The empty streets of this city present a vista of apocalyptic desolation: wind-ripped roofs, downed trees, smashed fast-food signs, dangling power lines, columns of dark smoke and everywhere heaps of garbage. On a lawn near the Ninth Ward three light brown mules, wandering the city alone, graze peacefully. In the sky above, helicopters drum the air. From the pale, empty stretches of elevated Interstate 10 one can look down on wide expanses of the city where homes are submerged in the flat, brackish floodwater. Strangely, the wind now is gritty and dry.
At first the city appears like a giant conceptual art installation, or the set of some archetypal cold-war disaster movie. But then comes evidence of what this really means: dazed refugees wade through the filthy water or push shopping carts down ravaged streets or wait silently in lines for evacuation. And every now and then there is the stench of abandoned corpses. Officials have no idea how many people are lost, trapped in the attics soon to be dead, or drowned and hidden in their homes.
Few can fathom the near-total lack of planning and coordination among local, state and federal authorities. “I been hearing about this is gonna happen for my whole life–how could they not have a plan?” says a man named Reginald Bell as he drops off extra candles to a neighbor.
On a side street in Algiers, on the flood-spared west bank, the corpse of a young black man in blue pants and white shirt lies rotting in the sun about ten feet from a chained-up health clinic. Swollen, greasy and oozing maggots, the dead man has become a symbol of official neglect. There are scores of uncollected corpses like this all over New Orleans.
“See, they just leave him here,” says Malik Rahim, a community organizer who is spearheading a grassroots relief effort called the Green Cross. “He’s been here almost five days, man.” A colleague and I look down at the corpse dumbly. A police car rolls by. Another one stops, but the two white cops in it are dismissive. “We don’t have the resources,” says one.
“Their message to black people here is, Get out or die. You on your own,” says Rahim, as the cops pull away.
The next day at the infamous convention center, where stunned refugees are being searched and then loaded onto outbound helicopters, a dozen ambulances sit waiting for orders. No rescues yet today, I am told. As for corpses, no one knows what the plan is.
Archie Haley, an emergency medical technician from Oak Grove, near the Arkansas border, squats as I scarf down a military MRE food ration; he explains that the major problem is “the large population of welfare-ized blacks who can’t help themselves.” My interlocutor is white like me, so he feels comfortable. “See, these people are the city’s disease.” His is an attitude that is far too common among officials here. Racism and incompetence seemed to merge to create a sluggish response. Despite all the troops, SWAT teams and out-of-town cops that have arrived since September 5, there’s still little sign of a plan: On the ground, chaos reigns. Civilian volunteers are still doing many of the rescues; no one knows where to get water or MREs; the radio reports nothing of use.