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Forced to live for days in filth and squalor
"They just left us here to die"

September 9, 2005 | Page 2

NICOLE COLSON reports on the nightmare in New Orleans.

"I'M SCARED," said Kevin Clark. "I slept on the ground last night. I don't have anything to eat." Ten-year-old Kevin was just one of tens of thousands of New Orleans residents stranded in the floodwaters caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Mostly poor and Black, they were the ones who had no way of getting out of the city--those who were too old or sick, the tens of thousands who had no cars, no money and nowhere to go after New Orleans' levee system failed and the city was flooded.

No one is sure how many perished in the floods that swamped New Orleans after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. But what is certain is that they didn't have to die. The U.S. government had the resources to save them. But the leaders of the richest country in the world left unknown numbers of people to face an unimaginable nightmare.

Before the storm hit, those who couldn't evacuate the city had been told to go to New Orleans' Superdome--where they had to wait hours to get in. With food and water in short supply, electricity and sewage systems failing, and rotting mounds of trash--and even dead bodies--beginning to accumulate, life for those left behind became unbearable.

The scene was horrific--the putrifying stench of raw sewage, flooding from gaping holes that the storm ripped into the roof, temperatures reaching over 100 degrees after the air conditioning and electrical systems failed. "We were treated like this was a concentration camp," Audrey Jordan told Agence France Press. "One man couldn't take it. He jumped over the railing and died."

Outside the New Orleans Convention Center--the other main hurricane refugee center--desperate crowds were reduced to chanting, "Help us! Help us! Help us!" in front of TV cameras and passing police and soldiers. But help didn't arrive.

"There's nothing offered to them, no water, no ice, no C-rations. Nothing for the last four days," reported NBC photojournalist Tony Zumbada.

The U.S. government--though capable of fighting a $300 billion-and-counting war on the people of Iraq--failed to provide the most basic supplies to the 50,000 people at the stadium and convention center.

After describing how she had survived by scavenging scraps of food at the center, Debra Ann Spencer-LeBeau concluded: "They just left us here to die."

Promised buses to evacuate the two sites--to where, the evacuees weren't told--took days to arrive. When they finally did, the evacuation of the Superdome was interrupted--to allow tourists from a nearby Hyatt hotel to be brought out of the city first.

"How does this work?" refugee Howard Blue wanted to know. They're clean, they're dry, they get out ahead of us?" The National Guard blocked Blue and others as Hyatt guests were helped with their luggage.

The same stories--the suffering of poor, Black refugees ignored, desperate people treated like criminals--were commonplace across the city.

On one freeway overpass in Metairie, on the outskirts of New Orleans, some 5,000 people were still stranded as of last weekend. They had been there for days, forced to live in 95-degree heat in what the San Francisco Chronicle described as "a soggy, garbage-strewn wasteland surrounded by metal barriers, sharing 12 portable toilets and one garbage can." State troopers stood guard over them with M-16s.

When Steven Mullcur and his wife tried to leave to visit his father, "Two cops pulled up and said that if we didn't go back, they'd put a bullet in me or worse." "The statement that ticked me off the most was, 'You should've left before--now stay here,'" Mullcur said.

"We've been very patient and polite," said Cynthia Walton, who waited on the overpass. "I'm not doing anything wrong. Is it because we're Black?"

The Bush administration's response to the catastrophe was shockingly callous. Michael Brown, chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said on Thursday that the high death toll would be partly "attributable to people who didn't heed the advance warnings [to evacuate]."

Meanwhile, George W. Bush, during his first photo op at the New Orleans airport, had the gall to joke about the fun he used to have in the city.

The administration's indifference was so infuriating that even Sen. Mary Landrieu--one of the most GOP-friendly Democrats in the Senate, with a conservative voting record to prove it--lashed out. "If one person criticizes them or says one more thing, including the president of the United States, he will hear from me," she said on the ABC's This Week. "I might likely have to punch him. Literally."

