In “The Great Deluge,” bestselling author Douglas Brinkley, a New Orleans resident and professor of history at Tulane University, recounts Hurricane Katrina from every point of view. The book investigates the failure of government at every level, breaks important new stories, and lets Katrina survivors tell their own stories. With interviews and original research, it traces the character flaws, inexperience, and ulterior motives that allowed the Katrina disaster to devastate the Gulf Coast. Here's an excerpt:
SHOUTS AND WHISPERSSleep at noon, window blind rattle and bang. Pay no mind. Door go jump like somebody coming: let him come. Tin roof drumming: drum away — she’s drummed before.— Archibald MacLeish, “Hurricane”
IIn Washington, D.C. , Michael D. Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, received a briefing on Saturday from the National Hurricane Center on the severity of Hurricane Katrina and the likelihood that it would indeed make a direct hit on New Orleans. Like Nagin, Brown responded by letting the day pass. He didn’t send emergency-response management teams to the region, normally a reflex action for a FEMA director in the face of potential problems. He didn’t send hundreds of buses to the periphery of the Gulf Coast, within easy post-storm striking distance. He sent two public affairs officials and waited to see what would happen. “When FEMA finally did show up, everybody was angry because all they had was a Web site and a flyer,” Senator Mark Pryor (D-Arkansas) told the Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina. “They didn’t have any real resources that they could give.”
Because the advance plans in Louisiana were nebulous, where they existed at all, hour after hour on Saturday evening was devoted to telephone calls between officials, none of whom seemed to be moving at the same speed. Governor Blanco stepped up to try to advance the preparations. She had proclaimed a state of emergency on the statewide level the day before.1 On Saturday, she wrote to President George W. Bush, requesting that he declare a federal state of emergency in southeastern Louisiana.2 The letter was a formality, written according to a prescribed text by which governors exercised emergency provisions in the federal-state relationship. Blanco even neglected to omit prompts suggested by the federal government for such letters. On the second page, Blanco’s letter ran, “I request Direct Federal assistance for work and services to save lives and protect property. (a) List any reasons State and local government cannot perform or contract for performance (if applicable). (b) Specify the type of assistance requested.” On the latter subject, Blanco filled in: “I am specifically requesting emergency protective measures, direct Federal Assistance, Individual and Household Program (IHP) assistance, Special Needs Program assistance, and debris removal.”3
Blanco’s requests were as boilerplate as the rest of her letter. The Individual and Household Program and Special Needs assistance both referred to FEMA programs that provided grant money to those displaced by a disaster. It was right that she included them in her pro forma list. Both, however, were to be activated well after Katrina passed. So was debris removal. A suddenly overwhelmed Blanco failed to indicate that the region needed federal help with transportation in advance of the storm, and rescue boats immediately thereafter. She failed to fully abide by Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz’s famous 1945 warning to future leaders on the grave perils of hesitation: “Preoccupation with the job at hand, or a desire not to disturb the skipper, should never result in disregard of a rapidly falling barometer.”4
If Blanco’s message to Bush had been an emphatic letter or frantic telephone call, and not merely a legal form — if it had actually communicated what wasn’t happening in Louisiana (i.e., evacuation) — various U.S. government agencies might have mobilized more quickly. Just as New Orleans wasn’t properly communicating with Baton Rouge, Baton Rouge wasn’t properly communicating to Washington, D.C. There was a chain of failures. “The federal government does not have the authority to intervene in a state emergency without the request of a governor,” Bob Williams, a Washington State legislator from the district most devastated by the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, helping readers understand post-Katrina relief. “President Bush declared an emergency prior to Katrina hitting New Orleans, so the only action needed for Federal assistance was for Governor Blanco to request the specific type of assistance she needed. She failed to send a timely request for specific aid. In addition, unlike the governors of New York, Oklahoma, and California in past disasters, Governor Blanco failed to take charge of the situation and ensure that the state emergency operation facility was in constant contact with Mayor Nagin and FEMA.”5 Blanco did send a request on Saturday, two days too late. Besides late timing, it was not much of a letter and not much of a list.
President Bush, who was vacationing at his 1,583-acre ranch in Crawford, Texas, responded in turn to the governor’s form letter. In a legally correct fashion, he complied with her request for federal assistance, authorizing FEMA “to coordinate all disaster relief efforts which have the purpose of alleviating the hardship and suffering caused by the emergency on the local population.”6 Unfortunately, FEMA Director Brown wasn’t entirely convinced of the urgency. After receiving notification of the president’s action, he released a statement that didn’t even mention the importance of evacuation for Gulf Coast residents. “There’s still time to take action now,” his Saturday afternoon statement read, “but you must be prepared and take shelter and other emergency precautions immediately.”7 Governor Blanco wasn’t as passive as the hours went by. She attended local news conferences in both Orleans and Jefferson parishes that Saturday, encouraged New Orleanians to go door-to-door to persuade neighbors to flee, and held a conference call with Louisiana officials (including sixty-five legislators) in the coastal parishes trying to coordinate last minute programs. “There was certainly a sense of urgency about the situation,” Blanco’s communications officer, Bob Mann, explained. “We knew this was perhaps the Big One. This was an urgent situation. I think she communicated that pretty well.”8
One person who really catapulted Governor Blanco into action mode that Saturday was Cedric Richmond, the president of the black caucus in the Louisiana legislature. He spent the entire weekend telling everybody in New Orleans East, part of the Ninth Ward, to “get the hell out.” Only thirty-one years old, he had grown up in NOE, throwing rocks into Lake Ponchartrain as a kid, and later hanging out at the video arcade at Lake Forest Plaza. Richmond was a cautious lawyer and workaholic; his great indulgence was eating baby back ribs dripping in fat at the City Club once a week. On Saturday morning he had attended a Little League game in Gorretti Playground, with about eight or nine hundred people in attendance. “It was incredible,” Richmond recalled. “Because the mayor’s warning was so soft, nobody was taking Katrina seriously. Baseball. That’s what they were up to. So that night I went from barroom to barroom saying, ‘Y’all need to go.’ ”9
When Richmond told Blanco that afternoon about the blasé attitude at the ball game, the governor grew alarmed. Telephoning her assistant chief of staff, Johnny Anderson, she requested that all African-American ministers in below-sea-level areas dedicate their Sunday sermons to the need to evacuate at once. They would be called “pray and pack” sessions.10 “She really tried to help,” Richmond recalled. “But Nagin just ignored everything. He should have called a mandatory evacuation earlier; the governor was having to do his job.”11
IITo those driving around New Orleans that afternoon, the sky pale and sunless, it was clear that the business community was taking Katrina seriously. All seven of the city’s Starbucks coffeehouses closed early. The massive Wal-Mart on Tchoupitoulas Street locked its doors. Gas stations started shutting down their pumps. ATM machines were empty. Mini-markets sold out of Spam and Planters peanuts — survival snacks. The Audubon Zoo began safeguarding gorillas and bears. The aquarium exterminated its piranhas, worried that if they got loose they’d breed in the Mississippi. The Whitney Bank had not only closed, it had evacuated computers and files to Chicago. Delta Air Lines, in a wrongheaded corporate bungle, canceled all flights into or out of Louis Armstrong International Airport as of 1 p.m., leaving hundreds stranded in New Orleans (by contrast, Continental Airlines evacuated people up until the last possible minute on Sunday). Production was suspended on several film projects, including "The Last Time" with Michael Keaton, "The Reaping" with Hilary Swank, and "Vampire Bats," starring Lucy Lawless. The Hollywood stars and crews left town.12 Tulane University was holding its orientation weekend, when incoming freshmen are squired around campus and Mom and Dad get to see just what a $32,000 tuition check meant. Normally, it is an exciting event for everyone. The approach of Katrina, however, forced Tulane President Scott Cowen to make a wrenching decision. Even though it wasn’t good public relations at the time, he did the right thing and officially closed the campus at 5 p.m. The school encouraged all students, parents, staff members, and faculty to leave the city for safety. Most other colleges in the vicinity — including Xavier, Loyola, and the University of New Orleans — did the same. “We closed Saturday so our people could board up and get out of town fast,” Nick Mueller, director of the National D-Day Museum, recalled. “Having lived through Camille, I knew Katrina was going to be an ordeal.”13
Most of New Orleans’s political bigwigs, both past and present, congregated that Saturday in the Lawless Memorial Chapel at Dillard University for the funeral of Clarence Barney Jr., the longtime leader of the local Urban League. As the Associated Press reported, the funeral was a who’s who of Louisiana politicians. The Landrieu clan was there in force: Senator Mary Landrieu, Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu, and the family patriarch and former New Orleans mayor Moon Landrieu. Those in attendance couldn’t help but wonder what Ray Nagin was doing at the Dillard chapel when the poor and elderly needed to be evacuated out of the bowl. They thought, “Ray has it under control,” or else “he wouldn’t be hanging around.”14
Hanging over the funeral, like a dark shroud, was the specter of the Big One. While eulogies paid homage to Barney’s twenty-five years as the executive director of the Urban League in Greater New Orleans, virtually everybody in attendance was distracted by the storm. Everyone knew the “bowl” analogy. Was New Orleans going to fill up? Was the Great Deluge just around the river bend? Even as Bible passages from Luke and Isaiah were being read in the chapel, mourners could hear the sound of plywood being hammered over building windows and traffic helicopters flying overhead. Amid the prayers, trepidation was the collective sentiment; Nagin gave out handshakes and hugs, seemingly in a calm and carefree mood, until he made an early exit to get back to City Hall. “In a surreal way it seemed like almost a funeral for the city, or at least an era in the city,” Jacques Morial, the brother of the former mayor, recalled. “Another interesting thing about the funeral was everybody was on edge, because something else was in the air. Usually, after a funeral service, people hang around and mingle and visit for a long time. That really wasn’t the case on that Saturday. After three hours of services, people bee-lined it out of town right afterward.”15
During the service, a staffer came up to the pew where Lieutenant Governor Landrieu sat and whispered in his ear that Governor Blanco and Mayor Nagin needed him at a City Hall meeting. “I didn’t go,” Landrieu recalled, “because I didn’t want to leave the funeral early.” After the funeral at 2:30 p.m. he immediately drove home to Octavia Street, in the Uptown neighborhood, and prepared to evacuate his five children. “My wife, Cheryl, and I had a discussion about when we should be leaving,” he recalled. “I wanted to leave soon. She didn’t want to leave, so we compromised and got up Sunday at 6:30 a.m. and drove to Baton Rouge. Dropped my kids off and then went to the EOC.”
