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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Gloria, a kindly British-accented volunteer and an LSU English professor, tries to comfort her, and to get some answers from somebody. But nobody has answers. "Now, now, your world's been turned upside down, hasn't it?" commiserates Gloria, who tries to calm Lurleen down. It's the only attempt at consolation that I personally witness from even a semi-official source in the four days I spend in Louisiana. I have to leave, so I slide Lurleen 20 bucks, throwing my arm around her to give her a squeeze. She grabs me back like I'm a life preserver, saying, "God bless you" over and over again, hungry for the most meager kindness.

I walked the avenues of lower Manhattan in the days after the World Trade Center went down, and the camaraderie of people coming together was palpable. But Louisiana after the flood is different and darker. Perhaps it's the scope of the catastrophe, perhaps the undercurrent of violence, but even many of the aid workers seem to have turned to stone.

ON OUR WAY DOWN TO NEW ORLEANS, the stories fly at us with greater fury. At a gas stop, a breathless black man who just escaped the ninth ward, the city's roughest, tells me Charmaine Neville, of the famed musical Neville family, was raped by thugs in his neighborhood as she was trying to help others. The same, he says, happened to a four-year-old girl. A police officer tells us that after a sixth-district police station was flooded, the cops set up shop in a Wal-Mart that looters were still trying to penetrate by running stolen cars into the walls. Through the week, the stories get wilder and weirder. One SWAT officer says he found a bucket-full of looted hair weaves. A friend tells me his cousin knows someone who pulled 100 bodies out of the Superdome after they'd had their throats cut and been stuffed under bleachers. Most of the stories seem too unlikely to have happened--and just likely enough, in the current sinister climate, not to ignore.

Along the way, we make contact with the local friend of someone in our party. He brings along two buddies, one of whom is a reservist cop who helps us navigate around the checkpoints and flooded streets of New Orleans. For most of the past week, this friend was making a stand in his generator-powered Uptown house. He fled to Baton Rouge for a night, then thought better of it, and joins our caravan to go back and defend his home.

An old-line New Orleanian, he has a true aristocrat's distaste for seeing his name in the paper, so he tells me if I write about him I'll have to use an alias. I settle on "Kingfish," after hearing one of his pals call him that over their radios. "Great," he says to me, when I inform him of his new title. "Name me after Huey P. Long. What a piece of s--he was." While I've always had affection for Louisiana's political scamps, many locals hold that the corruption is a lot more charming when you don't have to live under it.

"F--this city," says Kingfish, when we tell him tales we've heard. Actually, he loves his town, which is why he's still here, sparring with his wife on the phone as she and their evacuated kids sit on a beach in Florida. "I love her dearly, but she wants me to come hold their hands on the beach, while I'm fighting for our f--ing lives."

At a time when many New Orleanians are drowning literally, Kingfish feels like he's drowning figuratively. Katrina killed his aunt, who lived in a Gulf coast town in Mississippi. His beautiful house in Uptown, where he graciously puts us up during our stay, is still standing. The only damage it suffered was some dominoed pear trees by the jungle gym, and some slate shingles torn off the roof, now resting at the bottom of his pool, which doubles for the moment as a bathtub. But his businesses are sitting idle or under water or both. They used to net him 30 grand a week. Now they're costing him 10 per. He doesn't know if any business is coming back, and though he's paid roughly $3 million in premiums over the years, he's absolutely certain his insurance company is going to give him the high hard one.

One of the last people in his neighborhood, Kingfish is waiting for "the crickets," as he calls them, to find it and loot it. It's made him a bit crazy. Or maybe not so crazy. He and his friends are armed to the teeth, with nine-millimeter pistols and all manner of shotguns: over-and-unders, side-by-sides, pumps--the works. When we pull into his fenced compound, we're greeted by one of his neighbors, who's been helping keep watch, and who's just finished bathing in the pool. He's wearing tartan plaid boxers and a shoulder-holster. Kingfish has a side-holster which loops around his Brooks Brothers cowhide belt. With all the golfwear and guns they favor, they look like they hail from the lost tribe of Jean Lafitte, the one that decided that instead of plundering ships on the high seas, they'd pull an inside job on a yacht club in Newport.

