Friday, September 09, 2005

Two Paramedics First -Hand Account

>Hurricane Katrina-Our Experiences
by Larry Bradshaw, Lorrie Beth Slonsky

Two days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the Walgreen's store at the corner of Royal and Iberville streets remained locked. The dairy display case was clearly visible through the widows. It was now 48 hours without electricity, running water, plumbing. The milk, yogurt, and cheeses were beginning to spoil in the 90-degree heat. The owners and managers had locked up the food, water, pampers, and prescriptions and fled the City. Outside Walgreen's windows, residents and tourists> grew increasingly> >thirsty and hungry.

The much-promised federal, state and local aid never materialized and the windows at Walgreen's gave way to the looters. There was an alternative. The cops could have broken one small window and distributed the nuts, fruit juices, and bottle water in an organized and systematic manner. But they did not. Instead they spent hours playing cat and mouse, temporarily chasing away the looters.

We were finally airlifted out of New Orleans two days ago and arrived home yesterday (Saturday). We have yet to see any of the TV coverage or look at a newspaper. We are willing to guess that there were no video images or front-page pictures of European or affluent white tourists looting the Walgreen's in the French Quarter. We also suspect the media will have been inundated with "hero" images of the National Guard, the troops and the police struggling to help the "victims" of the Hurricane. What you will not see, but what we witnessed, were the real heroes and sheroes of the hurricane relief effort: the working class of New Orleans. The maintenance workers who used a fork lift to carry the sick and disabled. The engineers, who rigged, nurtured and kept the generators running. The electricians who improvised thick extension cords stretching over blocks to share the little electricity we had in order to free cars stuck on rooftop parking lots. Nurses who took over for mechanical ventilators and spent many hours on end manually forcing air into the lungs of unconscious patients> to keep them alive.> >Doormen who rescued folks stuck in elevators.> Refinery workers who broke> >into boat yards, "stealing" boats to rescue their> neighbors clinging to> >their roofs in flood waters. Mechanics who helped> hot-wire any car that> >could be found to ferry people out of the City. And> the food service> >workers who scoured the commercial kitchens> improvising communal meals for> >hundreds of those stranded.

Most of these workers had lost their homes, and had> not heard from members> >of their families, yet they stayed and provided the> only infrastructure for> >the 20% of New Orleans that was not under water.> >> >

On Day 2, there were approximately 500 of us left> in the hotels in the> >French Quarter. We were a mix of foreign tourists,> conference attendees> >like ourselves, and locals who had checked into> hotels for safety and> >shelter from Katrina. Some of us had cell phone> contact with family and> >friends outside of New Orleans. We were repeatedly> told that all sorts of> >resources including the National Guard and scores> of buses were pouring in> >to the City. The buses and the other resources must> have been invisible> >because none of us had seen them. We decided we had to save ourselves. So we pooled> our money and came up> >with $25,000 to have ten buses come and take us out of the City. Those who did not have the requisite $45.00 for a ticket were subsidized by those who did have extra money. 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, elderlyand 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.

By day 4 our hotels had run out of fuel and water.> Sanitation was> >dangerously abysmal. As the desperation and despair> increased, street crime> >as well as water levels began to rise. The hotels> turned us out and locked> >their doors, telling us that the "officials" told> us to report to the> >convention center to wait for more buses. 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".> >> >

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."> >> >We organized ourselves and the 200 of us set off> for the bridge with great> >excitement and hope. As we marched pasted the> convention center, many> >locals saw our determined and optimistic group and> asked where we were> >headed. We told them about the great news. Families> immediately grabbed> >their few belongings and quickly our numbers> doubled and then doubled> >again. Babies in strollers now joined us, people> using crutches, elderly> >clasping walkers and others people in wheelchairs.> We marched the 2-3 miles> >to the freeway and up the steep incline to the> Bridge. It now began to pour> >down rain, but it did not dampen our enthusiasm.> >> >

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.> >> >All day long, we saw other families, individuals> and groups make the same> >trip up the incline in an attempt to cross the> bridge, only to be turned> >away. Some chased away with gunfire, others simply> told no, others to be> >verbally berated and humiliated. Thousands of New> Orleaners were prevented> >and prohibited from self-evacuating the City on> foot. Meanwhile, the only> >two City shelters sank further into squalor and> disrepair. The only way> >across the bridge was by vehicle. We saw workers> stealing trucks, buses,> >moving vans, semi-trucks and any car that could be> hotwired. All were> >packed with people trying to escape the misery New> Orleans had become.> >> >Our little encampment began to blossom. Someone> stole a water delivery> >truck and brought it up to us. Let's hear it for> looting! A mile or so down> >the freeway, an army truck lost a couple of pallets> of C-rations on a tight> >turn. We ferried the food back to our camp in> shopping carts. Now secure> >with the two necessities, food and water;> cooperation, community, and> >creativity flowered. We organized a clean up and> hung garbage bags from the> >rebar poles. We made beds from wood pallets and> cardboard. We designated a> >storm drain as the bathroom and the kids built an> elaborate enclosure for> >privacy out of plastic, broken umbrellas, and other> scraps. We even> >organized a food recycling system where individuals> could swap out parts of> >C-rations (applesauce for babies and candies for> kids!).> >> >This was a process we saw repeatedly in the> aftermath of Katrina. When> >individuals had to fight to find food or water, it> meant looking out for> >yourself only. You had to do whatever it took to> find water for your kids> >or food for your parents. When these basic needs> were met, people began to> >look out for each other, working together and> constructing a community.> >> >If the relief organizations had saturated the City> with food and water in> >the first 2 or 3 days, the desperation, the> frustration and the ugliness> >would not have set in.> >> >Flush with the necessities, we offered food and> water to passing families> >and individuals. Many decided to stay and join us.> Our encampment grew to> >80 or 90 people.> >> >From a woman with a battery powered radio we> learned that the media was> >talking about us. Up in full view on the freeway,> every relief and news> >organizations saw us on their way into the City.> Officials were being asked> >what they were going to do about all those families> living up on the> >freeway? The officials responded they were going to> take care of us. Some> >of us got a sinking feeling. "Taking care of us"> had an ominous tone to it.> >> >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.> >> >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.> >> >We arrived at the airport on the day a massive> airlift had begun. The> >airport had become another Superdome. We 8 were> caught in a press of> >humanity as flights were delayed for several hours> while George Bush landed> >briefly at the airport for a photo op. After being> evacuated on a coast> >guard cargo plane, we arrived in San Antonio,> Texas.> >> >There the humiliation and dehumanization of the> official relief effort> >continued. We were placed on buses and driven to a> large field where we> >were forced to sit for hours and hours. Some of the> buses did not have> >air-conditioners. In the dark, hundreds if us were> forced to share two> >filthy overflowing porta-potties. Those who managed> to make it out with any> >possessions (often a few belongings in tattered> plastic bags) we were> >subjected to two different dog-sniffing searches.> >> >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.> >> >LARRY BRADSHAW, chief steward of the Paramedic> Chapter of SEIU Local 790> >in the Bay Area, and LORRIE BETH SLONSKY, a member> of the same chapter and> >editor of the Gurney Gazette. If you google> "paramedic conference new> >orleans" you'll get lots of stories about> paramedics from all over the> >country stranded in N.O. after the hurricane hit.


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