"... Peter Berkowitz,
staff attorney at Mass Correctional, was traveling in New Orleans with
his wife Bruni & son Ernesto when the hurricane hit. They were there
because Ernesto was starting his freshman year at Loyola of New Orleans.
What follows is his letter to his 80 something mom.
is pretty much what happened to us as far as I can remember it. Some
of it is probably off because we lost track of time and days and nights
blended. I'm still feeling very angry and sad. Watching the news
outrages me. I see "Dr. Phil" opining on why people didn't evacuate New
Orleans. He says they didn't believe there would be a hurricane or they
didn't want to leave, etc. Well there was no way to leave. We had no way
out. People with families and no resources had no way out. There were no
buses coming for people or shelters to take people to. Just
announcements to leave. So naturally the poorest, sickest, etc. were
left behind. No one as far as I could see wanted to be there or elected
to be there. No one really allowed them to get out!
Anyway, we began hearing hurricane news
on the television. By Saturday we were hearing insanely frightening news
of a direct category 5 hurricane hit and projections of massive flooding
and deaths of up to 30,000 people. Despite being through several
hurricanes this seemed worse than imaginable. We were pretty scared.
Bruni and I had tickets out for Sunday , 8\28 at 2 pm so we weren't
worried. I called all the airlines and finally got Ernesto a ticket to
Chicago for 1 pm the next day.
Sunday morning we sent Ernesto back to
school to get his things. I called to check on my reservation and was
told the flight was cancelled. Bruni and I had no way out. Ernesto's
flight was never cancelled but there were no taxis, buses, etc or any
way to get to the airport. So we bought some wine and canned goods and
waited out the storm in the hotel. With all the dire predictions it was
pretty nerve wracking to wait. I don't remember the storm too well. The
winds picked up at night and really roared during the day Monday
morning. The electricity went but we had water. We watched the hurricane
from our room and from the lobby of our hotel. The two restaurants
attached to the hotel made coffee and sandwiches for the guests. The bar
was opened. Everyone cooperated so it was not nearly as bad as
predicted. Being in the city, the hotel was pretty well protected by
other buildings. It was not nearly as bad (or impressive) as the
hurricanes we passed in Cupey.
So everything was fine and we were just
waiting for the next day to see when the airport would open and when we
could get out. It was quite a relief.
Tuesday morning at about 8 am the hotel
people knocked on our door to say we were evacuating the hotel
immediately for their sister hotel the Saint Marie. The wanted to get
all the guests together for protection from looters at nighttime,
because the Saint Marie had a generator, and because it was 5 stories
high and there was lots of talk of floods of up to 20 feet. So we left
for the Saint Marie, two blocks away. When we got there we were herded
into the ballroom and told to stay there. As I kept inquiring about our
room I was finally told there were no rooms, that we could stay in the
ballroom if we wanted as the flood waters poured in, or we could go to
the official evacuation center at the Convention Center. We were
effectively kicked out of the hotel. So we left with about 15 other
guests and walked through the streets, about 10 blocks to the Convention
Center. Water was clearly coming down the streets from the direction of
Lake Pontchartrain and the flood news was terrible. At the front door
the workers there told us to go around to the side. At the side we were
informed that the Convention Center was not an evacuation center and
that no one was permitted inside. There was no one else there except for
our group. Our concern at the moment was not to be caught up in the
flood. Behind the Convention Center ran the "Riverwalk", a Mall and
outside walkway along the Mississippi. Right on the side of the
Convention Center was an escalator that ran up to a maybe 100 foot long
covered walkway that led into the Mall. The walkway was about thirty
feet high. We decided that it was the best place for now to ride out the
So we all went up and put down our bags.
Ernesto and I walked to the mall entrance but the doors were locked. We
thought maybe moving into the mall might be better and safer. At the
very corner of the front windows to the entrance to the Mall we found a
window shattered on the bottom by the storm. I broke the rest of the
window out so we could walk in. The Mall was full of shops and food and
drink kiosks. We showed it to the other people with us. Since it was hot
inside the Mall and the people were still afraid of getting in trouble
for "trespassing" they elected to camp outside. We decided to stay all
together as a group. Since we had no food or water and no way to get any
we went into the Mall and began "looting", gathering food and water for
our survival. At this point there was no communication with anyone. No
one knew what was happening. There were no police. There was nothing
other than news of terrible floods. Everyone was on their own. So now
with some food and water we sat down to wait. The entrance to the
Riverwalk had part of the roof still intact, so we were able to wait in
Shortly after we noticed a man with a
rifle and duffel bag walk up to the door to the Mall. We see him try the
door and find it locked. Then he simply smashes out the door with the
butt of his rifle and walks in. We, of course, decided to not enter
again until he left. Maybe = hour later he marches past us and is gone.