He's frazzled, but Kingfish's New Orleans hospitality is still intact. Grabbing a bottle of Maker's Mark, he's probably one of the few people in the city during these times who worry about whether their guests have enough cherry juice and Angostura bitters for their Old Fashioneds. Concerned about all the looting and crime, he keeps up a steady patter of anti-"cricket" talk. But perhaps spying the black cameraman in our party, he assures me he's not some mouth-breathing racist. Hell, the Meters played his sister's deb party, he says as he puts on some Second Line music from the Wild Magnolias. And just the other day, after the storm hit, he gave 200 bucks to his neighbor's black maid, and let her have one of his cars. "Black and white mix more down here, and we enjoy each other," says Kingfish. "But we also talk a little more frankly about race."

What he and his friends are talking about, besides brute survival, is urban planning and civic renewal. As their city gets washed away, it has occurred to many New Orleanians I talk to that if in fact the city is rebuilt, maybe this time it'll be done right. Many of the troublemakers in the poverty'n'crime centers that bookend economic engines like the French Quarter have been evacuated to other states. Once their FEMA checks run out, they won't have much incentive to return. Therefore, if urban planners can navigate the ministers and local politicos who make their bones leeching off the historically failing system, they might be able to distribute the poor more evenly around Orleans parish, taking away gang and drug-lord base-camps, and gentrifying the city.

Everybody will be better off if the swamp gets cleaned up, say Kingfish and his ilk. The schools are some of the worst in the nation, which is why Kingfish campaigns for vouchers. "It ain't for my kids," he says, "they already go to great schools." And the police are regarded as something of a joke. Scores walked off the job in mid-crisis. "They're a step above the criminals," says Kingfish. "If they see a cricket, they'll step on one."

WITH ALL HIS BLUSTER AND CRICKET-TALK, Kingfish is a bit of a cocked-fist altruist. In addition to loading weapons, he's spent the week saving animals and people, most recently a dotty octogenarian who'd fallen and couldn't get up. With nearby Children's Hospital out of business, Kingfish took it upon himself to get a stretcher, and rescued the woman, taking her to Ochsner Hospital instead. "She thought I was a paramedic and complained the whole way," says Kingfish. "Wanted to talk to our supervisor. Said, 'I'm never leaving New Orleans again, look what happens to me.' You're still in New Orleans, you crazy-ass bat."

Kingfish goes out on several more humanitarian missions with us. A nearby shut-in has called MSNBC repeatedly to bring her supplies, and Tucker Carlson and crew are answering the call. (Things are so dire in New Orleans that citizens have taken to calling cable television personalities over police or medics.) As we pile into SUVs, Kingfish tells Carlson to take along his 12-gauge in case things go wrong. Tucker arrives at the woman's modest house to deliver protein bars, instant soup, and three gallons of water. While interviewing her, he notices a letter she's stuck to the wall that speaks to the present state of affairs. It begins, "If found dead . . . "

Waiting outside with Kingfish, I spot a shirtless, hairy man pushing a shopping cart down the street of the abandoned neighborhood. He's flanked by a toothless sidekick, who is apparently jabbering to himself. "Look here," says Kingfish, "Ignatius J. Reilly and his cousin." The cart pusher turns out to be a Syrian butcher at a local grocery that's been looted. His sidekick says, apropos of nothing, "I'm a war baby." Using detergent buckets, they've just cadged some water from an acquaintance's swimming pool. I ask the butcher where he got the shopping cart, and he says they're everywhere. The whole of New Orleans resembles a self-check-out Piggly Wiggly in the midst of a going-out-of-business sale.

We are off, from there, on a Kingfish mission. He has decided to rescue the elderly father of a family friend from the squalor that is the Convention Center, where evacuees are congregated by the thousands, and where all manner of atrocities--from rape to murder--are rumored to be occurring. When we get to "Cricketville," as he diplomatically calls it, there is only one police car in sight. Its lights are flashing soundlessly, three of its tires are flat, and the cop who belongs to it is nowhere to be found. Showing his weapon, Kingfish sprints into the center's concourse, and I follow behind him, not so much to provide back-up as to make sure he doesn't get overly excited and accidentally shoot somebody.

