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"An experience that no one can forget or forgive"
Letter from Larry and Lorrie Beth

LARRY BRADSHAW and LORRIE BETH SLONSKY are Emergency Medical Services (EMS) workers who, after attending an EMS convention in New Orleans, were trapped in the city--first by Hurricane Katrina and then by a martial law cordon.

Their incredible account--first published in Socialist Worker--of how they survived, and their efforts, along with hundreds of others, to evacuate, only to be turned away by armed police, has electrified everyone who read it. The story shot around the Internet last week, mainly by e-mail, blogs and list serves, becoming what one commentator called "perhaps the most e-mailed of the numerous New Orleans survivor stories." Mainstream newspapers such as the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Independent all wrote stories about Larry and Lorrie Beth, corroborating their article--and the two were featured on National Public Radio's show This American Life.

Predictably, conservatives, determined to deflect criticism from the federal government's miserable response to the hurricane disaster, tried to poke holes in Larry and Lorrie Beth's story. Unfortunately, some people writing on liberal blogs and list serves were also skeptical.

Larry and Lorrie Beth wrote a letter last week, thanking those who had messages of support to send them and responding to questions and criticisms of those who tried to cast doubt on their story. Here, we publish their letter.

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September 8, 2005

Thanks for all the wonderful and warm words of support and comfort that folks have sent our way. It is very much appreciated.

Our apologies for the delay in responding. We lost our laptop (our only computer) while in New Orleans. We literally got out with the clothes on our back. Consequently, we have very intermittent access to the Internet on our friend's computers. We have been overwhelmed by the response: 700-plus e-mails, the phone machine is full, etc.

As to people's questions and comments:

1. Someone wanted corroboration on the rented buses. We do not know the name of the bus company. Ronald Pincus, the vice president of the Hotel Monteleone, found, booked and fronted the money for the buses. By the way, we cannot say enough good things about the Monteleone workers and about the vice president. All went way beyond the call of duty and were simply incredible.

We have heard that there were several media reports about our commandeered buses. We had no electricity and, therefore, no way to see or hear those reports, so we are unable to direct you to those links. However, there were 500 of us waiting on those buses, so I expect others are sharing similar experiences.

On the question of the buses: We do not necessarily think that it was wrong for the military to commandeer our buses, if those buses were used to transport those in more need, such as the sick and injured inside the Superdome. Just because we had cash does not mean we should get to buy our way out ahead of everyone else. But because there was little coordination and less communication by FEMA and the military, we do not know, and will presumably never know, to what use those buses were put.

It is interesting that Mr. Pincus was able to get on the phone and quickly find 10 buses to come to New Orleans, while FEMA took days to rustle up any buses. In our opinion, FEMA should have commandeered every bus within two days' drive of New Orleans and used them to quickly ferry out those who were stranded throughout the Gulf states.

2. That leads into another question that was put to us; "If you had those kind of resources, why didn't you get the hell out before Katrina hit?" Those of us who did not make it out before Katrina hit came from three sources:

i. Those like ourselves who were visiting (tourists/conference attendees), had return airline tickets and were unable to change our flights or had our flights cancelled. In our case, we kept calling Southwest Airlines every hour to try to get an earlier flight, without success. Southwest kept assuring us that our scheduled flight (pre-Katrina) would go ahead, only to find that it was cancelled at the very last minute.

ii. About half of our group were employees of the hotels, who management begged or ordered to report to work to keep the hotels and the infrastructure running. To blame those same workers for not getting out sooner seems unfair.

One example: We came across a young woman crying hysterically on the street. Once we calmed her, she was told us she was a 911 dispatcher who had been ordered to stay because she was an "essential service" worker. Two days after the hurricane, she was driven to the city center and dropped off near the Convention Center, with no water, no toiletries, no nothing, and her bosses drove onto Baton Rouge.

iii. The remainder were locals and tourists who couldn't get their cars out of the downtown parking garages. New Orleans has scores of rooftop parking lots that use an elevator (requires electricity) to take the cars up. In anticipation of flooding, many people opted to put their cars in these rooftop garages, only to find themselves stranded when the power went out.

