I just read this off my e-mail, couldn't find it on a quick site search, and am going to break the rules and post it in its entirety. It is just so
gripping to read about what these terrified people had to go through to get evacuated!
Hurricane Katrina - Our Experiences
By Paramedics Larry Bradsahw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky
Tuesday 06 September 2005
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 windows. 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 bottled 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
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, 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 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
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 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
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
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 #ing 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 day, 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) 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.
Bradshaw and Slonsky are paramedics from California that were attending the EMS conference in New Orleans. Larry Bradshaw is the chief shop
steward, Paramedic Chapter, SEIU Local 790; and Lorrie Beth Slonsky is steward, Paramedic Chapter, SEIU Local 790.
I'm sure that someone will jump in and say, oh they are union, and from CA, so they must be lying, but I don't think so.