His duffel seems a bit fuller. We went in again and explored more,
located where the food was, found stores on a lower floor etc. Some time
passed and then the person with the rifle returns again. This time we
notice he is a cop and he is with 4 other cops and they all have arms
and duffel bags. And their only purpose is to get whatever they can. And
that really opened up the Mall for us. We gathered food, drinks and
explored the stores. Some other tourists appeared and joined us. We took
chairs and tables out of the mall. The police had "opened up" Footlocker
and other stores, so there were shoes and clothes available for the
taking. I wondered through looking for bedding and ways to set up camp.
I took the covers off of some kiosks to use as a bed. Bruni found some
semi-cushioned furniture and we took cushions. One day we found pillows
in a store. Our group grew as new people came looking for ways to get
out of the expected flooding. At some point I started to walk back to
our hotel to find out if we could stay there. On the way I ran into an
employee of the hotel and her family who had also been kicked out of the
hotel. They came up and joined us as well.
The first night we were about 30 up on
the bridge. The next day some others arrived. I think the 2nd
day, Wednesday, might be when the Convention Center opened because one
family decided to move down there. I think it was one of the families of
the hotel employees. They had been enjoying the provisions of the Mall
with us. Once they moved down to the Convention Center word spread and
there was a steady stream of people coming up and sacking the Mall.
People came out with everything, as did we. More stores were broken into
and people came out with bags and bags of goods. And it spread and
spread. We went in systematically all day long taking out food and
During all of this there are no police
around. There are no authorities around. There is no food. There is no
water. There is no information other than the hysteria and rumors from
the radio. No one knows how long we'll be there. No one knows when the
floods will reach us. The news indicates that the airport is under ten
feet of water. That the main shelter, the Superdome, has lost part of
its roof and is flooding. That there is killing and looting and who
knows what else. Everything is rumor. No one knows anything. If you see
a cop they are on their own. They are also homeless and if they talk to
you it is to say you are on your own.
By Wednesday the streets are filled with
people who are at the Convention Center. There are thousands of people
in the streets. No one has food or water. It is hot and miserable. It
was maybe Wednesday or Thursday that some people on the street are
yelling about dead bodies and toss a body wrapped in a sheet on the side
of the Convention Center just below us. A little later a wheelchair with
a dead woman appears there as well. Again, everything is rumor. People
are saying that the dead woman in the wheelchair was bludgeoned to death
in the Convention Center. At the same time hordes of people are coming
up the steps past us and into the Mall. They are breaking into all the
stores, smashing cash registers, etc. There is desperation all around.
And anger. And violence.
Our group is about 50. We are mostly
tourists from the US, Australia, England etc. There are also several
families from New Orleans who were flooded out who have joined us. Two
of the people are nurses. The bathrooms in the mall have overflowed.
There was been no water since Tuesday night. Food is rotting. Everything
smells, as do we. But we are organized. We have set up buckets behind
broken pieces of zinc roofing as bathrooms. We have sodas and water
stacked up in our kitchen. While there is still ice in the Mall we have
some hams buried there. We have umbrellas and trash cans and trash bags.
Even disposable gloves to help avoid disease. We also have dead bodies,
dead rats, and shit and stink all around. And we have no idea how long
we are here for.
Our group is mostly white and from Middle
America. They decide that the blacks (the Convention Center is 99% black
obviously) are planning to murder us to get attention and help). There
is mass hysteria in the group and racism is rampant. People don't know
where to flee. Rumors are everywhere about murder, rape, etc. There are
shots during the night (Thurs ? Fri?) At 2 am there is a huge explosion
across the river and a huge fire. Smoke pours in from fires in every
direction. There is some nasty racism in our group. One day, when the
hysteria is greatest a black man stands up and says-- why do you think
these people want to kill you? They are surviving just the same as you.
