This is a letter from a philly native who was vacationing in New Orleans when Katrina hit. It's a long, but engrossing account of her experience being evacuated.
September 6, 2005
I’m writing this letter to let everyone know that we finally made it home from New Orleans and to tell everyone how things really were down there. I am also sending this letter to the media because of my experience at the Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans- since no one has shown it on the news. I am so disgusted that the media is not reporting the horrible conditions of the actual evacuation. All they show is the airlifts and then all of the sudden the people magically appear in a shelter. I thought we had a free press in this country…
Zach and I arrived in N.O. for a long weekend to celebrate our first anniversary. We had a great time on Bourbon St. Friday & Saturday. We found out the storm was coming Saturday and we immediately tried to get new plane tickets or a rental car. We found out later that there were rental cars that were available; they just wouldn’t rent them. All of us who were really stuck there were tourists and the poor- none of us had cars. At first we trusted that the government would come for us- this is the USA, right? What a joke…they abandoned us there.
Sunday night the Hyatt evacuated us out of our room to the 3rd floor to a big room where we slept until the storm woke us up in the morning. It was pretty safe though the ceiling did partially collapse from flooding on floors above. Monday morning we snuck back up to our room on the 21st floor to get clothes (that’s a lot of steps). The room was pretty much destroyed–windows broken, glass strewn all over the wet floor. We manage to sweep the broken glass over with a serving tray and the bed was dry so we decided to sleep in there that night- at least there was a breeze!
Monday afternoon we walked around the French quarter- there had been a little looting at that point but most things were in pretty good shape- our hotel seemed to be the most damaged building. Our outlook was still fairly positive because we assumed we’d be able to get out the next day. But then the water came…
Tuesday the flood arrived and things started to get worse. We could have gotten out on our own if they had allowed people to come in and get us. I understand not letting people into the city but if they could of just bused us out of the city borders most of us had a place to go.
They gave us a new room on the 14th floor. We would have stayed in our old room since it at least had some air but it started to grow mildew to which I’m really sensitive. There was no electricity or water in the hotel. I think our new room was around 100 degrees even though we kept the shades drawn all day. Most people just slept on the floor in the hallways. We gave our extra blankets to people who were sleeping directly on the dirty hallway carpet. We shared our wet naps with people who had children and babies. Luckily we had filled our tub and stocked water for ourselves. We traded our playing cards for a flashlight. We filled our trashcans with water from the pool to flush the toilet. We just tried to keep as clean as possible.
The Hyatt (which is connected by a 2nd floor walkway to the Superdome) did the best they could and it was probably the safest place in the city. But it was still pretty bad in there. Our mantra was “at least we’re not in the Superdome!” We were fed twice a day, usually half a cup of warm soda, fruit cocktail, and a muffin for breakfast then a bottle of water, a small piece of meat or gumbo, and some rice for dinner. We found out from employees that there was a huge amount of food wasted. The mayor and police stayed on the fourth floor and were fed really well (which they should have been) but a lot of food was trashed. The chef quit because he was so disgusted by the waste…they wouldn’t even let him eat the fourth floor food!
On Wednesday they finally allowed the Superdome people to come outside. I don’t think they were given any food or water up until then. There were warring gangs that took over in there. There were rapes and stabbings and a suicide (a man jumped from one of the higher levels). When the generator stopped working there, the troops advised people to put women & children in the middle and have the men surround them. I also heard that people with weapons took over the bathrooms and wpuldn’t let others use them. There will a lot of really bad stories coming out of there (if they decide to report on it!).
Beginning Wednesday night people started trying to break into the Hyatt because we had the best conditions. The officers and employees were left with no choice but to board up the first two floors of the building. Everyday we were sure they would send more troops to help us get out. We would have walked out of the city if it had been safe. All they had to do was send some troops to line one road out and we would have walked.
Why did it take so long to send troops?????? I guess they’re busy in Iraq. The police did keep us safe in the hotel but they were just outnumbered outside. All they could do was try to keep all the insane people separated from the rest of us.
Fire was our biggest fear. Friday morning I saw the refinery explode and we knew then that we had to get out of the city, even if we had to walk- at that point we were willing to take our chances. We heard from our parents in Philadelphia that some more troops had arrived the previous night so we thought we could make it. Then they announced (finally) the mandatory evacuation and we thought we were saved. That was actually the beginning of the nightmare of the airport. A lot of people are under the impression that there was always a mandatory evacuation, but there wasn’t. If there had been, they would have had to come and get us. I figure they waited until they were able to put together a plan, then ordered evacuation. Does that make sense to anyone?
Friday (9/2/05) afternoon (after 5 days of living in these conditions) we were finally “evacuated” from the Hyatt Regency New Orleans. The night before they had begun to evacuate the Superdome through our hotel (they couldn’t pull the buses up to the Superdome) but that was taking so long that they decided to get us out first. We were told that we would be allowed to board a bus to either Dallas, San Antonio, or Baton Rouge. Instead, we got on school buses with one army guard and were brought to the New Orleans Airport. There were about 300 of us in that load. They told us they couldn’t bring us inside yet because they needed to get the people in there out first; that is was too crowded right then. They brought us snacks and water and Porto potties and told us to wait. Then the guards told us they were leaving.
When we figured out that they had dumped us there and we were on our own, we started asking what was going to happen to us and how we could get out. It’s also interesting to note that they evacuated foreigners separately from us in the Hyatt and they were not brought to the airport. I guess they don’t want the foreign media to find out what’s going on. Some airport employees told us that if we didn’t go inside and get our names on the list, we would never get out. They refused to let anyone drive into the parishes to pick us up- they won’t let anyone into the area. Twelve of us decided to venture into the airport to see what was going on and at least make some phone calls- everyone else was content to sit on the ground and wait a while.