The Emergency Operations Center, built in 2002, featured the latest radio, computer, and Web-based communication systems for emergency management. Once Governor Blanco activated the EOC, at 7:30 a.m. Saturday, it was where state, parish, and city emergency directors met with military and FEMA officials, along with the governor’s staff and scores of others. That Saturday afternoon Mitch Landrieu went to the EOC and began monitoring the storm. He was particularly worried about a Katrina surge damaging Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes. The high-tech “command table” was in an underground overview room, which resembled NASA’s mission control during the Apollo moon shots of the late 1960s. A large electronic map of Louisiana was on a ten-foot wall. Just studying the map while the NHC was telephoning in cyclonic data was disconcerting to Landrieu. You didn’t have to be a meteorologist to recognize that 145 mph winds blowing water up the various rivers, canals, and waterways of Louisiana was a recipe for disaster. Wisely, Landrieu, without informing the understandably busy Governor Blanco, established pre-Katrina cell phone contact with government and emergency officials in most of the coastal parishes. His message was essentially twofold: keep evacuating the residents and then let him know where the officials were going to hunker down. If Katrina hit hard, and communications vanished, at least Landrieu would know exactly where the Coast Guard, state police, and Louisiana National Guard were congregated. They would be the state’s first responders. He could get frank assessments from them on where further evacuations via helicopter and boat needed to take place. “Now I’m in a bit of a difficult situation because my role in the EOC is to be passive and to pay attention and to basically just watch,” Landrieu said. “It’s Governor Blanco’s show and the governor as the commander in chief dictates what everybody is supposed to do, at the advice and consent of [Louisiana National Guard General Bennet C.] Landreneau and [Colonel Henry] Whitehorn and her cabinet secretaries and other people who are basically in charge. So basically there was no role for the lieutenant governor at EOC except educate yourself before the storm. That’s what I did.”
City Councilman Oliver Thomas, a hulking, soft-spoken, lighthearted Creole with a face full of freckles, had also made an appearance at Barney’s funeral, but it was a brief one. With Katrina coming, he was on a mission to evacuate his boyhood stomping grounds, the Lower Ninth Ward, a tight-knit largely African-American community nestled along the Mississippi River across the St. Claude Avenue Bridge on the way to St. Bernard Parish. Growing up there in the 1960s, Thomas had the river for a backyard, whether he was sprint-racing along the levee, poling for the fattest catfish, or hunting for wild pigs behind the Florida Avenue Bridge. Because whites had dynamited the levees back in 1927, causing the Lower Ninth Ward to flood, African Americans in the two-square-mile neighborhood didn’t trust government authority to take care of them. “We had trouble with law enforcement,” Thomas recalled. “Even when we were little kids, the wrong deputy would show up and shoot over our heads and run us back just for sport.”16
Basketball was Thomas’s ticket out of the Lower Ninth. After graduating from Clark High School, he was recruited as a forward to the University of Wisconsin-Parkside and given a scholarship. Uncomfortable in Wisconsin’s cold climate, Thomas transferred to the College of Santa Fe in New Mexico. Surrounded by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and finding art galleries even down gravel roads, Thomas flourished. He got involved in drama and studying Native American painters such as R.C. Gorman. Watching the famous dramatization of Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road was to him a revelatory experience, poverty transformed into art. “I became an artsy person,” Thomas explained. “Native American art helped me understand my plight; they were always expressing their plight and victories on canvas. I said that I was never moving back to New Orleans. To me New Orleans was a place you could socialize but not advance.”
In 1985, after living in Los Angeles, New York, and Boston, Thomas did come back. His mother was ill and he wanted to take care of her. Quick on his feet, he got a job at Hughes Aircraft, dabbled in sales, and eventually found his way working as an assistant to veteran City Councilman Jim Singleton. “Jim was a real hard-edged military person at the time,” Thomas recalled. “A lot of community issues, issues for women, gays, and lesbians — he was hard on those issues. And I was always of the opinion that everyone mattered. Even if you don’t agree with them, they’re human beings. So I think I helped Jim be more tolerant, to understand people.”
Entering politics, Thomas became a spokesperson for the underdog, New Orleans’s tireless proponent of affordable housing for the poor and a lobbyist for all things advantageous to the Lower Ninth. Urban planning became his bailiwick and he spearheaded an effort to refurbish historic homes in the Lower Garden District, transforming the neighborhood from skid row to middle-class prosperity.
But it was the Lower Ninth that had Thomas worried those last days of August. It was New Orleans’s orphan neighborhood, separated geographically from the rest of the city by the Industrial Canal. Historically, the Lower Ninth was grossly neglected. When the rest of New Orleans had running water and sewers, it had open drainage canals. When every other ward had paved streets, it had dirt roads. After Katrina, Newsweek did a story delineating the Lower Ninth’s chronic urban problems, deeming the area fifteen times more crime-ridden than New York City.17 Suspicion of the “white power structure” was part of the neighborhood’s DNA, and in the Family Tree Restaurant on St. Claude Avenue on the eve of Katrina, Lower Ninthers were talking about how rich honkies were going to dynamite the levees (a repeat of 1927) and turn Reynes Street into a river. Ironically, even though the neighborhood was troubled, 60 percent of the residents were home owners, compared with 46 percent in the rest of New Orleans. “Washington D.C., Baton Rouge, the city leaders, they just don’t have any idea of the history of that all-black community,” Thomas said. “They’ve been pissed on before. They’re used to it. They survived it. And that little property down there, it may not be much but it’s theirs. People took pride in owning those little shacks.”
Realizing the inherent stubbornness of the Lower Ninth, Thomas spent Saturday going door-to-door like some college-age canvasser, telling everybody to evacuate. He wasn’t just playing politician. Thomas himself had been a hurricane survivor. Back in 1965, when Betsy came to town, Oliver’s parents had refused to evacuate, and lived to regret their recalcitrance. “I told everybody that as a child, the scariest thing in my life was Hurricane Betsy,” Thomas said. “You listen to the wind coming through the cracks in your house, the breaking windows, the howling sound.” Betsy flooded out the Thomas home; they were stranded, in fact, for a day on their rooftop and had to be saved by the Coast Guard. Forty years later, as a city councilman, Thomas was in a position to make sure Lower Ninth folks like his parents, people afraid to leave the one thing they owned, dropped their antagonism toward municipal warnings.
