous times. Most of these people do their jobs professionally and with inadequate compensation. But after reading the following accounts of law-enforcement fiascos, particularly with the Gretna police, I'm thinking maybe NWA got it right:

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 crowed 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."

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.

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.

In the pandemonium of having our camp raided and destroyed, we scattered once again. Reduced to a small group of 8 people, in the dark, we sought refuge in an abandoned school bus, under the freeway on Cilo Street. We were hiding from possible criminal elements but equally and definitely, we were hiding from the police and sheriffs with their martial law, curfew and shoot-to-kill policies.

Stereotypically southern cops make me sick. Why do I get the feeling they enjoyed shooing these people away and taking away their hard-deserved swag? And what makes them any better than looters or the thugs with guns we all love to hate? A badge? Different skin? They are different in one respect: at least the looters and thugs steal from storefronts rather than from groups of neglected survivors. Disgusting.

At this point, the National Guard redeems itself, which is nice after all these people went through with Buford T. Justice and the Gretna Playboys. Still, the squalor was not over yet:

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.

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.

When even "ordinary Texans" treat New Orleanians better than the government, you know we are living in a bass-ackwards, redneck, racist, neocon wet dream of federal screwocracy. Can we all finally learn something from this, please?


Michael said...

Ian, this may be your best post ever. Way to go!

Nick said...

Yes, and before the hurricane hit, whose plan was it for people to be picked up in front of their homes? Blanco and the mayor of New Orleans. The mayor is an incompetent idiot. It was HIS responsibility to have those school buses pick up the people to bring them to the Superdome.

But wait, this is a liberal site. Black democrat mayors can't be critisized on here.

Also Icon, as much as you like to demonize the south for being full of a bunch of racists, your beloved northern states where you wished you live has just as many racists, as racists come in all colors, sizes, sexes, and from all states.

Mikel said...

Nick, may you continue to live in the midst of that which you hold so dear.

Michael said...

Aren't you forgetting something, Nick? Like the fact that Nagin used to play for your team until he decided to run for mayor of NOLA? Even gave some money to Bush and to Billy Tauzin, if I remember correctly.

And let's suppose that Nagin had managed to round up enough bus drivers to pick up all the 100,000+ people in NOLA who don't own their own cars. Where were they supposed to put them all? Especially given that FEMA and the National Guard only left them enough water and rations for 15,000 people for two days?

And suppose they'd gotten all hundred thousand of them crammed into the Superdome (which isn't built to hold that many people, is it?)? What were they supposed to do with them once the hurricane was over? Leave them there to rot?

That's the thing about disaster planning--you have to think beyond the first stage. Everything you do affects something else.

Ruben said...

I hear you loud and clear Ian. It is a case of inhumanity, stupidity and failing to plan.

Steve Bates said...

Ian wrote,

"When even 'ordinary Texans' treat New Orleanians better than the government, you know we are living in a bass-ackwards, redneck, racist, neocon wet dream of federal screwocracy. Can we all finally learn something from this, please?"

Perhaps you could learn some civility toward "ordinary Texans," considering we stepped up and saved a lot of people's asses in the past week. D'ya think maybe, just maybe, you've misjudged us? At any rate, the gratuitous unkindness in your last paragraph spoils an otherwise excellent post. Apology, please.

Yellow Doggerel Democrat

Michael said...

I'm sorry, Steve, but I'm not seeing either "gratuitous" or "slur" in what Ian wrote. My understanding is that there is a long tradition of rivalry between New Orleans and Houston. Seemed to me that the point Ian was making was that when even citizens of a city that are not disposed to like you because of the city you come from are treating you better than the federal government, that's really saying something about how little the federal government cares.

Steve Bates said...

Michael, I have never heard of such a tradition of rivalry... never. Dallas and Houston, yes; New Orleans and Houston... find me a citation, so I'll know you didn't make it up. Every Houstonian I know who has expressed an opinion on New Orleans loves that city, and feels its loss keenly.

Comparing us, even comparing us backhandedly favorably, with "bass-ackwards, redneck, racist, neocon wet dream of federal screwocracy" is just plain offensive.

BTW, I just read that part of the post to Stella, who found it as offensive as I did. And she isn't a native Texan.

I stand by my request for an apology.

Yellow Doggerel Democrat

Nick said...


1. The Repubs. are not "my team." I'm independent of political parties.

2. I don't care if the mayor gave to Bush's campaign or whatever. The fate of the people who waited for buses and then were never picked up is on him.

3. I believe Bush's is also to blame. Not as much on the result of the hurricane, but for having the nation unprepared for the rioting that took place in New Orleans. Think about 4 dirty bombs, going off each in NYC, CHI, L.A., and Houston from a terrorist attack, and the hurricane showed me, and probably the terrorists, that we would be screwed. That's where Bush needs to get his ass in gear and take this hurricane disaster as a warning.

4. Those 100k people would have been better in the Superdome still than drowning in their atticks.

5. Yall can try to put all the blame on Bush, but face it, just about all this falls on the footsteps of Nagin, Blanco, Landreau, Vitter. Hey, Jinal could have been elected governor. Instead, the people in our state chose an idiot who appointed her husband and brothers to positions rather than the people who should be there. Blanco is my best friend's aunt, and even he admits she hasn't done shit for the state, only for her family.

Ian McGibboney said...

Steve, nice to meet you too. I'm sorry if I offended you personally, and in no way am I trying to trivialize or dump on Texas for their help.

That said, however, there is indeed a rivalry between Texas and Louisiana. I don't know if it's any more specific than that, as in New Orleans versus Houston, for example. I just know my own personal experiences. I have lots of friends and family of and from Texas. Still, throughout my life I have found many Texans to be very condescending of Louisianians. More than once I have heard people actually tell me, "Aren't you jealous of us for being from Texas?" They have a way of getting off on the wrong foot, if you know what I mean.

Steve Bates said...

Ian, in that case, I guess I'm following a long tradition of getting off on the wrong foot! :) I loathe sparring with people of good will who are natural allies, and as I read your post, I was with you all the way, until that last line. I think it was the shock of that line that led me to post my astringent comment. My apologies for saying it so sharply... wrong foot, indeed.

Maybe my impressions of Louisiana are different from those of other Texans; I don't know. I grew up next door to a family who moved here from New Orleans; the speech patterns, the cooking, the neighborly demeanor are all familiar to me since childhood. And as I said over on Michael's thread, later in life, I came very close to taking a job in Baton Rouge.

I don't know if Louisiana and Texas residents stereotype each other more than usual, but the whole nation has certainly stereotyped Texas and Texans since Bush's arrival at the White House. It has made me a bit sensitive, and for better or worse, I tend to appoint myself to the task of reminding people that we aren't all like Bush... indeed, few of us are like Bush... indeed, maybe only one of us.

I like your site, and I intend to continue visiting, and commenting occasionally, if I haven't already burned my welcome.

Yellow Doggerel Democrat

Ian McGibboney said...

Naah, Steve, you're always welcome here. I suppose you're proof that stereotypes don't matter. If it makes you feel any better, I'm just as mad at Connecticut for spawning the Bush dynasty as I am at Texas for voting him governor. Similarly, I am hardly the biggest fan of my own state, and don't plan on staying here for very long. If you hang around here long enough, you'll see that I trash-talk Louisiana as much as I do Texas. I'll make an effort to word it better from here on out.

Phillip said...

nick - "the people in our state chose an idiot who appointed her husband and brothers to positions rather than the people who should be there."

do you recognize the same trend in the bush administration? michael brown is the obvious example, but virtually every person he appoints to a position of power is not at all qualified for it. just curious.