When we saw the conditions inside the airport we were appalled (although I hear it was way better than the Superdome). We suddenly realized the guards had abandoned us in the middle of a totally chaotic environment, much worse then the one we just left, with no plan and no protection. The airport was teaming with thousands of angry, hungry and sick people. None of whom were too keen on tourists getting in their way. When we walked in, all we saw were people everywhere- around 5,000 I’m guessing- waiting to get their names on the list to be evacuated. None of the police (I think there were around 20 cops and homeland security officers in there) knew which way we needed to go or where the “line” began or ended. We figured out which way people were “moving” and tried to get in the mix.
We ended up waiting in that area for 15 hours, standing on a floor covered in urine, feces, and debris; packed together like sardines with strangers—angry, dirty strangers... This was after already being awake for 12 hours waiting to be evacuated. I didn’t know I could stand for that long.
The people in there were the poorest of the poor. Just to give you an idea of how poor and ignorant many of the people were, I’ll describe the family next to us. They were a family who was made up of three races (white, black, hispanic), three generations and a dog who had been airlifted out of a totally flooded area and dropped off at the airport just like us. When I first saw them, the mother was sitting on the pissy ground making sandwiches for the kids. They were all covered in dirt. She was spreading mayo on the bread with her finger and then she licked her fingers! The baby was crawling around on the ground in just his diaper with a bandage on his leg. The daughter looked to be about 12 and we heard her say to her mom- “I ain’t had a cigarette since before my shower this morning.” Her brother was shaking his kids and screaming at everyone. It was really sad. The mom’s boyfriend was dying of cancer and had a colostomy bag hanging on his belt. When we got closer to the front he was holding on to my backpack trying to stand. I had to make him stop because I was having trouble standing myself.
We had to fight our way to the concourse through people who were totally desperate. I was just taking tiny sips of water so I wouldn’t have to go to the bathroom- I didn’t pee for 20 hours. There was no way I was going to try to fight my way back to my spot if I had tried to get to a bathroom. It’s amazing that no one was trampled to death. We’d move like 5 feet and then stand still for like 3 hours. The old and sick were dropping like flies. The medics couldn’t even help them until they passed out. They’d hit the floor and then be covered in urine. Then they would carry them out. If you needed water you just had to yell, “water! water!” and they would start throwing them to your area.
When we finally got to the front the officer would just tell us to be patient; that we were next. Of course, that plane was full and we had to wait another hour and a half to get into the screening area. People just pushed and pushed and pushed. That’s when I finally just started sobbing. The guards saw us crying and felt bad for us but there was really nothing they could do. It was so frustrating to be so close and then have to wait again. We were sure there weren’t going to be anymore planes until morning but we didn’t want to say it aloud for fear of starting further panic. After ten hours of this we finally saw the rest of the people from our hotel just coming into the building- they didn’t get out for another 12 hours after us (we saw some of them the following day in San Antonio).
Finally, at 4:30 am, we got in to be screened. They took our names and info and put us to different staging areas to move us to the plane. We ended up being flown to San Antonio, Texas in a C-17 Navy cargo plane. They put us in 25 rows of ten people each and strapped us to the floor. We did get one picture of the plane before they made stopped us.
We landed at an Air Force base in San Antonio and they tried to make us go with all the newly homeless people into the shelter. We refused and told them they would have to arrest us if they wanted us to go in there. They wouldn’t let a taxi come onto the base either. They finally let us walk out of the base and we called a cab to go to the nearest airport. By the time we got to sleep that evening, we had been awake for 40 hours.
I wish I could have taken some pictures in the New Orleans airport but I think someone would probably have taken the camera and smashed it over my head if I had. I did see a TV camera in there once but have not seen any coverage AT ALL of the actual evacuation process. They’re only showing the outside and I did see some footage of where they take the people who pass out. It sickens me. You know the media looks for the most pathetic, heart-wrenching pictures so the fact that they are not showing the inside of the airport says to me that someone (the government) is not allowing it.
I’ve always been a pretty laid-back person politically but I’m a changed person after this experience. I don’t believe that the government would have taken so long to rescue or help people who aren’t so poor. Some people believe the government didn’t care about the people because most are black. Personally, I think it’s an economic issue but most poor people in and around New Orleans are black. What took so long? The president declared an emergency on Saturday before the storm. At that point FEMA is supposed to move in…why did we have to wait until the following Saturday to get out of the city?????
I wish we had thought to try to get out by taxi. That might have worked. FYI- rental car places still had cars but they wouldn’t rent them because they knew the cars would go out of state and not come back. I’m sure they’d be happy to have the cars out of state now! One family we met from North Dakota who we spent a lot of time with had a crazy rental car story- they were scheduled to leave Sunday morning when the planes were still flying. They couldn’t get to the airport on time because of all the traffic heading out. They called the airline and were told that they would put them on the next flight. They got to the airport, returned their rental car and then were told that the flight had been canceled. They called the rental place right back and asked for the car back and the rental agency told them they weren’t renting anymore cars. So they had to come back to the hotel with the rest of us suckers.
I never thought this would happen in the USA. How vulnerable do we now look to people who hate America? How could President Bush be surprised that the levee broke? You can’t convince me that the federal, state, and local governments did enough to get us out of there. Why didn’t the president force the airlines to keep flying on Sunday?
As I go back and read this letter I realize that I can’t put into words how horrible this experience has been. Please just pass this along so others can understand a little bit of what people went through. The worst thing to me besides the loss of life is the failure of the media to report on the actual evacuation process. Someone doesn’t want the world to know that we can’t effectively evacuate one city. I wonder who? When I finally saw the news on Saturday (9/3/05) I just cried & cried because I couldn’t believe that the news is being censored. I guess I was naïve to believe that the USA has a free press.