3. Regarding corroboration of our story: No, unfortunately, we did not have any video or audio tape recorders. We saw some individuals with video cameras, but most of their batteries had long since died. (By the way, we did write down most of the identifying number of Gretna Sheriff's patrol car that forced us out of our freeway encampment--D522 or D552).

We know that thousands of New Orleanians were prevented from crossing the same bridge out of the city and can corroborate that gut-wrenching, heart-ripping, depressing experience. That was an experience that no one can forget or forgive.

The same holds true for the long, tedious, dehumanizing "refugee processing" at Lackland Air Force Base. That treatment continues. On Monday, our neighbor received a call from a friend who had been airlifted to San Antonio, and who was undergoing similar "refugee processing," before entering the facility at Kelly USA. We certainly hope that the treatment inside the facility improved. We do not know one way or the other, as we never went inside (contrary to media reports).

4. We have been asked why the sheriff's deputy took our food and water. We do not know. Perhaps he thought he should remove it so we wouldn't return? Perhaps he is just an evil person? We do not know what was going on inside this individual's head as he screamed and cursed at us.

But you can be sure that the food and water did not go to waste. Someone got to eat those C-rations and drink that cool water. It was not us, and it was not the tired, thirsty and hungry New Orleanians who wandered back and forth between the Superdome and the Convention Center, looking for something to eat or drink or feed to their kids.

For the record, we do not have a dislike for sheriff's deputies. We both have very cordial relations with a number of San Francisco County Deputies and work quite well with them all the time at the San Francisco General Hospital. The deputies are in the same union as us, SEIU Local 790, and we collaborate well.

5. Regarding "C-rations." Yes, they are technically called MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). We had never heard of that term until we encountered them spilled on the freeway. We did not think anyone would know what an MRE was, and we grew up with the term "C-rations," so we opted for that term in the article.

By the way, MREs are actually delicious (there are vegetarian versions). We have heard that they can be ordered online and last for five years. We strongly encourage anyone who lives in an earthquake or flood zone to consider buying a case.

6. About looting. Contrary to some media reports, we did not lead a band of affluent Europeans to loot a Walgreen's. Over time, we did benefit from some of the food and water taken by others. In hindsight, we wish we would have collected more first aid supplies and over-the-counter medications from some of these stores to distribute to those in need.

7. A couple of folks charge us with being ideological in writing about our experience in New Orleans. That may be true, if by ideological, you mean:

-- Human beings should be treated with dignity, respect and humanity; or
-- People should not have their freedom of movement restricted purely on the basis of their skin color; or
-- Human beings should not be lied to by persons in positions of authority, herded around like rats, forced to live in sewage and filth, and then shot at for trying to walk out of New Orleans.

But we wonder if it isn't our critics' ideology that is the problem here. You grew up believing that sheriffs don't behave as we have described, and that law enforcement officers don't steal food and water in a disaster setting, or shoot at hurricane survivors. You may also find it difficult to fathom that a law enforcement department openly and systematically discriminates against African Americans.

So when events like ours go against your preconceived ideas, you want to dismiss our experience, rather than change your ideas.

We can understand that our story is shocking. We do not know if we would have believed the story ourselves, if it hadn't happened to us. We guess that is why we wrote about our experiences in the first place. We were so shocked and bewildered and outraged and confused when we encountered this treatment and witnessed this brutal racism.

Whatever you think about what happened to us in New Orleans, we only hope that we can all work together to expose injustice, challenge racism, hold the Bush administration accountable for its actions and inactions, and, most importantly, collaborate to build a better world for all of us.

We witnessed some terrible horrors in New Orleans, but we also caught a glimpse of what is good and great in the human spirit.

Thank you,
Lorrie Beth and Larry

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