Five years later we’re still coming to terms with what happened in New Orleans on August 29, 2005, and thereafter, struggling to get the facts straight and to figure out what it said about race, disaster and even human nature. How we remember Hurricane Katrina is also how we’ll prepare for future disasters, so getting the story right matters for survival as well as for justice and history.
In August 2005, 90,000 square miles of the Gulf Coast were devastated; more than 1,800 people died; 182,000 homes were severely damaged in New Orleans alone, where 80 percent of the city was flooded. Hundreds of thousands went into an exile from which some will never return. A great and justified bitterness arose in African-Americans who were demonized by the media and the government and who felt that they had not been treated as citizens or even as fellow human beings. An African-American woman at an antiwar rally in the nation’s capital a month later carried a sign saying, “No Iraqis left me on a roof to die.”
The widely told initial version of Hurricane Katrina was a lie and a slander, based on rumors and racism, and it’s been falling apart steadily ever since. For the past two years an antithetical version has been overtaking it, one that tells the real story of who went crazy and who was in danger in the days after the hurricane. It has gained more ground than I ever imagined it would, and the history books may yet get this one right.
When the Media Went Mad
The story of Hurricane Katrina as originally constructed served authoritarianism, racism and a generally grim view of human nature. It was first told hysterically, as though New Orleans had been hit by a torrent of poor black people or had become, as Maureen Dowd of the New York Times put it then, “a snake pit of anarchy, death, looting, raping, marauding thugs.” An overwrought Huffington Post columnist even spread rumors of cannibalism, while many major media outlets repeated rumors of snipers firing on helicopters. These rumors were never substantiated, but they interfered with the rescue operations nonetheless.
The gist of these stories was that in the absence of authority, people went berserk; the implied solution was the reimposition of authority—armed, ruthless and intense. Heavily armed Blackwater mercenaries were dispatched to New Orleans, where, as Jeremy Scahill reported in this magazine, they shot at citizens with little fear of repercussion. While the focus was on young men of color as the peril, police and white vigilantes went on a murder spree that was glossed over at the time.
The AP reported on September 1, 2005, “Mayor Ray Nagin ordered 1,500 police officers to leave their search-and-rescue mission Wednesday night and return to the streets of the beleaguered city to stop looting that has turned increasingly hostile.” Only two days after the catastrophe struck, while thousands were still stuck on roofs, in attics, on overpasses, on second and third stories and in isolated buildings on high ground in flooded neighborhoods, the mayor chose protecting property over human life. There was no commerce, no electricity, no way to buy badly needed supplies. Though unnecessary things were taken, much of what got called looting was the stranded foraging for survival by the only means available.
The mainstream media fractured under the pressure of reporting such a huge and complex story. Journalists on the ground often wrote empathic and accurate stories and broke out of their “objective” roles to advocate for the desperate and rail against systemic failures. Meanwhile, further away, credulous television, online and print reporters spread lurid rumors about baby rapists and mass murders and treated minor and sometimes justified thefts as the end of civilization. They used words like “marauding” and “looting” as matches, struck over and over until they got a conflagration of opinion going.
They, along with government officials at all levels, created the overheated atmosphere of fear and hostility that turned the task of rescuing stranded people into an attempt to control a captive population. New Orleans became a prison city; the trapped citizens became prisoners without rights. Those in the Superdome, for example, were prevented from leaving the stinking, scorching zone as people dropped from heat and dehydration. The literal prisoners, adult and juvenile, in the New Orleans jails were abandoned to thirst, hunger and rising floodwaters. Hospitals packed with the dying were not allowed to evacuate; citizens were not allowed to walk out of New Orleans on the bridge to Gretna because the sheriff on the other side was there with cronies and guns, keeping them out.
The stories of social breakdown were quietly retracted in September and October 2005, but the damage had been done. A great many found new confirmation of the old stereotypes that in times of crisis people—particularly poor and nonwhite people—revert to a Hobbesian war of each against each.