At one juncture on Saturday, while Thomas was on Claiborne Avenue, he spotted Frank Watson, an old friend, walking down the sidewalk. “Where are you going?” Thomas shouted at him. “I’m goin’ home,” Watson replied. “Why are you still here?” Thomas shot back. A smile broke out on Watson’s face and he shook his head in disbelief; his childhood buddy was acting like an old grandma worrywart. “Oliver, come on now,” he said. “I ain’t goin’ nowhere. Y’all always talkin’ about leaving and every time we leave and just turn around and come right back.”
Such stubbornness was typical of everybody Thomas knew in the Lower Ninth Ward; they were like mules with no sleep. “Ah, cut it out,” Thomas said. “Come on now, Frank, I don’t feel good about this one.” Watson never evacuated, and his conversation with Councilman Thomas was the last he was known to have. He was never found after the storm.
While the worlds of business, academics, and politics were responding to the latest news, some were strangely isolated from it. Louisiana, and especially New Orleans, like much of America, was divided by class, race, and neighborhood. The rich, for the most part white, were living in Lakeview, Mid-City, Uptown, the Garden District, the Warehouse District, and in the French Quarter. The poor were mostly African American, living predominantly in New Orleans East, the Lower Ninth Ward, Central City, Hollygrove, and Tremé. But there was crossover in all neighborhoods. At least, that is the way it looked at first sight. The truth was far more complex.
There were many varieties of African Americans, some of whom were the light-skinned Creoles, who had been the political leaders of the Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Wards for decades. The poorest New Orleanians were country folk from the delta, who had been coming to the city looking for jobs since the woeful days of the Great Depression. They were the people of the housing projects; by and large, they didn’t trust whites or cops. The prisonlike projects of New Orleans were beehives for drug trafficking. Hoodlums armed with AK-47s could make up to $50,000 a week dealing crack cocaine. (The marijuana trade had moved primarily out to the white suburbs.) The drugs would flow into New Orleans via I-10 and I-12. The projects became a virtual farmers’ market of drugs. The NOPD often turned a blind eye to the “rock dealers,” making sure they received a cash cut for their enabling services. The drug suppliers were sometimes Iranians, called Talibans by local African Americans. In some cases, the suppliers were Vietnamese, as were those at the convenience store beside the St. Thomas project, where crack cocaine was sold in bubble gum wrappers. All over the projects five- or ten-dollar bags of heroin were readily available. The rivalry for control of the illegal drug industry turned New Orleans’s housing projects into killing fields. Every week the Times-Picayune would list the names of the dead, casualties in urban gang warfare, with the phrase “gunshot wound” closing the cases on autopsy reports. Even outside of the projects, there was an imprisoned quality to life for poor blacks. Housing was relatively inexpensive in New Orleans, with an average monthly rent of $488, but it tended to be flimsy wood-frame construction that would be considered substandard in other cities. Small houses, barely more than shanties, and “shotgun” two-family structures were common in the poorer neighborhoods. Those neighborhoods were insulated from mainstream life in a way that made being poor in New Orleans a special hardship. “New Orleans has a 40 percent literacy rate; over 50 percent of black ninth graders won’t graduate in four years,” Michael Eric Dyson explained in "Come Hell or High Water," his post-Katrina study of race relations in America. “Louisiana expends an average of $4,724 per student and has the third-lowest rank for teacher salaries in the nation. The black dropout rates are high and nearly 50,000 students cut class every day. When they are done with school, many young black males end up at Angola Prison, a correctional facility located on a former plantation where inmates still perform manual farm labor, and where 90 percent of them eventually die. New Orleans’s employment picture is equally gloomy, since industry long ago deserted the city, leaving in its place a service economy that caters to tourists and that thrives on low-paying, transient, and unstable jobs.”18
Although New Orleans has been branded “jazz capital” (rightfully so), in truth, on the eve of Katrina, one would be hard-pressed to hear Wynton Marsalis or Irvin Mayfield CDs blaring out of federally subsidized housing. Jazz had become establishment music except for the brass band phenomenon. Times had changed. Louis Armstrong had fled New Orleans long ago, living his last decades in Queens, New York, where he was buried in July 1971. But hip hop and rap were flourishing, angry lyrics being shouted out of Magnolia and St. Bernard and Iberville. Drum machines and turntables had replaced trumpets and trombones as the instruments of choice. Master P, raised in the Calliope Projects, was a true hip hop hero to African-American youths, admired both for such outrageous hits as “99 Ways to Die” and for being CEO and founder of No Limit Records. Then there was B.G., the Baby Gangsta, who at age eleven signed a major recording deal with Cash Money Records. His first album, "True Story," released in 1993, graphically depicted life in a crime-ridden, racist New Orleans where schools were like prisons. He was accurately depicting his reality, no matter how uncomfortable his lyrics might make some listeners. Terius Gray, a.k.a. Juvenile, was a pure product of the Magnolia Projects — or “Wild Magnolia” as he called it. His first band was UTP, three letters he has tattooed on his stomach. “UTP,” he explained, “was like a coalition of rappers.” His hip hop lyrics lambasted New Orleans’s racism and classism in a searing, no-holds-barred, in-your-face fashion. Growing up in the Hollygrove section of New Orleans, Lil’ Wayne (Dwayne Carter), also known as Weezy F Baby, Birdman Junior, and Raw Tunes, wrote dozens of gangsta rap hits while still in his teens. To understand the African-American youth culture of New Orleans during August 2005, put aside CDs like "The Magic Hour" and "Half Past Autumn Suite" and listen to the bleak, thuggish, violent inner-city lyrics of Lil’ Wayne in such songs as “Shooter,” where he raps: “So many doubt cuz I come from the south / But when I open my mouth, all bullets come out.”19
Hip hop-infused gang members were frequently arrested in New Orleans. They were usually let go before trial. In August 2005, the Metropolitan Crime Commission completed an extensive analysis of the arrest-to-conviction success between the NOPD and the District Attorney’s office, headed by Eddie Jordan. During the preceding year, 2004, the NOPD had made 114,000 arrests. Only 17,004 of those arrests, however, were for state offenses, and the breakdown of that number was about 60 percent felonies and 40 percent misdemeanors. In any case, only 7 percent of those 17,004 people who were arrested were actually sent to jail. The NOPD, in other words, was arresting a lot of criminals, but very few were being convicted. Most arrestees walked in the front door of the city jail and then, after signing a couple of forms, walked out the back door. “So the reason I think that we have a high crime rate is that police measured success by arrests,” explained Rafael C. Goyeneche III, president of the commission, a watchdog group dedicated to keeping repeat offenders off the streets and the NOPD honest, “and not how many of the arrests resulted in incarceration or incapacitation.”20
On the eve of Katrina, New Orleans was a city of 460,000; the 114,000 arrests made there in 2005 reflected a rate of one for every four adult citizens had been arrested by the NOPD. Quite understandably, many citizens felt the NOPD was overzealous in arrests and underzealous in follow-up. New Orleans’s juries often didn’t trust the arresting NOPD officers’ credibility. Often DA Jordan had to drop cases because the arresting officer simply refused to be a witness. Many bad guys — drug kingpins or child molesters — were let go on technicalities because of sloppy NOPD paperwork. To put it simply, the NOPD was high on street action and low on desk work. In 2005 only 12 percent of the people arrested for homicide were convicted, which meant that 88 percent of those arrested were free to walk the streets. Murderers were wandering around New Orleans as Katrina approached, in large measure because the NOPD didn’t know how to work the judicial system.
