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City of rape, rumour and recrimination

September 5, 2005

by Guy Dinmore in New Orleans
Published on FT: September 5 2005

By the time most of the last stragglers were evacuated from New Orleans over the weekend, only the dead bore witness to a hugely controversial rescue effort that has exposed the racial divisions and poverty of America’s Deep South.

Six days after Hurricane Katrina tore into the Gulf coast, the dead were still lying or floating about the streets of this sunken city.

“We have no orders to collect bodies, but to weigh them down if they are floating and mark the spot,” one New Orleans police officer said, noting: “We have nowhere to put them.”

Corpses swelled in the sun, abandoned along elevated highways that criss-cross the city of 1.5m people, now mostly ending in water ramps. Bodies floated spread-eagled in the dark waters below. With rescue efforts for the living in full swing, the dead lay neglected as convoys of soldiers, police, paramedics, and boat rescue teams whizzed by.

One half-naked man could have been asleep with his head on a pillow, his final repose only given away by his mightily expanded stomach in the burning heat.

The neglect of the dead despite the danger of diseases such as cholera reflected the compartmentalised approach to the evacuation effort that in its attempt to organise everything on military lines fell victim to its rigidity.

Buses could only pick up large groups of people in large convoys, so small groups and stragglers were ignored.

The city resembles the aftermath of a war zone. Largely deserted streets are full of debris and rubbish, with large crowds of displaced people gathered together to protect themselves from widespread looting, occasional arson, and rape.

With recriminations mounting and President George W. Bush looking to apportion blame, authorities have protested that the extent of the calamity has overwhelmed them. Some 80 per cent of the city, much of it built below sea level between a large lake and a mighty river, remains under water.

Large numbers of people – tens of thousands – ignored the mandatory evacuation order to flee ahead of Katrina’s arrival last Sunday. But then tens of thousands had no means to get out of New Orleans.

One of them was Connie Emalle, a New Orleans hotel worker seen on Saturday pushing her belongings in a plastic bin on an office chair with wheels, inching along in a line of people towards a cordon of armed National Guards who would assign them to a bus. Where the bus would take them, no one was quite sure.

The oldest, weakest and infants were among the last to leave. Nearly all were black and very poor.

All they knew is that finally they would be out of the Convention Center, a vast complex of halls, cafeterias and meeting rooms where finance ministers of the Americas had once conferenced in splendour. Since the floodwaters surged on Tuesday it had become the refuge for thousands of people and then their prison; but worse than a prison, they said, as there was no security, no food or water, no electricity for three days. During this time, they said, girls and boys were raped in the dark and had their throats cut and bodies were stuffed in the kitchens while looters and madmen exchanged fire with weapons they had looted.

The entire fetid complex reeked of excrement. Piles of litter, abandoned clothing and nappies lay everywhere. Phyllis Riley, 51, seeking to maintain her dignity in clothes smeared in vomit, apologised for her condition but said she had asthma and could hardly breathe and had not seen a single medical worker in the five days since Katrina landed.

Geraldine Lavy said her son protected four Australian tourists from rapists in the convention centre. “Can you imagine? Four white women on their own?”

And then she cursed her government, asking how the Australian embassy had been able to evacuate its citizens and she was still caught in hell, now separated from her son after being bussed to the airport.

Ms Lavy echoed the thoughts and words of many black Americans we spoke to over the weekend who, while often heroic or stoic in the face of the death and depravity around them, were deeply bitter and angry at the rich white people who run their country.

“They opened the levees to save the whole neighbourhood to protect their investments,” declared Larry Crawford, 34, believing, as many sincerely do, that some districts were deliberately flooded to relieve the pressure on the dykes protecting others.

Inconceivable today, yet this is what happened in 1927 with the great Mississippi flood that made a million people homeless. Not only that, as John Barry documents in his social history Rising Tide, black work gangs were held as virtual prisoners in squalid “concentration camps” while shoring up the levees to protect plantations. Many black Americans living in the north are descended from those who abandoned the Delta that year, after the landowners escaped the floods on a steamer to the music of “Bye, Bye Blackbird”.

This week almost nothing has been said in the news or by officials about the poor eastern suburb of Chalmette. Many of the houses – said by officials to number 27,000 – are totally under water. Here the death toll is thought to be greatest, possibly running well into the thousands, said police. Several hundred corpses are reported to have been gathered by locals in one school alone.

Senior officials, who have no bodies to count because there are no orders to collect any, say they have no idea how many people have died. One told a press conference on Saturday it could be one or two thousand.

New Orleans, say some, never recovered from 1927. The pretence of a social compact between blacks and the white ruling class was shattered. This week anger was boiling over like the raging waters of the Mississippi.

Graffiti daubed on a warehouse in a poor easterly neighbourhood proclaimed: “They left us out here. Them bitches flood us. Fuck Bush.” Nearby, in red on another factory that was burning, “You loot, we shoot. Looters will be shot.”

“Just been born the wrong colour,” shouted Larry Martin, one of the last to leave the Convention Center. “If these people were a bunch of Caucasian Americans out there, this would never have happened. They would have taken everybody. Everything you heard is true. We got first food and water on Friday [the fourth day inside]. They [looters and gunmen] were shooting at buses, the rapes, the murders, the sodomy.”

At multiple press conferences, senior military and police commanders condemned the looters. “We are taking the streets back,” declared one. “We’ll be back. Not one inch of the city will be ceded to the criminals.”

But there was no explanation of how more than 100,000 people could be abandoned to their fate. Local police who stayed did what they could, but had inadequate communications and in many cases lost their own homes and lived out of their patrol cars. The National Guard did not arrive in meaningful numbers until Friday and security was only really restored by Saturday.

What makes this even more difficult to understand is that the logistics of rescue were not so insurmountable. Both the Superdome and the Conference Center, where refugees were most concentrated, are situated close to the elevated highways that are the city’s lifelines to the outside. Crowds even started to cross the main bridge over the giant Mississippi but were turned back by police firing in the air.

By yesterday it did appear the great majority of the evacuees were finally out or on their way to new lives in other states, whether in hastily constructed camps or hosted by families. Fleets of helicopters, one of which last night was reported to have crashed, were plucking remaining people from rooftops, while boats scoured sunken avenues. The city’s airport was operating full-swing, the nearby Kenner district even had power, though no water, and a few hotels were taking in guests.

According to army engineers it could take months to plug the breaches and then pump the city dry. But the recriminations are bound to go on much longer.

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