The Crimes That Counted
If you believe what happened after Hurricane Katrina was all about the masses running amok, then the proper response is pretty much the vigilante one: arm yourself, treat your neighbor as your enemy, shoot first, ask questions later. But the evidence suggests that the people running amok were the ones who were supposed to protect the public. They were the sheriff on that bridge to Gretna, the corrupt and overwrought policemen who shot unarmed civilians and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, who said, “I have one message for these hoodlums: these troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will.”
Real people got caught in the crossfire. Take Donnell Herrington, a 33-year-old former Brink’s truck driver who stayed behind to help his grandparents and who later rescued many others by boat from their flooded housing project. Herrington was walking to the evacuation site in Algiers Point when a white vigilante with a shotgun attempted to murder him. Herrington was shot in the neck, hit so hard the blast lifted him off the ground, and then shot again in the back as he tried to escape. His friend and cousin, who were walking with him, were also injured by the buckshot and then chased down by racists who terrorized them. An African-American couple in the neighborhood drove Herrington to the nearest hospital, where a surgeon stitched him up. According to that surgeon, Herrington nearly bled to death from pellets to his jugular.
His assailants were part of an organized militia that presumed any and all black men were looters and decided that they were justified in administering the ad hoc death penalty for suspected or potential petty theft. No one reported on these vigilante crimes in the first round of coverage.
The Past Is Equipment for the Future
The July 15 federal indictment of Roland Bourgeois Jr. is stamped Felony, and the charges at the top of the page are “conspiracy, civil rights violations, obstruction of justice, false statements and firearms violations.” What that means is that this white man allegedly tried to murder Herrington and his companions because they were black, because they were walking through his neighborhood and because in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina there weren’t a lot of rules, and those who should’ve been enforcing them had gone mad.
“It was the plan and purpose of the conspiracy that defendant Roland J. Bourgeois Jr. and others known and unknown to the grand jury would use force and threats of force to keep African-Americans from using the public streets of Algiers Point in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina,” says the indictment. Bourgeois and other vigilantes were situated between the Coast Guard evacuation point and the rest of the city, picking off people who were just trying to get out. “Anything coming up this street darker than a paper bag is getting shot,” the indictment charges Bourgeois with saying. He is the first, but may not be the last, of the suburban vigilantes to be indicted this summer.
These indictments are part of a package, along with two sets of indictments of police by Eric Holder’s Justice Department, that came down just in time; the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is also the statute of limitations for some of these charges.
The catastrophe’s fifth anniversary is becoming an opportunity for a major re-examination of the colossal disaster uncovered by journalist A.C. Thompson’s award-winning reporting, with a new Spike Lee documentary, If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise, and a Frontline documentary, both set to air in late August. I never thought I’d see the day. Early in 2007, when I started looking into what happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it pretty quickly became clear to me that though the city had swarmed with journalists, none of them wanted to touch the crimes Bourgeois and his cronies had committed.
The evidence these journalists overlooked was everywhere. In September 2005, Malik Rahim, the ex–Black Panther who co-founded Common Ground Relief and who lives in the Algiers neighborhood, told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! on camera about vigilante murders of black men. He showed her the body of a dead black man lying under a sheet of corrugated metal, bloated and decaying in the heat. Herrington testified about his near-murder in Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke, broadcast in 2006 on the first anniversary of the storm. At the end of the segment, he takes off his shirt so that the buckshot wounds welting his torso are visible, as is the long scar on his neck.
Some of the evidence I came across wasn’t so obvious, but it wasn’t hard to find either. I heard from staff at the Common Ground Health Clinic that vigilantes and their associates who came in for care confessed or boasted of crimes. Rahim gave me a DVD of a little-seen documentary in which some of the Algiers Point militia boasted of shooting black men. A few others told me stories that corroborated that the vigilantes had kept a body count. I acquired this evidence without really trying, while pursuing other stories entirely, which made me wonder what was up with the hundreds of reporters who’d come to New Orleans.