But there were able officers in the department on the eve of Katrina, cops who were determined to clean up the corruption. “You have to be by the book,” Warren Riley said late in 2005, after becoming superintendent, explaining the need for a new era of public integrity in the NOPD. “That’s the bottom line. I think that accountability is vital, swift punishment is absolutely necessary. Even within an organization, like the law enforcement organization, the officers need to fear the administration. They need to believe that if they don’t do what they’re supposed to do, they’re going to suffer the consequences ... termination, prosecution, whatever.”21
IVAt forty-six Warren Riley, as husky as a Russian weight lifter, with the facial features of a puffy Hank Aaron, was in many respects an old-fashioned community cop. The youngest of five children, he was the first person in his family to earn a college degree. Combating racism was a reality the Riley family faced head-on. His father, Sam, who hailed from Wilson, Louisiana, never let verbal slights by whites get under his skin. His mother, Selma, however, was a child of a woman raped by a white man. “My mother was half-white,” Riley explained. “Her mother was an African-American female who worked in a grocery store in Plaquemines. The story that my mother told was that the white Irishman store owner, when his wife left, raped her, at least one time. So my mother was a very fair-complexioned lady, long straight hair.”22
Riley’s father worked three jobs as a maintenance man to keep the family together. A stern disciplinarian, he made Warren take responsibility for household chores. As a student at Booker T. Washington High School from 1974 to 1978, Warren seldom encountered racism, although he admits white gangs and black gangs sometimes fought on Walmsey Avenue. Ironically, it was a white NOPD officer named Tom Fierce who influenced Riley’s decision to become a cop. A true community officer, Fierce would bring football helmets and pads to give to the poorer African-American kids in the playground. This impressed Riley immensely. The police were the good guys, especially Fierce. Riley’s sports hero was also white: quarterback Johnny Unitas of the Baltimore Colts. “Something about the crew cut,” he later reflected on Unitas, “the clean-cut look he had.” Riley’s favorite subject was history, particularly battlefield heroics ranging in time from the Crusades to World War II, but he also enjoyed TV detective shows. He recognized that men in uniform garnered society’s respect. “My mother was a maid somewhere and my father went to pick her up and it was this big house,” Riley said. “That was the first time I saw a community where I realized there was something really different between these homes and my community. But what drove me was I was just the kind of person who wanted the house and the picket fence and the two kids and the car. So, becoming a police officer, initially for me, it was just a steppingstone. It was a job, an opportunity to get a car, to get an apartment.”
Oddly, Riley would claim that his inaugural encounter with racism came when he joined the NOPD in 1979. “It was clearly an internally segregated system back then,” Riley explained. “You’d go to roll call, blacks would sit on one side of the room, whites would sit on the other side of the room. It was very seldom that blacks and whites rode together in the Sixth District, where I was working .... We merely existed in our own worlds.” Back then, Riley said white officers harbored a death wish for their black colleagues. Over twenty-five years later, he remembered the chilling words he heard from a couple of different white officers: “Don’t call for any help ’cause nobody’s coming.”23
From 1984 to 1989, the NOPD had Riley working vice in the St. Bernard Housing Development in the Ninth Ward. He became an undercover narcotics agent, staying out of Uptown, where folks might recognize him. It was known as the “teas and blues” circuit — a homemade concoction of the barbiturate Talwin (teas) and antihistamines (blues), which, when injected, hyped abusers up, making them violent. Unlike heroin, which tended to make junkies lethargic and easygoing, or marijuana, which the police largely ignored, crack cocaine was something that vice wanted to get off the streets. Eight balls (eight ounces) of crack cocaine were selling for $400. The NOPD needed somebody young to become an undercover drug dealer, and Riley was in his late twenties. “I was set up in an apartment and I’m selling drugs back to the drug dealers,” Riley recalled.
There was no question that Riley was a tough, uncompromising narc. He believed in swift punishment for drug dealers, whom he deemed scum, just like those who were committing theft, burglarizing homes, and even murdering people. “I was never looking at it in a humanitarian way, so to speak, like ‘these guys need a break,’ ” Riley said. “I grew up in a pretty rough neighborhood. The big thing then was sniffing glue .... I had two outstanding parents. That’s what made the difference in my life. So there was no regret. Never did I think about what was going to happen to these guys [once arrested].”
On the eve of Katrina, Riley was living in Algiers. He had run against Marlon Gusman for Orleans Parish criminal sheriff in the previous fall and had lost. He was, however, deputy chief of police of the NOPD. Riley was determined to stick out the storm, to start rescuing people if necessary when it passed. With media training by the FBI, he was, in police jargon, a “command presence.” To his credit, Riley tried to be proactive about preparing the department for the impending storm. But as number two, there was only so much he could do. Worried that the NOPD had antiquated radio communication that would have made Marconi jeer, he put out a search for satellite phones. He contacted the National Guard, requesting that they put five boats in each district station so his men could get around if it flooded. But the Guard nixed the idea, preferring to keep them all at Jackson Barracks, its headquarters. Located on St. Claude Avenue, nestled on 100 acres, Jackson Barracks was created in 1834 to offer logistical assistance to far-flung Mississippi River Valley forts. A campus of fine brick buildings with white columns, the facility had been used earlier in 2005 by film director Steven Zaillian as a set for his remake of All the King’s Men. This was where the Louisiana National Guard was going to make its stand during Katrina. Unfortunately that pre-Katrina weekend, feeling safe from the hurricane, the Guard was bringing rescue equipment like boats and high-water vehicles to the compound, not out of it. As fate would have it, Jackson Barracks got wiped out. Good-bye, trucks. Riley also helped set up an emergency operations center on the ninth floor of City Hall. While it would be headed by Assistant Police Chief Danny Lawless, a whole beehive of representatives — from the state police, harbor police, National Guard, Coast Guard, Air National Guard, Homeland Security, fire department — would be ensconced there. For some reason it never seemed to dawn on any of these official representatives that they were in the bowl, that if City Hall flooded there would be no command center. When asked if this kind of consolidation was smart, Riley stiffened, claiming it made perfect sense. “Every storm we’d been through,” he said, “that command center at City Hall had been sufficient.” For all his street smarts, Riley, like most city officials, ignoring the Pam exercises and the five-part Times-Picayune doomsday series, felt like a man on top of his game. He was going to ride out Katrina at police headquarters on 715 Broad Street with his men — the men who were his brothers of the shield.
In most cities, first-rate police officers garnered the respect of its citizens. But not in New Orleans. For residents, the problems of the projects were intertwined with the attitude of the police. But the housing projects at least possessed the virtue of being located in the inner city. Hardworking families living there could walk to work or ride the trolley or the bus. Many project residents, therefore, didn’t own a car. Truth be told, they couldn’t afford one. When the St. Thomas, Desire, and Florida projects had been condemned, as well as the Melpomene project in Central City, new housing for the evicted needed to be found. Two bad solutions were hatched by City Hall, both contributing mightily to the unfolding Katrina tragedy. The first blunder in social engineering occurred in 2000, when those families living in the defunct St. Thomas project were shipped to live at the St. Bernard project in the Seventh Ward. It soon became known in the black community as “St. Bathomas.” What the merger accomplished was an increase in violence, as gangs fought over drug turf. This mistake of ghettoizing thousands in “St. Bathomas” contributed to New Orleans’s skyrocketing murder rate. The other unhelpful local-state solution was to relocate residents of other projects to New Orleans East, a long ten-mile drive from downtown, in areas like Little Woods and Michould Boulevard. This was where Cedric Richmond saw the last Little League game of the New Orleans summer. Packed into flimsy apartment complexes, ugly condos, and tiny houses near Lake Pontchartrain, these residents had no reliable public transportation. Carjacking became epidemic in New Orleans East. Many of those new to the neighborhood had worked in what blacks called the “servant industry,” toiling as hotel maids, parking attendants, or domestic help for well-to-do whites. It was an honest living. Suddenly, with their relocation, they had no easy way to get to work downtown. Singer Aaron Neville, a resident of New Orleans East, gave the failed relocation a name, the “Outer City Blues,” and even wrote an unrecorded song about it.
These powerless city poor were what sociologist Michael Harrington once called “the Other America” — those living in desperate poverty, living on minimum wage or welfare checks, hidden from the view of the mainstream, and often denied basic services, like proper sewage, reliable electricity, or decent schools. On any given day, you could encounter them redeeming aluminum cans at Walgreens on St. Charles or holding cardboard signs asking for money around Lee Circle. They didn’t hear about Katrina on television, for a simple reason: they didn’t own a set. Even if they did hear about the storm, they didn’t have the money to leave. They had no credit cards with which to rent a car and reserve a motel room in Dallas, Memphis, Little Rock, or Baton Rouge. Poorly educated, and often illiterate, they couldn’t figure out what all the evacuation commotion was about. With no driver’s license or other form of identification, some were afraid the NOPD would arrest them at city-run shelters or handcuff them for hitchhiking on I-10.
