Across the Mississippi River to New Orleans, the devastation was visible. Plumes of smoke danced in the air from various parts of the city. High-rise buildings remained, but their upper floors were gutted. More evacuees were coming my way on a barge. It was more Beirut than Big Easy. I was fresh from Chalmette, just down the river, where the bodies were piling up. The national correspondent I was traveling with had once reported from Iraq, and his nerves were shot. He attempted to punch out a story on his laptop, with me shouting out sections from my notebook, but it was too much. He slapped the ground, then yelled: "I can't take this!"
The situation had gotten dire quite rapidly. Just four hours earlier, standing in the same spot, I had interviewed a family from Plaquemines Parish. It was much calmer then and seemed like a lifetime ago. Conversations were carried out with relative ease and without screaming. You could even hear the water lapping on the landing. The first man I noticed was Dorsey Brown Jr., 75, sitting on the curb with a cane in his hand. He wasn't wearing any shoes, and a set of callused toes on each foot was poking through his socks. He never spoke a word to me, just nodded now and then. But his grandchildren were eager to recount how most of the family got out of Buras.
Raymond Brown, 19, told me his family had been on its own for six days. During their long journey, there was no assistance offered from state or federal agencies ' mainly because it was nowhere to be found. "We had to pay a man $20 for a ride to get out," Brown says, fidgeting slightly with his sideways hat. "When we finally made our way here and tried to go find supplies, the police wouldn't let us walk around. They told us we'd be shot on point. The only way we got a hot meal was from people in this neighborhood. They made their own grill with bricks and wood and a little rack from their oven."
I had heard a similar concern about Plaquemines a few days earlier in Baton Rouge at the Social Security Office. Lela DeMolle, 48, of Port Sulphur, was waiting in line with relatives, trying to get a $1,900 widow's pension payment. DeMolle had originally fled to Houston because support was limited back home. Her daughter, with whom DeMolle is now staying in Baton Rouge, had wired the family gas money to get back to Louisiana. As such, the Social Security check was badly needed to pay rent. She said there were 21 people staying in her daughter's two-room apartment. People have to take turns standing up and sitting down, while another shift leaves the apartment altogether for a few hours.
When they first found refuge, DeMolle's family attempted to get information about Plaquemines from the news and federal government, but their efforts were futile. Word from a neighbor eventually arrived, and the situation was described as desperate. "I don't see what anyone is doing for Plaquemines," DeMolle says. "It's disgusting. It makes me want to cry. They're going straight to New Orleans, and they don't care about anyone else."
Others expressed the same frustration during the first week of Katrina in the parishes of St. Bernard, Jefferson, St. Tammany and Washington. The locales were cut off from assistance, state officials admit, and overlooked in the effort to save the thousands stranded in New Orleans. Lt. Col. Pete Schneider, a spokesman for the Louisiana National Guard, offered a one sentence explanation during those early days: "If you're not getting info on the area, you have to assume it's bad."
In front of a national audience on Meet The Press, Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard had a complete meltdown as he related a story about a colleague telling his mother that someone was coming to get her. The man made promises to his mother, who was stuck in a nursing home in St. Bernard Parish, and assured her someone was coming. As she waited, the waters got too high, and she drowned. "Nobody's coming to get us," Broussard sobbed during the interview in a full-out cry, almost pleading. "Nobody's coming to get us. The secretary has promised. Everybody's promised. They've had press conferences. I'm sick of the press conferences. For God sakes, shut up and send us somebody." Tim Russert, the show's host, quickly switched over to the governor of Mississippi.
And it was in St. Bernard Parish, a swampy area just east of New Orleans, where news crews finally got in six days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall. State Sen. Walter Boasso, R-Chalmette, was still complaining even then that very little federal aid was making it into his home base. He blames a lack of food, water and other supplies for more than 100 deaths in the area. "I need a helicopter just to get things in here," Boasso says. "I'm scratching and stealing to get everything I need." To evacuate medical personnel from the parish seat of Chalmette and move them into triage centers around Baton Rouge, Boasso says a policeman helped him hot-wire a school bus to transport the party.
During that weekend, sheriff's officials in St. Bernard Parish reported 43 deaths from the first day of door-to-door searches. Another 31 fatalities were discovered in a local nursing home, St. Rita's, and 22 bodies were found bound together in the back of a residential subdivision. The circumstances of the latter were unclear, but officials said the victims were most likely trying to stay together as they weathered the storm. St. Bernard Parish President Junior Rodriguez says the federal government should have been better prepared. "These bastards can take care of Iraq but can't take care of their own goddamn people," he says. "That's bulls't." Rodriguez says a 47-member search-and-rescue team made up of Royal Canadian Mounties from Vancouver made it to St. Bernard faster than the federal government.
The body count is expected to rise with each passing week, but it has already taken its toll on local officials. Mark Melancon, 46, a member of the local fire department, says first responders have been shaving their heads at night in a sign of solidarity and to free their minds from the horror. "The number of bodies we're finding is unbelievable," he says, trying with some difficulty to keep himself together. "We're all just numb. At night, we're all breaking down." Due to the damage incurred at its station, the fire department had regrouped at the BellSouth building in Chalmette.
Meanwhile, the Sheriff's Office utilized the second floor of the Cajun Queen, a paddlewheel boat that would normally be piping out happy tunes and carrying tourists on the Mississippi River. But in the aftermath of Katrina, the dining tables have been pushed into a corner. "I've never seen a group of more resourceful people than what we have here," says 28-year-old Sgt. Walter Dornon. Ice was being melted for water, old clothes were being used for bandages and generators were being tweaked to output more power. He says local law enforcement agents were also forced to loot from area stores for food, water and other supplies, as none ever arrived from Red Cross or the Federal Emergency Management Agency during the first few days.
At "Camp Katrina," a massive warehouse on the Mississippi River in Chalmette, more than 2,000 people sought refuge. Lt. Jeff Lee, 50, who led the efforts there, says deputies have returned to the camp heartbroken after missions where they pulled infants from the waters and stacked bodies in the jail and courthouse. "When we start hitting down the doors, there's no telling what the body count will be," he says. Numerous deaths occurred during the shelter and evacuation process, Lee says, which could have been avoided if more supplies were made available to St. Bernard following the hurricane.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-Napoleonville, faced similar difficulties all over south Louisiana. He says FEMA officials were so wrapped up in procedural operations that necessities like food and water were overlooked. "Don't come in here and tell us what to do," Melancon said. "Just bring the stuff." If the federal government would have worked closer with the state in planning for evacuations and supplies, "it would have been a whole different picture," he says.
The blame game, however, is not confined to just two sides, says state Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge. "There's enough blame for everyone to go around," he says. "I don't think the state did what they were supposed to do, and the federal government didn't do what they were supposed to do and FEMA didn't either. The Red Cross didn't even go into New Orleans early on because they said it was too dangerous. Isn't that what they're supposed to do? The director of Red Cross should resign. I've just given up on them."
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