On March 1, 2007, I wrote to the best investigative journalist I knew, my friend A.C. Thompson, “Hey, I’m sitting on a kind of wild story, and I’d love to talk to you about it.” He’d never been to New Orleans, and it wasn’t until The Nation and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund took an interest that A.C. got dispatched to the city. More than three years and dozens of trips to New Orleans later, A.C. has turned the city and the story of Katrina upside down. Without his work, a lot of people would’ve gotten away with murder and attempted murder.
A.C. uncovered a story no one in the media had touched—the police killing of Henry Glover, first reported on in these pages in December 2008 [“Body of Evidence,” January 5, 2009]. He also joined forces with Times-Picayune reporter Laura Maggi, who reopened the Danziger Bridge case, in which police shot several unarmed African-Americans after the storm, including a middle-aged mother who had her forearm blown off, a mentally disabled man who was shot in the back and killed, and a teenage boy, also killed (several others were wounded).
Justice Department officials have charged eleven policemen for the Danziger Bridge case and five for the Glover case, and most recently sent warning letters to two more for the post-Katrina case in which Danny Brumfield was shot in the back and killed. In total they’ve opened up six civil rights cases for New Orleans police crimes post-Katrina, and a federal probe of the department is under way. With any luck, it’s the foundation of the real story of what went down after the storm, as well as reform of what A.C. tells me is the most corrupt and incompetent police department in the country.
Truth may be the first casualty of war; it’s certainly the most important equipment to have on hand in a disaster. There’s the practical truth about what’s going on: Is the city on fire? Is there an evacuation effort on the other side of town? And then there’s the larger truth: What goes on in disasters? Who falls apart and who behaves well? Whom should you trust? Most ordinary people behave remarkably well when their city is ripped apart by disaster. They did in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake; in New Orleans during Hurricane Betsy in 1965; in Mexico City after the 1985 earthquake; in New York City in the aftermath of 9/11; and in most disasters in most times and places.
Those in power, on the other hand, often run amok. They did in San Francisco in 1906, when an obsessive fear that private property would be misappropriated led to the mayor’s shoot-to-kill proclamation; a massive military and national guard on the streets; and the death of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of civilians. Much like New Orleans ninety-nine years later, those who claimed to be protecting society were themselves the ones who were terrorizing and shooting. Earlier this year, Haitians were subjected to a similar rampage of what the disaster sociologists Lee Clarke and Caron Chess call “elite panic.” For example, 15-year-old Fabienne Cherisma was shot to death in late January in Port-au-Prince for taking some small paintings from a shop in ruins, one of many casualties of the institutional obsession with protecting property instead of rescuing the trapped, the suffering and the needy.
Surviving the new era, in which climate change is already causing more, and more intense, disasters, means being prepared—with the truth. The truth is that in a disaster, ordinary people behave well overall; your chances of surviving a major disaster depend in part on the health and strength of your society going into it. Even so, countless individuals under corrupt governments, in New Orleans, in Mexico City, in Port-au-Prince, often rise to the occasion with deeply altruistic, creative and brave responses. These are the norm. The savagery of elite panic is the exception, but one that costs lives.
Pieces of the Picture
After Hurricane Katrina, neoliberals and Bush provided a near-perfect example of Naomi Klein’s theory of disaster capitalism. Everything from supplying buses for evacuation to tarps for torn-up roofs became an opportunity for Bush supporters to reap financial rewards. The city’s public housing was torn down; the schools became charter schools, many along military lines. Told this way, what happened was pure loss, for the left as well as for the poor (though the schools before Katrina had been a mess). But that’s not all that Katrina triggered.