At 4 p.m. on Saturday, the Louisiana State Police turned over all lanes to outward traffic on four New Orleans interstate highways. The metro area’s two toll roads, the Crescent City Connection and the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, were now free. Called “contra-flow,” the redirected traffic represented the one plan that the state had worked out in enough detail to operate effectively in the face of Katrina. Governor Blanco oversaw the creation of the surprisingly complex contra-flow plan after the bottleneck traffic debacle caused by the approach of Hurricane Ivan in September 2004. Later, when preparing to testify before a congressional committee, Blanco offered a defense of her contra-flow plan. She rightly pointed out that her plan had been designed in collaboration with appropriate parish leaders and that, as bad as Katrina was, it “would have been far worse if the initial evacuation had not been so efficient and safe.”24
Without question, Blanco’s contra-flow plan saved lives. All of New Orleans’s hospitals, for example, started evacuating patients — those they could move — in a reliably easy fashion. At every hospital, supervisors decided not to move critically ill patients; Charity Hospital, for example, the oldest continuously operating hospital in the country, had fifty beds occupied in its intensive care unit.25 A group of doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, and other staff were staying behind to take care of them. “I was assigned as teaching physician for the infectious diseases unit on the ninth floor of the hospital,” Ruth Berggren later wrote in The New England Journal of Medicine. “There were eighteen patients in the unit, of whom four had active tuberculosis and thirteen had opportunistic infections related to HIV and AIDS. We also had a boarder from surgery — with a complicated gunshot wound and vascular access problems.”26
Even with contra-flow, however, traffic moved at a snail’s pace, and by late Saturday afternoon, it was virtually impossible to reserve a motel room in towns as far north in Louisiana as Alexandria, Monroe, and Shreveport. Prophecies of bad weather for the Gulf South area had reached a saturation point. Still, cars were making hasty dashes about, drivers looking for the last flashlight batteries and bottled water in each vulnerable parish.
One person who was extremely worried that City Hall wasn’t recognizing the devastation a Category 3, 4, or 5 hurricane would wreak was the outspoken Nick Felton, president of the New Orleans Firefighters and captain of Engine Company 21. Six feet tall, with salt-and-pepper hair, Felton was a twenty-two-year veteran, a hardboiled, no-nonsense professional, the kind who would have rushed up the fateful stairs of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He was appalled that the New Orleans Fire Department didn’t own a single boat. At a ninth-floor EOC meeting he spoke bluntly about the Big One, telling Superintendent of Fire Charles Parent and Deputy CAO Cynthia Sullivan-Lear that he felt firemen needed water reserves, compensation for working the storm, family protection, and food supplies. If flooding occurred, and natural gas pipelines broke, they were going to be putting out raging infernos for a week. When he was finished with his demands, Sullivan-Lear — with not even an iota of tact — told Felton he was being “an alarmist.” Felton couldn’t believe she was copping a lackadaisical attitude when he was in crisis mode. “They just couldn’t comprehend that this was it,” Felton said. “I kept saying, ‘Aren’t you guys watching the Weather Channel?’ I had been through Camille and Betsy and this damn thing, at least on the Weather Channel, looked far worse.”27
An hour after the contra-flow changes were put into effect, at 5 p.m., Governor Blanco arrived in New Orleans for a press conference with Mayor Nagin. They were visibly uncomfortable with each other, a crackle of tension in the air. They jointly announced that a voluntary evacuation order had been issued for the city in anticipation of Katrina. The year before, Ivan had been on a similar path, heading straight for New Orleans, but it swerved eastward at the last minute, missing the city. So, as the illogic went, Katrina would probably do the same thing. Hope had become Nagin’s main evacuation strategy. “We strongly advise citizens,” the mayor said, “to leave at this time.” In the ears of longtime New Orleanians, his cautionary words ringed of the chance for yet another hurricane reprieve. “We want everyone to not panic,” Nagin continued, “but to take this very seriously. Every projection still has it hitting New Orleans in some form or fashion.”28
In some form or fashion — a New Orleans resident could take that to mean a lot of things, most of which were far removed from the pessimism of the National Hurricane Center’s latest bulletin. Issued that afternoon, Advisory 18 warned that “there remains a chance that Katrina could become a Category 5 hurricane before landfall.”29 That should have been Nagin’s lead. It was, at least, in the Times-Picayune’s early Sunday edition (which came out Saturday night). The paper ran a big-block headline: “Katrina Takes Aim.”30 The chain of responsibility for urban evacuation, highly debated after Katrina, was really quite simple. The pecking order, according to protocol, was (a) the mayor; (b) the New Orleans director of Homeland Security (a political appointee of the mayor, who reports to the mayor); (c) the governor; (d) the secretary of Homeland Security; and (e) the U.S. President. Both Nagin and Blanco, even before Katrina hit, recognizing they were unable to cope with the impending doom, were already chastising the federal government for New Orleans’s rank unpreparedness. The blame game had begun even before Katrina made landfall.
Unlike New Orleans’s hurricane evacuation strategy, tracking hurricanes was the responsibility of the federal government. Toward that end, Congress had authorized the U.S. Weather Bureau in March 1870. Based in Washington, D.C., it was soon the hub of twenty-four far-flung observatories, connected by telegraph and constantly monitoring meteorological conditions in order to help communities prepare for such climatic curses as heat waves, blizzards, and hurricanes. By 1899, the bureau had opened a hurricane-forecasting center on the island of Jamaica. When the bureau, a component of the Commerce Department, had its centennial, it was renamed the National Weather Service.
During tropical storm season, August to October, it was the National Hurricane Center, a unit of the National Weather Service, that always took the lead. Based on the campus of Florida Atlantic University, the modern NHC was founded in 1955 and put into the specific business of storm prediction. Everyone seemed to be fascinated by how the center collected its cyclonic data: the NHC grew into a popular tourist attraction, with busloads of schoolchildren, among many others, taking trips to western Dade County to see hydrogen-filled weather balloons launched twice daily and to hear about the Doppler Radar Network, which covers much of the Gulf of Mexico.
When a powerful weather disturbance first blipped on the radar screen, NHC responded in dramatic fashion, sending manned twin-jet Gulfstream IV-SP aircraft straight into the eye of the storm to bring back detailed reading on wind force and barometric pressure. If the depression was a tropical storm (i.e., sustained wind speeds between 39 and 73 mph), the NHC alerted governmental agencies, including FEMA and the Department of Defense, regarding the potential threat. The media and civil defense authorities in affected areas were also contacted. Using the Saffir-Simpson Scale, meteorologists could quickly communicate the severity of a storm. Typically, word that any hurricane ranked at Category 3 or above aroused intense interest. Only in the rarest instances was a personal appeal also required.
