In the parking lot outside the hangar sits George Lainart, a police officer from Georgia, who has led a flotilla of nine airboats over land to try to pitch in with the rescue. But his crew has been on the bench for two days, waiting for FEMA to assign them a mission. After making serial inquiries, Lainart is climbing out of his skin, and I later find out that his team circumvented FEMA altogether, got down to New Orleans, and stayed busy for five days straight. Though he shredded his hull by running over asphalt, cars, fire hydrants, and other debris, his crew saved nearly 800 people.
"FEMA was holding up everything, they didn't have a clue," complains Lainart. "They were an absolute roadblock, nobody was getting anywhere with those idiots. Everybody just started doing their own missions." While opinions on the ground differ wildly as to who deserves the most generous serving of blame pie among George W. Bush, Louisiana's governor, and New Orleans' mayor, everyone I speak with agrees that FEMA officials should spend their afterlives in the hottest part of Hell without any water breaks.
Gloria, a kindly British-accented volunteer and an LSU English professor, tries to comfort her, and to get some answers from somebody. But nobody has answers. "Now, now, your world's been turned upside down, hasn't it?" commiserates Gloria, who tries to calm Lurleen down. It's the only attempt at consolation that I personally witness from even a semi-official source in the four days I spend in Louisiana. I have to leave, so I slide Lurleen 20 bucks, throwing my arm around her to give her a squeeze. She grabs me back like I'm a life preserver, saying, "God bless you" over and over again, hungry for the most meager kindness.
I walked the avenues of lower Manhattan in the days after the World Trade Center went down, and the camaraderie of people coming together was palpable. But Louisiana after the flood is different and darker. Perhaps it's the scope of the catastrophe, perhaps the undercurrent of violence, but even many of the aid workers seem to have turned to stone.
As I walk across the field toward the highway, I'm accosted by grasping humanity. Half of them want to know if I'm an aid worker, the other half want me to "call their people," which I try, but there's no cell service in New Orleans. Two thirtysomething black gents, who introduce themselves as Gregory and Richard, want me to see the squalor of their encampment, which could give any slum in Bangladesh a run. An old man they're taking care of wets his pants, and Richard has to take him to a makeshift bathroom, which is nothing more than a sheet shielding a patch of bare ground. The six or so children they're looking out for, three of whom are Richard's, are suffering from exhaustion, and one has asthma, his face swollen from allergies. Separated from his family in the flood, Gregory doesn't even know where his four children are. "I haven't seen my babies," he says. "I don't even like to talk about it, it hurts so bad. Ya feel me?"
They've been there for three days, but neither has been able to obtain answers about where or when they're going if a bus ever comes, so I grab them and pull them over some barricades to talk to some authorities. They are shirtless from the flood, with plenty of chest tattoos. Together, we look like a rap group and their manager. When I turn my recorder on as I interrogate a soldier on their behalf, he grows peevish, and tells me to turn it off and move along. When I approach a cop, and ask why these people aren't getting taken care of, he sips a Coke, while reclining against a squad car. "If it were up to us, we'd have all of them on vehicles, and get them someplace safe." Well who's it up to, I ask irately. "I have no idea," he says.
Are you getting the picture? If not, try this:
On the street right in front of the Convention Center, I see a circle of chairs around a black tarp. A body lies underneath it. It's been there since the night before. I pull the tarp back and see a black man lying in a pool of blood. He wears work pants and a shirt featuring an ascending angel, not unlike the angels standing sentry over the whitewashed crypts in Metairie.
There's a pair of scissors pointing at his head, which look like a murder weapon. But they're not. They were used to cut duct tape and paper, which are attached to his torso, notifying whoever removes him of the phone numbers of his next of kin. Whoever his people were wanted to get the hell out of New Orleans, even if it was without him. They could hardly be blamed.
Witnesses tell me what happened. Dwight Williams, who wears shorts without underwear and no shirt (what he escaped the flood waters in), says the night before, a New Orleans Police Department vehicle pulled up. "For whatever reason, the gentleman made a move to the car," he says. "It took five seconds, the entire incident. The cop opened the door, shot him, and that was it." Another black man walks past me, barking, "He didn't stop. If we don't stop, they got the right to shoot the f--out ya. I'm a refugee in my own country! They shot that old man. F--this here!"
There is more after that. More than you can believe, more than you can bear. And there is a reason why the American people should demand accountability from our elected officials. Katrina was an act of God. No one could have reasonably prevented it. But the aftermath has been a failure of our leadership.