During the storm and its aftermath, far more people did heroic things, and these, perhaps even more than the crimes Thompson reported on, are the key missing stories of the storm. Before he was shot, Herrington was one of hundreds who got into boats and commenced rescuing people stranded in the floodwater. Some in surrounding communities sneaked past authorities to start rescuing people in the drowned city. Young gang members kept mothers of small children and babies and elderly people provisioned. People banded together in schools and other surviving structures and formed improvisational communities whose members watched out for one another.
As days turned into weeks and then months, volunteers from around the country came to feed the displaced and rebuild the city. Others took evacuees into their homes and helped them start new lives. Middle-aged Mennonites, young anarchists, musicians, members of the Rainbow Family of hippie communards, environmentalists, Baptists, Catholics, college students on spring break, ex–Black Panthers, movie stars, Habitat for Humanity carpenters, nurses and nearly every other kind of citizen showed up to save New Orleans. The outpouring of generosity and empathy was extraordinary. New Orleans was saved by love.
I first visited the city post-Katrina six months after the storm, and it looked as though almost nothing had happened since. The place was wrecked. Houses were smashed or shoved by floodwater into the middle of the street; many had the spray-painted markings of search-and-rescue teams, some reporting bodies or pets found inside. Cars were flipped over or propped up on fences and trees. Whole neighborhoods were abandoned and pitch-black at night, because even the streetlights were dead; and in places like the Lower Ninth Ward, returning residents had to make street signs by hand.
The place could have died; its fate was up in the air. It still is—with coastal erosion and rising seas, the petroleum industry’s poisons, the troubled economy and corroded political system that were the city’s problems before Katrina hit. Crime has risen, and New Orleans is a violent place. But it’s also a vibrant place again. By some estimates more than a million volunteers have come through the city. Some who intended to come for weeks found they couldn’t leave: they’d fallen in love with the gregarious sweetness of so many Orleanians and with the chance to make a difference. They’ve added their commitment to altruism and civil society to the city’s mix. New Orleans always had a flourishing public sphere of festivals and street life and a private sphere of social organizations, but there has been a rise in civic engagement, in public meetings, neighborhood groups and focused organizations dealing with housing, the environment, immigrants’ rights and more. Housing is scarcer and more expensive, but wages have risen since the labor pool shrank. New environmental initiatives are on the table or being realized.
Then there’s the catastrophe’s impact on national politics. The Bush administration’s outrageous incompetence and indifference prompted a hitherto intimidated press and nation to begin criticizing not just the failed response but the Iraq War and the administration overall. The levees broke and so did the bulwarks that protected the president. As Bush’s own pollster put it, “Katrina to me was the tipping point. The president broke his bond with the public…. I knew when Katrina—I was like, Man, you know, this is it, man. We’re done.” The racism and poverty that the catastrophe revealed laid the groundwork for newcomer Barack Obama to ride to victory in 2008. Which is how we got Eric Holder, the attorney general who’s taken a direct role in some of the federal indictments in New Orleans this summer.
The very subject of recovery is a complicated one for New Orleans. After 9/11 New York pretty much wanted to get back to where it had been—a thriving, functioning city (albeit one with plenty of poverty and injustice). No one thought New Orleans should get back to what it had been, and the disaster became an opportunity for the city to reinvent itself in various ways. That process continues, and where it goes is anyone’s guess. It still depends on the dedication of volunteers and citizens, some of whom are returning, putting their lives back together in what may be, by some intangible measures of joy and belonging, America’s richest city, even if it’s the poorest by others.
A disaster unfolds a little like a revolution. No one is in charge, and anything is possible. The efforts of elites, often portrayed as rescue or protection, are often geared more toward preserving the status quo or seizing power. Sometimes they win; sometimes they don’t. Katrina brought many kinds of destruction and a little rebirth, including the spread of green construction projects, new community organizations and perhaps soon, thanks to the work of Thompson and others, some long overdue justice for police crimes. It’s too soon to tell what it will all mean in a hundred years, but it’s high time to start telling the real story of what happened in those terrible first days and weeks.