Late in the day on Saturday, August 27, Max Mayfield, the mild-mannered, bespectacled scientist who had been the director of the NHC since 2000, grew concerned at the lack of activity in advance of Katrina. As he put it later, he wanted to do “everything that I could do” to warn the country that the Gulf Coast — and New Orleans in particular — was in grave danger. Mayfield made scores of telephone calls, in addition to participating in a teleconference with Michael Brown of FEMA, as he tried to convince officials at all levels that even though Katrina was still out in the Gulf and could go anywhere, his data showed that the hurricane was on a direct track to New Orleans. In case his meteorological explanations were not persuasive enough, he used language anyone could understand. “This is really scary,” Mayfield insisted. “The guidance we get and common sense and experience suggest this storm is not done strengthening.”31 What concerned Governor Blanco on Saturday evening was that Mayor Nagin, for whatever reason, just wasn’t taking Katrina seriously enough. When she was back at EOC in Baton Rouge, Mayfield telephoned her. They had developed a warm, special friendship over the years. Once again, he wanted the governor to know that Katrina was barreling Louisiana’s way and that he “was sorry.” His voice was maudlin, full of trepidation, so Blanco conveyed to him that she understood. “Thank you, Max,” she said. “But you need to talk to Ray Nagin.” A frustrated Mayfield said, “I’ve been trying to talk to him, but I can’t reach him.” An exasperated Blanco, sympathizing with Mayfield, said, “I’ve got his cell number. Give me your number and I’ll call him.” So Blanco tracked Nagin down. He was at a restaurant with his wife. “So, I gave Nagin Mayfield’s number,” she said. “I put them in touch.”32
Virtually every local official in the Hurricane Belt states — except Ray Nagin — knew of Max Mayfield. He was a critical figure in the most important role of government, protecting people from danger. The mayor later recalled, “I got a call from the head of the hurricane center, Max somebody ... and he said, ‘Mr. Mayor, I’ve never seen a storm like this. I’ve never seen conditions like this.’ ”33
Nagin claimed that he ordered the mandatory evacuation of his city after speaking with Mayfield on Saturday night, but there is no evidence that he acted then. He certainly did not make any public announcement. One of the others who received Mayfield’s message was Walter Maestri, emergency director of Jefferson Parish, which abuts New Orleans on the south. A longtime hurricane watcher, he immediately called Jeff Smith, the deputy director of the Louisiana Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. Maestri impatiently asked if Mayfield had called Smith yet. “He said, yes, he had received the call,” Maestri recalled later. “So I said, ‘Then you know what he’s sharing?’ And he says, ‘Yes, but the storm right now’ — and I said, ‘Please, please. You’ve indicated you don’t know Max. Let me tell you. When he calls you like that, he’s telling you you need to be ready, be prepared.’ ”34
On CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, on January 20, 2006, Nagin, to his credit, stopped passing the blame and took personal responsibility for not properly preparing New Orleans for Katrina. “There’s ... things that I would do totally different now,” he told Cooper. “I wish I had talked to Max Mayfield earlier, number one ... so the possibility of a mandatory evacuation would have been done 24 hours earlier ... [w]hen I got that call, and he was so emphatic and so passionate, we had never — this city had never done a mandatory evacuation in its history. I immediately called my city attorney and said, look, in the morning, I don’t care what you have to do. Figure out a way for us to do this. I wish I had done that earlier.”35 For all of the weak, confused, and bureaucratic messages from government officials, there were many who heard the NHC warnings and decided on evacuation pronto. Elizabeth Daigle, of the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, was determined to leave town on Saturday evening. At forty-four, she had heard warnings before and had even survived one major hurricane, 1965’s Betsy, which killed sixty-five people in New Orleans. “We just have a bad feeling about this one,” she explained, “We just don’t know. That’s what’s scary.”36 Likewise, Garden District resident Janine Butscher, originally from Oxfordshire, England, was planning to stay in New Orleans for Katrina. Then she woke up on Saturday and talked to her next-door neighbor, who worked for Schlumberger, an oil services company specializing in geophysical data collection and analysis. “He said his company had been notified to get out. That this was the Big One. He scared me so much that I grabbed my two-year-old daughter and drove to Houston in my flannel pajamas.”37 Real estate broker Judy Oudt, famous locally for selling Garden District mansions, had planned to stay in her Lee Circle condominium and ride out the storm. But when she visited her local pharmacy, she saw hordes of semi-panicked locals filling their shopping carts with hurricane provisions. The line to pay was twenty people long. “Hell, if this many people are freaking out,” she said, “so will I.”38 She walked out of the pharmacy with no purchases and headed to Seaside, Florida.
It took others just a little longer than Daigle, Butscher, and Oudt to get out of town. Andrew Travers, a graduate student in history at Tulane, for example, spent his Saturday evening at Pat O’Brien’s French Quarter bar, downing “hurricanes,” a potent rum–fruit juice concoction created in the early 1940s by reckless revelers waiting out a ferocious tropical storm.(According to New Orleans chef Emeril Lagasse, the best recipe for a “hurricane” was 2 ounces light rum, 2 ounces dark rum, 2 ounces grenadine, 1 ounce orange juice, 1 ounce sour mix, 1 teaspoon of sugar, and orange wedges for garnish.)39 O’Brien’s was packed that night. It was a giant “hurricane party” with cocktails being pounded back by rebels determined to booze and boogie their way through the natural disaster. (In August 1969, a group of young people drank hurricanes at a beachside party in Pass Christian, Mississippi, daring Camille to make landfall. It did, and twenty of them drowned.) When Travers sobered up the following morning, he looked at CNN on television and learned that Katrina seemed to be developing into a Category 5 storm. “They were rehashing the doomsday scenario we’d been talking about for years,” Travers recalled, “a direct hit and broken levees and an American Atlantis.” He telephoned his girlfriend, who had stockpiled water and nonperishables in her apartment and invited a handful of friends to stay through the storm. She wisely called off the would-be survivors party, saying, “It would have been fun, but yeah, we gotta go.” They fled town in a Honda Civic coupe, with two dogs crammed in the backseat.40
Parties all over town were ending early on Saturday. Andy Ambrose, the son of the late historian Stephen E. Ambrose, was supposed to be celebrating his forty-second birthday that afternoon. A soulful rhythm-and-blues vocalist, Andy planned to party at the Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street, a smoky music club that showcased New Orleans’s finest talent. The bar was holding a midsummer Mardi Gras party featuring the legendary George Porter, founder of the Meters, the seminal New Orleans funk band that influenced everybody from Phish to Widespread Panic. Ambrose decided to forgo his party, though. Instead, he picked up a hammer and spent his birthday boarding up his neighbors’ windows on St. John Court in Mid-City, on the Carrollton Avenue side of the bayou. “Saturday evening, people who said they were going to stay put for the storm started to have second thoughts,” Ambrose recalled. “By midnight it was ominous. The town was desolate: my wife and I decided to skedaddle. At 3 a.m. we drove to Columbia, Mississippi, and got a room.”41
On Saturday morning U.S. Senator David Vitter, a Jefferson Parish resident, woke up to learn that a major hurricane was headed toward Louisiana. He just stared at the television with his wife, Wendy, and shook his head. He had one prevailing thought: Welcome to the Big One. “We both said let’s not kid around,” Vitter recalled. “We’re leaving.” While his wife started packing the minivan, Vitter called his brother Al, a mathematics professor at Tulane, and his sister Martha in Atlanta. They were worried about their mother. She lived on Vincennes Place in Uptown, which was susceptible to flooding. Moreover, she had an enlarged heart. Around the clock medical attention — or the possibility of it — was necessary. A decision was made to evacuate her by airplane to Atlanta, ASAP. With that plan in motion, David Vitter headed up Highway 61 to Memphis, dropped his family off at a relative’s house, and then flew back down to Louisiana. He was going to remain available in Baton Rouge, much like Mitch Landrieu, at the EOC. Vitter would sleep in a dormitory room provided by the state police and take part in the relief efforts. That Saturday afternoon, however, Vitter couldn’t help but wonder why Mayor Nagin wasn’t calling for the mandatory evacuation of the city. “Hindsight is twenty-twenty,” Vitter later said. “But it was clear to me very early Saturday that, yes, it should have been ordered.”42
Ronald Mack Jr. of the Seventh Ward thought all those people evacuating on I-10 and I-55 were fools. Everybody knew the Big One always veered east when it approached the mouth of the Mississippi — everyone, that is, except his wife. “I was going to suck it up,” he later recalled. “But she starting nagging me. She made us leave for Houston.”43 Officials could count themselves successful in the cases of Ambrose, Vitter, Travers, Mack, and hundreds of thousands like them. Last-minute evacuation was preferable to no evacuation at all.
VIIBut there were many who heard the dire predictions for Katrina and decided to stay put. Kenny Bourque, a twenty-two-year-old bartender from the French Quarter, counted himself among their ranks. The only precaution he took, as he brazenly defied meteorologists, was purchasing a life preserver for his dog — just in case of a flood.44 He adhered to the spiritual lament that goes, “Bury me down in New Orleans/so I can spend eternity aboveground/you can flood this town/but you can’t shut the party down/ain’t no drownin’ the spirit.” Street performer Gaetano Zarzana, full of aperçus, told the Houston Chronicle he was going to “have fun and watch God’s fury” and “hang out in Johnny White’s bar on Bourbon Street and watch the flood come up.”45 Then there was Michael Barnett, who decided to hole up in his office on Poydras Street in the central business district, stating on Saturday that he was determined to keep an hourly blog of Katrina. “Like when P. Diddy sang, ‘we ain’t goin’ no where,’ ” he logged at 8:19 a.m. “Come on with it then, storm. Bring me what ya got. Let’s see who wins.”46 Officials could count themselves powerless in the cases of defiant citizens like Barnett, Bourque, and Zarzana.
