Eyewitness Report from New Orleans


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Eyewitness Report from New Orleans

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September 6, 2005

On Saturday September 3, award-winning filmmaker Gloria La Riva, internationally-acclaimed photographer Bill Hackwell and A.N.S.W.E.R. Youth & Student Coordinator Caneisha Mills, a senior at Howard University, arrived in New Orleans.

The following is an eyewitness report of the crisis in the area written on Sunday, September 4.


While 80 percent of New Orleans was submerged in water, Algiers is one of the few districts that have been spared the worst of the flooding as it sits higher than most of the city. An historic district established in 1719, Algiers is on the west bank of the Mississippi river, across from the French Quarter. Probably 15% of the residents still remain behind, most of them determined to stay in their homes. The majority of homes are still intact, although many have suffered damage. While their houses survived, the peoples’ chance of survival seemed very bleak since there was no electricity or disbursement of food, water or other supplies.

We arrived in the Algiers district of New Orleans after getting through seven checkpoints. We quickly learned that the current media reports that relief and aid have finally arrived to New Orleans are as false as all earlier reports that also had as their origin government sources. The people in the Algiers area have received nothing or next to nothing since the Hurricane struck. Left without any way to escape, people are now struggling to survive in the aftermath.  Now they are being told they have to abandon their homes, even though they want to stay. They are not being given what they need to stay and survive, and are being told they must leave.

“Imagine being in a city, poor, without any money and all of a sudden you are told to leave and you don’t even have a bicycle,” stated Malik Rahim, a community activist in the Algiers section of New Orleans. “90% of the people don’t even have cars.”

One woman told us it was not possible for her to evacuate. She said, “I can’t leave. I don’t have a car and I have nine children.” She and her husband are getting by with the help of several men in the community who are joining resources to provide for their neighbors.

The government claims that people can get water, but residents have to travel at least 17 miles to the nearest water and ice distribution center. Only one case of water is available per family. Countless people have no way to drive.

While the government is touting the deployment of personnel to the area, there is a huge military and police presence but none of it to provide services. All of them, north and south of the river, are stationed in front of private buildings and abandoned stores, protecting private property.

The goods that the government personnel are bringing in are for their own forces. They are not distributing provisions to people who desperately need them. 

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Not one of them has delivered water to Algiers or gone to the houses to see if sick or elderly people need help. There is no door-to-door survey to see who was injured.

The overwhelming majority of people who have stayed in Algiers are Black but some are white. One man in his late 50s in Algiers pointed across the street to a 10-acre grassy lot. It looks like a beautiful park. He said, “I had my daughter call FEMA. I told them I want to donate this land to the people in need. They could set up 100 tractor trailers with aid, they could set up tents. No one has ever called me back.” He is clearly angry.

Although some of the residents do express fear of burglaries into houses, acts of heroism, sacrifice and solidarity are evident everywhere.

Steve, a white man in his 40s, knocks on Malik’s front door. He tells us, “Malik has kept this neighborhood together. We don’t know what we’d do without his help.” He has come in because he needs to use the phone. Malik’s street is the only one with phones still working.

Malik and three of his friends have been delivering food, water and ice to those in need three times a day, searching everywhere for goods.

There is a strong suspicion among the residents that the government has another agenda in the deliberately forced removal of people from Algiers, even though this particular neighborhood is not under water and is intact.

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Algiers is full of quaint, historic French-style houses, with a high real estate value, and the residents know that the government and real estate forces would like to lay their hands on their neighborhood to push forward gentrification which is already evident.

Downtown New Orleans

Although entry is prohibited into downtown New Orleans north and east of the Mississippi, we were able to get in on Sunday.

The Superdome is still surrounded by water and all types of military helicopters, army trucks, etc are coming in and out of the area; however, most of the people who survived have already left. On US-90, the only road out of New Orleans, convoys of National Guard troops are pouring into the city, too late for many. According to an emergency issue of The Times-Picayune, 16,000 National Guard troops now occupy the city.

