The Magazine

Notes from Under Water

From the September 19, 2005 issue: The struggle to survive the disaster in New Orleans.

Sep 19, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 01 • By MATT LABASH
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At the Baton Rouge airport, commandeered by rescue workers, Louisiana Army National Guardsman and Blackhawk pilot Daniel Solis is waiting to fly another hairy sortie. In Iraq, his unit did things like transport Saddam Hussein. "But I felt safer there, because I knew who the enemy was. These aren't the enemy. These are our people." He's trying to keep his head together, since from the air, he's been noticing all the childhood landmarks that have disappeared, including his parents' house, now part of the Gulf of Mexico. Solis says they are so undermanned, with so many people so desperate to get out, that they actually had to bring in SWAT teams to clear landing zones and keep the crowd from "bum-rushing the aircraft." A local police officer tells me that desperate men were snatching babies from the arms of their mothers to boost their chances of getting on a freedom bird.

In the parking lot outside the hangar sits George Lainart, a police officer from Georgia, who has led a flotilla of nine airboats over land to try to pitch in with the rescue. But his crew has been on the bench for two days, waiting for FEMA to assign them a mission. After making serial inquiries, Lainart is climbing out of his skin, and I later find out that his team circumvented FEMA altogether, got down to New Orleans, and stayed busy for five days straight. Though he shredded his hull by running over asphalt, cars, fire hydrants, and other debris, his crew saved nearly 800 people.

"FEMA was holding up everything, they didn't have a clue," complains Lainart. "They were an absolute roadblock, nobody was getting anywhere with those idiots. Everybody just started doing their own missions." While opinions on the ground differ wildly as to who deserves the most generous serving of blame pie among George W. Bush, Louisiana's governor, and New Orleans' mayor, everyone I speak with agrees that FEMA officials should spend their afterlives in the hottest part of Hell without any water breaks.

OVER AT THE PETE MARAVICH CENTER on the campus of Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, we meet the "lucky" ones, those who were successfully evacuated. In a parking lot, 27-year-old Lakisha Brown stands next to two trashbags full of clothes that she floated along the top of the toxic soup that she waded through for an entire day. Lakisha has a gold-toothed grill, a "Ms. Girly" tattoo, and a BeBe baby-tee pushed-up to reveal a midriff covered with ointment, salving the wounds she sustained while escaping the flood. "I got bruises everywhere on me," she says.

She tried to stick out the flood in her water-logged abode, appealing to passing soldiers for water, "but they couldn't help us." So she took to the soup. On the way out, she passed humans, frogs, pigeons, and rats, some swimming for their lives, others just doing the dead-man's float. She hasn't lost her family, which is split up, she's not sure where. But she's lost everything else--her job, her car, her pride. Right now, her total net worth is "not a nickel to my name--I'm just not used to havin' nuthin." She has no insurance, and doesn't know where she's going, but she knows she has to "get me a job, maybe two jobs." I ask her if she's had anything to eat. She says she hasn't. "It's like I can't, you know. When I start eatin', it just don't taste right. I don't know if it's the worries. . . . "

As we bake in the parking lot, I ask Lakisha why she pitched camp here, instead of inside. She doesn't want to go in there, she says. "It makes me feel like I'm really homeless, which I am. . . . I'd just rather have peace of mind." What Lakisha doesn't know is that she couldn't stay inside if she wanted to. The center's only taking triage patients. The other survivors are given water and food, then left to the elements. Lurleen London learned this last night and the night before, as she, her husband, and their four children (ages seven and under) had to sleep on the sidewalk. Her husband has no shoes, and the diapered son he is holding has no pants, since that's the way they left the house when the water started to envelop them.

Lurleen starts explaining her plight on an even keel, but as she gets deeper into the narrative, she hyperventilates, panicking for her children. The buses don't come, and when they do, there's no room. Her children are getting overheated. She starts wailing hoarsely.