Thousands of healthy, well-informed citizens simply made the personal decision that they didn’t want to leave. Some were traffic-phobic while others believed such natural forces as hurricanes were in the Lord’s hands. A few thousand of the unmovable were gamblers, long ago courting risk like a lover. There was a Good Samaritan contingent who wanted to keep an eye on their neighborhoods, and the doctors and nurses who just couldn’t leave. There were thrill seekers, tarot-card readers, and professional squatters. A parochial pride informed some New Orleanians’ decision to stay; this was their town, by God, and they weren’t going to abandon it in its time of peril. An unusually high number of boat owners stayed, convinced that — worst-case scenario — if their houses flooded, they could just sail away until the water receded. Some people saw Katrina as a chance to hole up and get long-overdue chores done, write delinquent thank-you notes, and file the tax extensions they’d been putting off. Taken all together, these people were a breed unto themselves. As the city emptied out, and New Orleans felt like a forlorn tomb, they had unknowingly volunteered to be first responders in the worst natural disaster in modern U.S. history. A large part of the civic burden of saving the poor, infirm, elderly, and confused in Katrina’s wake would fall on their vigorous shoulders. It was getting late for everyone in southeastern Louisiana. Ninety-year-old Amantine Marie Verdin, a member of the Pointe-au-Chien Indian tribe, lived in St. Bernard Parish with her mentally handicapped son Xavier. Another son, Herbert, and other relatives lived nearby. As the storm approached, Herbert’s daughter, Monique Michelle Verdin, drove down from her home in Baton Rouge to check on them all. “When I got to my grandmother’s house that Saturday,” Monique said, “I found her frying fish and cooking shrimp étouffée. My father, Xavier, and my first cousin were all at the house living like it was just another day.” Monique took a box of her grandmother’s keepsakes, and wrote out a list of storm precautions. When she left, though, nothing had much changed. “Clothes were drying on the line outside,” she said. “Xavier was sitting on the porch.”47
In other arenas, there was only confusion and, under the circumstances, that was an outrage. Benjamin Johnson, a U.S. Marine from 1977 to 1987, was employed as a security guard. “The biggest mistake in New Orleans history was Nagin’s not calling a mandatory evacuation on Thursday or Friday, at the latest,” Johnson declared. “My view was that if it wasn’t mandatory it can’t be a bad storm. I did sneak out under the wire on Sunday. It took me eleven hours to drive from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. But the people in the projects, those I knew, kept saying, ‘Katrina ain’t nothing. They ain’t even askin’ us to leave.’ ”48
For others, evacuating in the face of Katrina was not entirely a matter of impetus or money, but of finding help collecting their treasured belongings. Some simply refused to abandon their dogs or cats. The very sick were afraid to be disconnected from their oxygen supply, respirators, or dialysis machines. In the case of the elderly, many suffered from dementia or chronic fatigue, and barely knew what was going on around them. In effect, City Hall deemed automobile drivers the first-class citizens. If you didn’t have a car, you were second-class. As Saturday came to a close, city officials were despicable, ignoring the car-less, not just because they didn’t help such people evacuate, but because they didn’t even know who they were. As far as Mayor Nagin was concerned, it seemed the down-and-outers were an inconvenience to City Hall — pure and simple. There wasn’t much he could do for their welfare so late in the game. And, in many cases, he was right.
Stone Phillips of NBC’s Dateline — among other journalists — would hound Nagin for his pre-Katrina blunders. He asked Nagin why Regional Transit Authority buses sat idle on Chickasaw Street. Why was the fleet of yellow buses padlocked away on Metropolitan Street? Why weren’t all the buses used to evacuate large numbers of folks? Why was nothing in New Orleans mobilized? Why weren’t National Guard troops in proper post hurricane position? Why wasn’t there a high-tech hurricane command center? Why weren’t rescue helicopters and evacuation buses standing by on the periphery of the storm, ready to swoop down and rescue Superdome evacuees and the poor when Katrina passed? All Nagin, skirting any personal responsibility, could meekly answer to Stone was “I don’t know.” ... Those were questions for someone else.49
Nearly five months after Katrina, however, under stinging criticism from U.S. senators and congressmen, Nagin admitted guilt, in hesitant fashion, for failing to evacuate his city’s buses before Katrina made landfall. “If I had to do it again,” he told CNN, “I would probably go to the school board, cut a cooperative endeavor agreement with them, move all the city-controlled buses to another section of the state probably up north, so that they’re readily available, and we will just deal with the driver issue later.”50
VIIIThat Saturday Joe Donchess, executive director of the Louisiana Nursing Home Association, was extremely worried. An Ohio native and a 1975 graduate of Southern University Law School in Baton Rouge, Donchess became the state’s leading voice on issues pertaining to health planning. Ensconced at the EOC in Baton Rouge, Donchess had been closely monitoring the sixty to seventy nursing homes likely to be affected by Katrina. Electricity blackouts were a certainty. That meant elderly patients would be disconnected from life-support machines, alone in the clammy darkness. Evacuating elderly and disabled people on beds and in wheelchairs took time — a couple of days. It was, in fact, a logistical ordeal for them. Every two hours or so on Saturday, Donchess at least e-mailed the nursing homes, updating them on Katrina. There was one major stumbling block regarding New Orleans, and it made him edgy. “Because Mayor Nagin refused to call a mandatory evacuation, the nursing homes didn’t feel compelled to evacuate,” Donchess explained. “It was not my job to tell homes whether to leave, it was up to the mayor .... Nagin and other Orleans Parish officials were dilatory in not calling for a mandatory evacuation earlier. I know, for sure, that twenty-one facilities would have evacuated on Saturday if he had called it. That would have been just enough time for buses to properly bring the patients out of harm’s way.”51
The dilatory response in New Orleans, however, was not shared by surrounding parishes. In St. Bernard Parish, for example, a mandatory evacuation was declared on Saturday; nevertheless, there were nursing homes that chose to ride out the storm, with tragic results. Donchess was in a difficult position. As he updated the nursing homes about millibars and storm surge predictions, he felt like a nag. Every time he heard back that a nursing home was evacuating, he cheered. By late Sunday twenty-one of the homes had evacuated while around forty hunkered down and sheltered in situ. One reason a number of nursing homes didn’t evacuate was bad memories of Hurricane Ivan. Back in September 2004, when Ivan was in the Gulf, many of these homes had buses pick up their patients and then transport them on I-10. The bumper-to-bumper traffic — and the uncomfortable fact that it took eight hours just to get from New Orleans to Baton Rouge — caused two elderly patients to die in transit. An eighty-six-year-old woman also died of a heart attack when she was evacuated from a nursing home during Hurricane George in 1998.52 The word in the state nursing-home world was that the pre-storm commotion was potentially harder on seniors than the hurricane itself.
Another problem facing the Nursing Home Association was a shortage of nurses and caregivers. Even in good times the more than three hundred nursing homes in Louisiana were understaffed; when news of Katrina’s path broke, many essential medical assistants left the state for higher ground.53 And finally, transportation was hard to find, and getting more scarce by the hour. “We really needed busing help, and just didn’t get it,” Donchess recalled. “The state office of emergency preparedness didn’t listen to our needs. They thought that because we were an association we surely knew how to evacuate all the nursing homes. That wasn’t the case. We needed a mandatory evacuation, called earlier, and buses to help us move thousands of patients.”54
Although Donchess was correct that city, parish, and state officials needed to help homes evacuate, the ultimate responsibility lay with the individual homes. At single-story St. Rita’s Nursing Home near Poydras, Louisiana, Coroner Bryan Bertucci pleaded with owner Mabel Mangano to close the facility. The NHC was predicting 140 mph winds and a twenty-foot storm surge for St. Bernard Parish. A Category 3 or 4 storm was nothing to mess around with. “I told her I had two buses and two drivers who could evacuate all seventy of her residents and take them anywhere she wanted to go,” Bertucci recalled. “She told me, ‘I have five nurses and a generator, and we’re going to stay here.’ ”55
According to the Times-Picayune, terrible misjudgment was nothing new at St. Rita’s. Back in 1999 the home had been cited twice for endangering the lives of residents and was denied U.S. government funding for more than forty days for failing to rectify the malfeasance. The nursing home didn’t properly stop patients’ infections from spreading. Under constant regulatory heat, St. Rita’s did, in November 2004, finally meet health inspectors’ basic standards. But it was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a good place for your grandparents to spend their twilight years. As Katrina approached, the business practices of Mabel Mangano and her family were putting patients’ lives at great risk. “They had a duty as a standard of care to people who could not care for themselves,” Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti later said of the Manganos. “If you or I decided we are going to stay, we do it of our own free will .... The people at the nursing home don’t have that chance.”56
Most of the elderly in New Orleans, however, couldn’t even afford to be cared for in a home like St. Rita’s. Fully one-quarter of the families in New Orleans lived on a per capita annual income of $15,000 or less.57 Even worse, many of the elderly had no family. They were all alone against the storm. And August 31 — the last day of the month — was when social security and welfare checks were handed out. Many poor, elderly people just weren’t going to evacuate without that check.