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Thousands of troops are in New Orleans but water is premium and still not available. One African American couple we met looking for water told us, “We have four kids. When they told us to leave before the hurricane we couldn’t. We have no car and no money.”

Undoubtedly it is similar in the other states that got the direct hit of Katrina, Mississippi and Alabama. On the radio we hear reports of completely demolished towns. What differentiates the rest of the Gulf coast from New Orleans is that the many thousands of deaths in New Orleans were absolutely preventable and occurred after the hurricane.

On everyone’s lips is the cutting in federal funds to strengthen the levees of Lake Pontchartrain. Two reporters from New York tell us they just came from the New Orleans airport emergency hospital that was set up. We made our way to the airport.

New Orleans International Airport

The New Orleans International Airport was converted into an emergency hospital center. Thousands of people were evacuated there to get supplies and food, and for transportation that would take them out of the city. Many people arrived with only one or two bags, their entire lives reduced to a few belongings.

Some people did not want to leave their homes, but say they were forced to do so. For example, one white woman and her husband were forced to evacuate. She said, “The military told us that we had one minute to evacuate. We said that we weren’t ready and he said they can’t force us to leave but if we don’t leave anybody left would be arrested … but it was the end of the month. The two of us have been living for a couple of months on $600 a month and rent is $550. At the end of the month, we only had $20 and 1/8 of a tank of gas. There was no way we could leave.”

When it became apparent that nobody was coming back to pick them up, the couple walked five miles to the airport to see if they could get help.

Disaster Medical Assistance Teams, doctors, nurses and community organizations came from as far as San Diego, California and Kentucky to provide support during the crisis. None of them were dispersed into the community. When we arrived at the airport on Sunday, September 4, there were approximately 20 medical people for every one patient while people in regions such as Algiers and the 9th ward were left to fend for themselves. 

The majority of people in New Orleans blame the local and national government for the catastrophe. One young Black man said, “The government abandoned us … [it’s] pre-meditated murder.”

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Another said, “Why would you [the government] protect a building … instead of rescuing people that have been without food or water for three or four days? It seems like that was the plan. … We couldn’t starve them out, the hurricane didn’t kill them, it seems planned.”

Baton Rouge

As we drive to Baton Rouge tonight to visit evacuated people, we hear on local radio that possibly 10,000 people have died in the flooded areas of New Orleans. Tonight in one announcement, we hear the names of some of the missing people still being searched for, a 90-year-old woman named Lisa, a man 102 years old, two women 82 and 85 years old. The elderly, the most vulnerable, left to their own devices.

Bodies are lying everywhere, and hidden in attics and apartments. The announcer describes how one body, rotting after days in the sun, was surrounded by a wall fashioned from fallen bricks by survivors, and given a provisional burial to give her some dignity. Written on the sheet covering her is, “Here lies Vera, God Help Us.”

At a Red Cross shelter outside of Baton Rouge, we meet Emmanuel, who can’t find his wife and three sons after the floods. His story is shocking but not unusual. His home is near the 17th Street Canal, where the Pontchartrain levee broke through.

“I stayed behind to rescue my neighbors while I sent my wife and kids to dry land,” he says. It is difficult for him to relate what happened. He had a small boat so he went from house to house picking up neighbors. While doing so, he encountered many bodies in the water.

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“My best friend’s body was floating by in the water. One mother whose baby drowned tied her baby to a fence so she could bury him after she returned.” Because troops kept driving by him and others without helping them, he had to walk 30 miles north until he was picked up.

The people of New Orleans did not have to die; their lives did not have to be destroyed. This conduct of the government is a crime of the highest magnitude. There is not a single adjective that is adequate.

Negligence, incompetence, callous disregard while all are true, none are sufficient.

Those who manage a system that always and everywhere puts the needs of business and private property ahead of the people, that always find money to fund wars that benefit the rich of this country rather than meeting people’s needs should be held responsible and accountable. The real problem however, is not with the managers of the system, but with the system itself. They call it the free market. It is the economic and social system of plutocracy, the system of modern capitalism, of, by, and for the rich that in words declares itself to be of, by and for the people. The reality, however, can now been seen in the streets of New Orleans.

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