The water in the lower Ninth Ward is thickening into a glassy, fetid slick as the gasoline, oil, solvents and sewage from thousands of submerged vehicles and homes leaches out. Some rescue crews can stay out on their boats for only an hour before getting light-headed. The water’s blue-black sheen casts back an almost mocking mirror image of the horrible devastation and incongruously beautiful blue sky above.
A tour from Houston to Gulfport and into New Orleans for several days revealed not only this type of weird physical destruction but also a landscape of raw and tangled emotions, ranging from open fantasies of an impending race war to inspiring, ad hoc experiments in interracial mutual aid and grassroots organizing. This mix of the best and worst in American culture suggests the widely divergent political possibilities left in Katrina’s wake. The storm could become an excuse to banish the African-American poor in the interests of the private redevelopment of New Orleans, or the city could become the geographic center of a progressive program of urban revitalization.
In the lower Ninth Ward, controlled breaks by the Army Corps of Engineers have dropped the water by several feet, opening an archipelago of scum-encrusted islands that can be navigated by way of partially open streets. Late in the second week of the disaster a colleague and I made our way through this eerie and desolate maze.
Though the area is routinely designated a ghetto, the homes of the Ninth Ward are mostly beautiful, century-old capes and bungalows, some with ornate wooden detailing reminiscent of old homes in the San Francisco Bay Area. “They’ll have to bulldoze it all,” says a visiting New York City cop, surveying the damage from inside an NYPD van.
Is that option–the right’s much-touted tabula rasa–inevitable? “They don’t have to tear all these down,” says Joe Peters, a Ninth Ward tier repairman. “Under that siding, that’s all cypress frames and barge board.” Peters seems to think that the more solid homes of the Ninth Ward can be saved. Increasingly the holdouts here see the mandatory evacuation order as part of a huge land grab.
I track down Mike Howell, a Nation reader I’d met several days before. “Yeah, this could be their dream come true,” he says. “Get rid of all the poor African-Americans and turn the place into Disneyland.” After camping on Howell’s roof, my colleague and I leave him and his wife our extra water and gas and push on.
At Kajun’s, one of only two bars open at the end of last week, a bacchanalian, slap-happy air prevails among the handful of drunk and adrenaline-pumped patrons. A big man with a ponytail is weeping–he just put down his dog because it was biting everyone. A wide-eyed young woman named Caroline is changing the bandage on a dog-bite victim and talking a mile a minute. “I am a massage therapist, but I am not licensed. I am giving garlic and herbs to everyone, even the soldiers.”
Outside, a man slips two bottles of cognac in the back seat of a police vehicle. The officer isn’t harassing the patrons to leave. Someone brings him a big plastic cup of something iced.
“The evacuation order is just trying to get out the criminal element,” says the cop in the classic flat, nasal Yat accent common to the Irish- and Italian-Americans who make up much of the city’s white population. He explains how the military is mapping the city for holdouts using helicopters with infrared, and how troops on the ground mark the suspect building with a system of Xs and checks, a code that indicates to the police how many people are inside. The cop finishes his drink, shakes a few hands and rolls off.
Facilitating the tabula rasa agenda is an increasingly militaristic attitude that borders on boyish fantasy and seems to pervade the numerous federal SWAT teams, out-of-town cops, private security forces, civilian volunteers and even journalists. There are exceptions: The young soldiers of the 82nd Airborne and First Cavalry seem much less caught up in it and are quite generous with their ice and MREs.
When an APC full of federal marshals passes deep in the Ninth Ward, a journalist in a camo floppy hat riding with them glares at me and demands, “Who are you with?” For a second I think he’s a cop.
Downtown, a man on a bicycle wearing a pistol and carrying a medical bag says he’s an emergency medical technician. “I had to shoot one guy in the arm,” the man explains. “He was going for the bag. They think it’s full of drugs.”
Elsewhere, two vehicle convoys from Blackwater USA–one of the biggest mercenary firms operating in Iraq–cruise the deserted city, their guns trained on rooftops ready for snipers, who have recently shot at a cell-tower repair crew.
It seems the rescue effort is turning into an urban war game: An imaginary domestic version of the total victory that eludes America in Baghdad will be imposed here, on New Orleans. It’s almost as if the Tigris–rather than the Mississippi–had flooded the city. The place feels like a sick theme park–Macho World–where cops, mercenaries, journalists and weird volunteers of all sorts are playing a out a relatively safe version of their militaristic fantasies about Armageddon and the cleansing iron fist.
God’s Wrath in Gulfport
In Gulfport, Mississippi, God’s wrath hath smitten the evil gaming industry. All the giant floating multi-story casinos have washed away–and much of their cash is unaccounted for. So, too, have all the houses on the beach been wiped out. An area two blocks from the beach is cordoned off because the shore is strewn with tons of rotting chicken and pork from a grounded freighter. Perhaps that cordon is also protecting the casinos’ cash.
At a shuttered gas station, I meet the young white night watchman, Joseph. He owns a seven-foot-long Monitor lizard and is going to great lengths to keep her warm now that the power is down. “I have my plan for evacuation,” he says. “Those people in New Orleans shoulda too, but if you say that, then you’re a racist.”