Struggling just the same. Just as desperate as you. They don't care
anything about you. They are concentrating on surviving, etc. That
calmed people a bit and made them feel particularly foolish. At the same
time more and more families from the Convention Center were moving up to
the walkway with us. Our group grew to about 80. Each morning people
began to bag the garbage. Others swept the walkway. Some set out
breakfast for everybody. Two women who were home care workers for the
elderly emptied and cleaned the shit buckets. A group would go into the
Mall and forage for provisions. Then we would sit all day and wait.
I think on Friday the helicopters began
to arrive dropping water and MRE rations in the parking lot in front of
us. It was the first food and water ever to arrive----3 days after the
hurricane. And it was just tossed from the helicopter for people to run
after and gather. The old and the sick had nothing. Again, no one knew
what was happening. Fires were burning all around. Everyone was
desperate and frightened. Everyone was just trying to survive. And
everyone, other than us tourists, was there because they had been
completely wiped out---had lost their homes and every possession and had
young kids and elderly parents to feed.
As the helicopters arrived we also ran
down and gathered what we could. We began to survive on the army
rations. Ernesto and I became friendly with the man who had given the
speech chastising our group. He invited me to go with him to the
Convention Center and distribute whatever Army rations we could pick up
from the next helicopter to the disabled there since they had no way to
get rations. We gathered about 30 meals off of the next drop. (The drops
were scandalous--throwing food and water out of a hovering
helicopter---people scrambling for food to survive. Reduced to animals
foraging---when the copters could have landed, imposed order with
guards, and distributed food with some respect and humanity)
Anyway, we walked through the Convention
Center distributing food. The Center takes up about 8 city blocks. There
must have been 25,000 people camped out there without provisions,
without bathrooms, without water or electricity. With no means of
survival. Families with little kids. Old people. People in wheelchairs.
There was no medicine. No nurses or doctors. There was filth and garbage
everywhere. Some people asked for food and we gave it. Others said they
were fine and had eaten. Some pointed out others who needed food. Like
our group, they were doing their best to survive and sharing whatever
they had. We kept walking. The crowds went on and on. People with
nothing. Every one of them had lost everything. Abandoned. Not knowing
how they would eat, how they would survive. It was the most disgraceful,
sad, infuriating thing I had ever seen in my life. Poor people discarded
like garbage because they were poor people.
Everybody was waiting for the promised
buses to evacuate us. Every day there were rumors of buses. Every day we
waited and watched. Nothing ever came. Every day there was more filth.
More people fainting from dehydration. Children were getting sick.
Disease was becoming a bigger worry.
Our community on the walkway was
interesting. One day a reporter came by and asked me if we had a "mayor"
We didn't. Everyone worked. Everyone joined in. Everyone did the job
that made them most comfortable. And everything functioned. And as
people joined us, they automatically joined in the work. There were
differences but everyone worked. When there was talk about leaving or
looking for ways out, it was discussed collectively. There was always a
sense of staying together and getting out as a group. There was also
nastiness and racism and comments about "the people down there" in the
Convention Center. We intervened with a lot with people in our group who
were blaming all the "people down there" for the violence. We intervened
when reporters started to come and were told that "the people down
there" were looting and killing. We told them that they were doing just
what we were doing----doing what was necessary to survive in desperate
I don't know what else to say. We were
anxious all the time. The nights were the worst. Partly because nights
are generally more frightening. Also because there were often shots or
explosions. There was always a surprise. And it was always bad news. It
seemed like it would never get better. We just waited and scavenged. We
worried that things would get more violent as they got more desperate.
We also made incredible friends and saw amazing acts of kindness.
One morning we woke and packed at 3 am
because of a rumor that the buses were coming early in the morning. We
waited and hoped. No buses came. We cleaned up camp and sat down to wait
again. Hoping to get through another day without tragedy.
It was Fri or Saturday that we heard the
news that Bush was coming to view the disaster. That was when I first
thought we would be getting out. I knew that New Orleans was another
stage and that the president wasn't going to show up unless the troops
were coming and the mess was going to be cleaned up. Here was a chance
to improve his ratings. Here was a place where an appearance without an
immediate success would be a political disaster. Here was another
excellent political stage. And of course we looked down the next day at
noon and there were the troops. And a perimeter was set up. And piles of
water and food were set up in the parking area. And that was the
beginning of the evacuation. By the next day the buses arrived. I think
we finally left round 4 pm on Saturday.