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin also erupted in anger. "I told [Bush] we had an incredible crisis here, and that his flying over in Air Force One does not do it justice," he said in a radio interview. "[T]hey don't have a clue what's going on down here. They flew down here one time two days after the doggone event was over, with TV cameras, AP reporters, all kind of goddamn--excuse my French, everybody in America, but I am pissed...[Y]ou mean to tell me that a place where you probably have thousands of people that have died and thousands more that are dying every day, that we can't figure out a way to authorize the resources that we need? Come on, man."

Aaron Broussard, president of New Orleans' Jefferson Parish, told Tim Russert on NBC's Meet the Press, that rather than aiding relief efforts, FEMA personnel had hindered them. Broussard said FEMA officials turned back three trucks of water offered by Wal-Mart, and refused to allow the Coast Guard to deliver 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel docked in Jefferson Parish. On Saturday, he said, "FEMA comes in and cuts all of our emergency communication lines. They cut them without notice. Our sheriff, Harry Lee, goes back in, he reconnects the line. He posts armed guards and said no one is getting near these lines."

"It's not just Katrina that caused all these deaths in New Orleans here," said Broussard. "Bureaucracy has committed murder here in the greater New Orleans area, and bureaucracy has to stand trial before Congress now."

Refugees dispersed to dozens of cities
"We don't have nothing"

CINDY BERINGER and DANA CLOUD report from the convention center in Austin, Texas, where thousands of people--driven out of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina--are now living.

HURRICANE KATRINA has displaced hundreds of thousands of people--the largest number in the U.S. since the Civil War.

One week after the hurricane hit, federal officials--determined to show that they weren't guilty of criminal neglect--promised to empty New Orleans of people prior to reconstruction. This cast a spotlight on the refugees--the hundreds of thousands sent out of the state, many after enduring unimaginable conditions at "shelters" like the New Orleans Convention Center and the Superdome.

The crisis is just beginning. It will be months before the evacuees can return to their homes--if they ever do. Just ask the victims of Hurricane Ivan last year. Twelve months later, many people still live in temporary housing in Florida and Alabama, where the damage was worst.

But that didn't stop Texas Gov. Rick Perry from closing off his state to people from New Orleans--and even suggesting that some be moved to other states.

About 4,000 hurricane survivors have taken refuge in Austin, most at the city's convention center. Approximately 95 percent are African-American. Working-class Texans who are also struggling with rising gasoline prices and low wages have volunteered at the shelters and have generously donated supplies.

Although some are clearly ill or disoriented from their ordeal, there is such a relief to be out of the hell they escaped that many evacuees are in good spirits--with families setting up mini-homes on their rows of adjoining cots and mattresses lining the floor.

"It was like we were a bunch of animals. 'Drown 'em, do whatever you want. We don't care,'" Cynthia Eubaire told Socialist Worker, describing the attitude of officials.

Cynthia had initially stayed in her apartment without any water or lights until she and her neighbors ran out of water and food and were forced to leave. They tried to wave to passing helicopters for help, but none responded. Eventually, her neighbors got the elderly and handicapped out by boat, pushing them through the water while their legs were covered with fire ants.

One woman, said Cynthia, had to leave her father's body behind. He had died because he couldn't get dialysis treatment. "The planes would be passing over you with all those lights shining, and they would pass you up," she said. "People were treated like animals. I'm not going back."

"The city spent $500 million on street cars which they could have spent on pumps," Cynthia's brother Richard Herbert said. "All they care about is the tourists."

Cynthia and Richard's sister, Tonda Taylor, told stories of digging through the trash at the airport to find food. At one point, she saw a mother who had tied her dead infant's body to a pole--to keep animals from eating the corpse.

Taylor shared a sense of disgust at how they had been treated. "I served my country for six years," said Taylor, who was in the Army. "I was there, putting my life on the line for six years. And in turn, my country turned its back on me. And my husband served. I don't understand how can you do this to your own people."

"I don't feel we had a government while we were in that house," said Anthony Lee, who had stayed behind to helped rescue several people. They went to Iraq without a cause in no time--in the blink of an eye--and they turned their backs on the city...We've been there all our lives, and we don't have nothing."

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