Later it comes out that Joseph thinks New Orleans is a cesspool that should be filled with even more water, that he doesn’t like Vietnamese people and that he’s licensed to carry a gun at all times. “I tell you, we’re on the verge of another Civil War in this country.”
A white woman pulls in to buy cigarettes. “I think New Orleans is a satanic city,” she says earnestly. “I mean, I am not super-religious, but it’s a horrible place full of very satanic people.” She thinks voodoo and Mardi Gras might have something to do with Katrina’s path.
Trying to get gas north of Lake Pontchartrain, back in Louisiana, we pull in to a cops-only refueling depot and chat with a producer from Universal Studios in Florida who is now a volunteer parking attendant for the rescue effort. He’s red with sunburn, fidgety and sweaty, his lingo laced with military jargon.
“My orders are to secure this area,” he says. “The situation is still pretty volatile here–there are a lot of evacuees from New Orleans around.” He nods to the woods as if Charlie is out there on the proverbial tree line. “I am trying to locate a truckload of NYPD ammunition that went missing.” Everything about him says this is war. “You guys be careful out there.” Gun shops in Baton Rouge are reporting sales of up to a thousand a day.
Outside a Red Cross shelter in Covington, there is a softer version of this siege mentality. When I interview some African-American evacuees, no less than four different white middle-class Red Cross staff intervene at various points, once even attempting to have me evicted from the area by police. In paternalistic tones, they explain to the black people I am talking with that newspapers and magazines do not give aid.
“Yes, ma’am, I know,” says a woman named Raven. “I want the whole world to hear my story.” And the stories they tell are harrowing.
A heavy-set older woman named Rosie Lee Riford is on the verge of tears. “I am so worried. I feel like killing myself,” she says. Her grown son, who uses a wheelchair due to a childhood gunshot wound, refused to leave the Saint Downs housing project. She was forced to leave without him as the storm took aim at New Orleans. Now that neighborhood is flooded. “I never hurt anybody or did any wrong. I just keep asking God, Why? Why’d you do this?”
For Latino immigrants, the situation can be even worse. A Nicaraguan house painter named Juan tells me he will have to go home to Managua because he has lost everything: car, apartment, the business where he worked. He says the Red Cross cannot register him for benefits, so he eats at Latino churches. He bravely holds back tears.
Not far from the Red Cross is a group from Veterans for Peace, who came here from Camp Casey in Crawford, Texas, and who are now coordinating a large-scale supply depot and distribution center. At the Vets’ Internet tent sits Tenshenia Downs, a young, well-organized mother from East New Orleans. She is trying to find her relatives and set up housing in Atlanta. She spent a day on her roof with her three kids and was then evacuated by a National Guard flatboat and taken to the Superdome.
“It was like a prison,” she says. “It was hell. They had pedophiles up in there. People living like animals.” She recounts the backed-up toilets, urine-flooded halls, the elderly near death, the fistfights, panic, lack of food and limited water.
“They wouldn’t let us leave,” she continues. “But when I heard about the third rape, I just took my three kids and went. We waded through that water to I-10 and walked over the river to Gretna.” From Gretna she walked and hitched rides with truckers and “a real nice white couple” here to Covington. “I lost it all: everything in my house and a new car, no insurance.” And the beauty spa where she worked, Bella Donna, is gone.
She says she’ll try and start over in Atlanta. Bizarrely, there is no Red Cross or FEMA clearinghouse of information yet established; instead, Ms. Downs is pointed to the MoveOn.org website for housing and job postings in Atlanta.
Grace and Generosity in Houston
At the Houston Astrodome, the stereotype of white America’s worst nightmare has arrived: a wave of black people from some of the nation’s worst ghettos. And, surprise, surprise, it’s not so bad.
On the sterile manicured lawns and the sidewalks of the sprawling shopping plaza around Reliant Center, hundreds of young dudes and well-dressed ladies from the Ninth Ward, East New Orleans and other desperately poor and excluded neighborhoods stroll around peacefully.
The relief effort here is far from perfect and involves only some 11,000 people, but it is one of the most functional pieces of the response. The people of Houston have welcomed the evacuees with grace and generosity. Everyone here is getting tetanus shots and other basic healthcare, and they have debit cards (most are only good for a few hundred dollars, not the $2,000 usually cited in the press). And at some point in their stay, the evacuees in the Astrodome each get to spend a week in a hotel, to have some privacy, comfort and solid rest. Many are being successfully placed in more long-term housing and even set up with jobs. Their children will be entering schools that in many cases are far better than the disastrous system they left in New Orleans.
Looking out at the scene, I can’t help but be moved by its peaceful contrast to the flood-zone militarism. Nor is the so-called “culture of poverty” much in evidence. What is so striking here is not the role of culture but the role of opportunities, services and money. When the poor are treated with some modicum of respect and given a few resources, the social benefits are immediately apparent. When offered the chance, most of them rebuild their lives.
Meanwhile, in Baton Rouge, Bush-connected firms like the Shaw Group, Bechtel and Halliburton are lining up to get big portions of the $62 billion in federal money that will soon flood the storm region. The fact that some of these companies had been convicted of defrauding the federal government in the past, are under investigation again for corruption in Iraq and were once banned from federal contracting due to unethical practices has not stopped the process. Many of the people here at the Astrodome, aware of the money headed to the region, say they too would like the chance to help reconstruct and shape their city.