Once the troops arrived the general
anxiety level went down. Now it was just a question of getting out.
Fires were burning. When the wind shifted it was hard to breathe, but we
knew if no other disaster hit, we would get out soon. As always they
told us the buses were coming. We didn't believe it for a minute. The
National Guard told us we had to vacate the walkway and go down onto the
street to await the buses. Of course we refused. We told them we had a
community here that was self sufficient. There was no need for us to be
on the street and in the sun for nothing. That here we were supplying
food, medical services, etc to ourselves and to anyone who had a need.
By this time we had about 5 of six elderly incapacitated people in our
group. They had been left behind by a hospital when they evacuated. They
were with a nurse who had been abandoned with them. We pointed out that
our sick could not go down. We had another nurse in our group who was
very well spoken and helped convince the National Guard that we had to
stay for reasons of the health of the children and the elderly. So we
stuck together and stayed on the walkway. No body left until we finally
saw the buses and were assured that everyone would get out. And then we
marched out together as a group with much of the group still intact.
In convincing the National Guard to let
us stay, one of the more hateful and delusional of our group argued to
the Guard that we should be left on the walkway because of "racial
tensions". This was the same woman who had been telling everyone who
would listen that the blacks would slaughter us to gain media attention
so they would be evacuated. Anyway between all the arguments we were
allowed to stay. And it also resulted in one of the most shameful
moments of our stay. When the meals were distributed in the parking lot
several distribution lines were formed. We were given a separate line.
Our line was escorted to and from the food by Guardsmen. No one from our
group was ever able to walk alone. As always, it is the racist
hysterical argument that prevails. It was better not to get food then to
pass through that disgrace.
We were amazed when we walked down to the
corner where the bus was supposed to be that there was actually a bus.
It took an hour to get out of the city. The driver did not know where we
were going. As usual, we knew nothing. At some point the cop leading the
line of evacuating buses informed us that we were going to Fort Chafee
Arkansas. All we wanted was an airport but there was no way off a moving
bus. Later we were told we were going to Fort Smith, Arkansas, even
farther away. We demanded to be let off. The cop told us that we would
stop to eat in Shreveport, Louisiana and we could get off there. Of
course the bus didn't stop. It did stop just across the Texas border
where a group of people had voluntarily set up tables to distribute food
and help to the refugees. We grabbed our bags and decided to find a ride
into Shreveport. There was no good reason to go to Fort Smith for us.
Ernesto found a volunteer to take us to a motel by the airport. Our
first priority was to bathe by this point. An airplane was next. Of
course no motels were available. So we decided to spend the night at the
airport. Another man offered to take us. As we were getting in his car
he also offered us a shower at his house. We took him up on it and
headed off. We showered, chatted, etc. I made plane reservations for 7
am the next morning. They invited us to stay and sleep for the hour and
= that remained of the night. They gave us food and little presents, a
tee-shirt from their local high school baseball team, etc. They were
kind, concerned, and really wanted to help and do the right thing. As we
talked it was also clear that they were religious conservatives, racist,
homophobic, etc. East Texas. Kindness and hatefulness on the same plate.
Anyway we're home. We're still angry and
anxious. Writing all this makes me relive it. Reading it makes Bruni
cry. What we saw was just too raw. Poor people abandoned because they
were poor. Poor people treated as trash. Poor people being branded as
looters and thieves for trying to survive. Our own country treating us
just as we treat the Iraqis, Palestinians, and every other country that
we exploit or invade. How can we ever deny class warfare
The other thing that struck me were the
contradictions in people. How the kindest people in our group who gave
aid and compassion individually to blacks and whites, rich and poor,
also painted all those people at the Convention Center with the same
brush----animals, looters, ignorants.
And it is no wonder when all the papers
write and all the news reports is looting and violence---as if there was
no need or reason to "loot". Sure, there were some violent people there.
There are everywhere. But this handful gets turned into "those people".
And everyone gets branded. So no compassion is needed for the poor.
After all they brought it on themselves. They wouldn't let the
government help even though the government tried so hard. And that
becomes what this country believes. And then of course the government
can "morally" do nothing for the poor----which is what it intended in
the first place
That's all I have for now. After you read
this give me a call and we can talk.