When it came to hurricane evacuation, there was nothing new or novel about the poor or elderly having a harder time fleeing than the rich. Zora Neale Hurston, in her brilliant 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, captured the helpless attitude African Americans around Lake Okechobee had about an evacuation during the Great Depression. On the evening before a mammoth hurricane was supposed to slam South Florida, Janie Crawford and her boyfriend, Tea Cake, decide to stay at their rickety fishing camp, despite the fact that it was extremely vulnerable to storm surge. “Everybody was talking about it that night,” Hurston wrote. “But nobody was worried. You couldn’t have a hurricane when you’re making seven or eight dollars a day.” Just as in New Orleans on August 27, 2005, Hurston’s economically depressed characters believed they were protected by flood walls and levees. “The folks in the quarters and the people in the big houses further around the shore feared the big lake and wondered,” Hurston wrote. “The people felt uncomfortable but safe because there were the seawalls to chain the senseless monster in his bed. The folks let the people do the thinking. If the castles thought themselves secure, the cabins needn’t worry.”58
IXEven on Saturday at 5 p.m., with the highways leading out of New Orleans crammed with drivers escaping the coming hurricane, nothing much was moving out of poor neighborhoods like the Carver-Desire section of New Orleans East, Lower Ninth, and Tremé. A few people were leaving, but operable buses were a rare sight. And hardly anyone was arriving to help — with some very notable exceptions. Driving into New Orleans on Saturday against the contra-flow traffic was thirty-nine-year-old Willie Walker, senior pastor of Noah’s Ark Missionary Baptist Church, located on South Saratoga Street, about a mile west of the Superdome. The area surrounding his church was a depressingly blighted Central City neighborhood, the domain of dope dealers, garbage heaps, and a high crime rate. Many residents relied on their monthly food stamps just to survive. But the neighborhood also had a rich civil rights history. In 1957, in fact, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was founded in Central City at the Mount Zion Baptist Church, with Martin Luther King Jr. holding court. Reverend Willie, as his parishioners called him, was a true man of God — not the bombastic Bible-thumping kind, but a coolheaded servant of the poor. Born in 1966 at Charity Hospital, Walker was the son of a Marine sergeant who served during the Vietnam war. He may have inherited his exterior toughness from his leatherneck father. But, as in too many African-American households, that father abandoned his family; Walker was only four at the time.
Walker’s mother, by contrast, was devoted to her four children, always ready to cook up a pot of okra gumbo or to read Psalms out loud. She would have them pray to Jesus as a family, hands clasped and eyes closed. Mrs. Walker worked as a secretary for the New Orleans public schools. Often the gospel records of Reverend James Cleveland and Mahalia Jackson blared out at full volume from their old-time phonograph. Although the Walker kids were all baptized in Noah’s Ark Missionary Baptist Church, he and his two sisters and brother were raised as Catholics, attending St. Raymond on Paris Avenue.
Money was tight in the Walker household, but the children never complained. They thanked God for every meal. At age eight, Walker started working for Aquarius Janitorial Service, mopping up dirty floors from the Shell Building on Poydras Street to Jimmy’s Bar on Willow Street. “I was always looking for a dollar,” he recalls of his youth. “I just wanted to sustain some kind of income.” When he turned thirteen, however, a near death experience changed his life. One evening in October 1979, Walker was crunched in the back of his stepfather’s little burgundy Vega hatchback as it cruised down General de Gaulle Boulevard near Lake Pontchartrain. Suddenly, there was a collision. On impact, Walker flew out of the car, landing on the roadway, a tire running over his limp body. Because New Orleans’s ambulance drivers were on strike, it took over two hours for medics to arrive. Walker was drifting in and out of consciousness; all he remembers about the tragedy is his mother holding his head, wailing, “Lord, don’t take my child ... Lord, don’t take my child” over and over again. “They didn’t know whether I was dead or alive,” he recalled of the accident. “I felt my soul leave my body headed to some beautiful bright light.” Eventually an ambulance arrived and Walker was rushed to Jo Ellen Smith Hospital. His face was swollen like a giant strawberry and his teeth cracked. A medic poured peroxide over his head as if baptizing him on the run. His hair turned reddish. His sobbing mother, he remembered, kept chanting “Take me instead, Lord. Oh God, take me instead.” Desperately, he wanted to comfort her. Somehow, he found the strength to softly say, “It’s all right. I’m back.”59
Through a demanding combination of hourly prayer, intense willpower, and physical therapy, Walker did come back, forever changed. A favorite with the young ladies and a charismatic leader of all, he had a bright New Orleans future, a wide-open canvas in which an ambitious African American with drive could perhaps help break the cycle of poverty. But he had these haunting dreams — visions, really, with Jesus Christ talking to him. It was unnerving. He felt that he had been tapped, that making money (lots of money), his old ambition, was somehow corrupt. Like many people who have had near-death experiences, he knew there was something better than being rich. He decided to become a pastor for the destitute. Hence, in 1998, he took over Noah’s Ark, hoping to give hope to AIDS patients, heroin addicts, and down-and-outers. His new pulpit was located in a small stucco building with a wooden cross on its tiny steeple. On the day he accepted leadership of the 145-member congregation, he made a sacred vow to himself: Never would he shove Jesus down people’s throats like some Elmer Gantry wannabe. He cringed at the very notion of Holy Rollerism, but by his caring, loving ways, by his direct actions, he aspired to show the lost the way out of earthly hell and into heavenly salvation. No matter who you were, no matter how broken down or unlucky you were, Walker, who called everybody “dude,” would offer you a hug.
Although keeping Noah’s Ark open was always a financial challenge, Reverend Willie lived a charmed existence. He was madly in love with his elegant wife, Veronica, who sang mournful renditions of “I Don’t Worry Tomorrow” and “Thank You Lord” in church. Together they were raising three children in a house near Kenner, not far from the airport. It was a relatively safe suburban environment in which to raise kids. Every day, however, no matter what the weather, Reverend Willie headed into the Magnolia housing project near his church to minister to the needy. Like a door-to-door canvasser, he would wander around and check up on the dudes, particularly those living a marginal existence. If the Morrises were having a marital spat, he tried to ease the tension. If “Big Boy” was selling OxyContin for two dollars a pop to teenagers, Walker turned beat cop, confiscating the bottles and flushing the contents down the toilet. Every time he saw a young man scratching, taking on a fidgety persona, he intervened, instructing him on how to get off crack cocaine. Sometimes in Central City, however, all he could do was cry. On bad days it was a torturous ghetto that sometimes seemed too hard for love. Like when his cousin Wanda Morgan was raped in a vacant lot across from Estelle J. Wilson Funeral Home; the attackers smashed her head with a brick, causing her to bleed to death. “It was horrible,” Walker recalled. “But I didn’t give up on the neighborhood.”60 Whether you liked Reverend Willie or not, he was a fixture around South Saratoga Street, and even his detractors admitted that he “walked the walk.”
Reverend Willie hustled around Central City at dusk on Saturday, August 27, trying to broker rides out of New Orleans for those without cars. He knew before he started that there was no way of saving everyone. The city would have to send buses, but so far, City Hall hadn’t said anything about organizing convoys to help those still left in the city. He had heard that FEMA had prepositioned buses at Camp Beauregard in Alexandria, Louisiana, ready to evacuate stranded New Orleans after the storm; true, it was only a rumor, but the mirage of such a fleet made him feel better. Reverend Willie was frustrated and frantic as night fell, with no help in sight and so much left to be done; he said prayers over and over again as an incantation against evil. 61
By then, the 263 pets from the LSPCA on Japonica Street had already reached Houston and were warm, dry, and safe in their temporary home.
Excerpted from “The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” by Douglas Brinkley. Copyright © 2006, Douglas Brinkley. All rights reserved. Published by . No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.