Larry Bradshaw is a rescue paramedic for the San Francisco Fire Department.
Lorrie Beth Slonsky, who also worked for the San Francisco Fire Department,
retired in July 2004. This article has been reprinted with permission of the
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
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
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
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, elderly and 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 they arrived at 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 is 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
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 past 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 other 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 six-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 verbally berated and
humiliated. Thousands of New Orleaners were prevented and prohibited from self-evacuating
the City on foot. Meanwhile, 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
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, and 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 eight 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 the
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 eight 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