We grab the wheelchair-bound man--he's fairly easy to spot, he's the white guy--and a black teenager darts at me. I brace for a confrontation, but he just says, "I'll get that," grabbing the man's emphysema tank, and helps us load him into the Fordasaurus. We also collect the man's wife and a local freelance photographer named Matt Fleming.

We deposit the man and wife at a local hospital, but Fleming wants to stick with us, switching from the Fordasaurus into the Kingfish's vehicle. He tells us of the hell he just escaped, which resembled a third-world bazaar where the only product being sold is human misery. "Nobody's in charge, nobody's getting fed, people are s--ing in the hallways," Fleming says. Kingfish asks Fleming where he wants to go. But since he's broke and newly homeless, he doesn't seem to know. He asks repeatedly to be taken to a train or bus station. "Dude," says Kingfish impatiently, "I don't think you understand what's happening. There are no trains or buses."

We park on the Causeway overpass on I-10. Thousands of evacuees are waiting below for state-sponsored rides to Baton Rouge, or Houston, or parts unknown, and Kingfish tells Fleming this is his last stop. Fleming is reluctant to leave. "Can't I come with you?" he implores. But Kingfish isn't going anywhere, nor can he take on more house guests. I watch Fleming sag, as he starts despondently down the cloverleaf toward the mass of bodies below. I feel so sorry for him that I take up a collection from the MSNBC crew, and run him down to put 100 bucks in his hand. He's not impressed. "I don't know anybody in Houston," he says. "What am I gonna do there?"

Later I go down to get a closer look, and what I see makes me regret ever dropping off Fleming. As I traipse through a field of ankle-deep mud, people are strewn across it, and crowding the highway, hoping to gain passage out of New Orleans. Some have been waiting there for days, sitting in all manner of filth, from tampons to discarded MRE wrappers to human excrement, since the port-o-johns long ago reached capacity.

There, I meet 21-year-old Derrick Hughes, who sits with two girls he rescued, and who tells me what they've been living through in a tumble of words that he can barely get out. "People are stealing, they're hoarding food, some people have none," he says. "I don't understand how you can survive in these conditions, man. The s--I've seen out here, I don't think anybody realizes. Can I tell you something, man? I just had to put a dog down."

After someone abandoned a cocker spaniel in the mud, Hughes noticed the dog face-down, breathing heavy. He tried to force-feed it a drink, but the water just dribbled down the dog's mouth. Then the spaniel threw up. "There's so many people out here, we can't have dead animals lying around," he says. "So I took him back behind the Causeway . . . " He grows quiet, then starts sobbing. "I put a bag on his head. I said a prayer. And I smashed him in the head with a radio. I've never done anything before like that in my life, man."

As I walk across the field toward the highway, I'm accosted by grasping humanity. Half of them want to know if I'm an aid worker, the other half want me to "call their people," which I try, but there's no cell service in New Orleans. Two thirtysomething black gents, who introduce themselves as Gregory and Richard, want me to see the squalor of their encampment, which could give any slum in Bangladesh a run. An old man they're taking care of wets his pants, and Richard has to take him to a makeshift bathroom, which is nothing more than a sheet shielding a patch of bare ground. The six or so children they're looking out for, three of whom are Richard's, are suffering from exhaustion, and one has asthma, his face swollen from allergies. Separated from his family in the flood, Gregory doesn't even know where his four children are. "I haven't seen my babies," he says. "I don't even like to talk about it, it hurts so bad. Ya feel me?"

They've been there for three days, but neither has been able to obtain answers about where or when they're going if a bus ever comes, so I grab them and pull them over some barricades to talk to some authorities. They are shirtless from the flood, with plenty of chest tattoos. Together, we look like a rap group and their manager. When I turn my recorder on as I interrogate a soldier on their behalf, he grows peevish, and tells me to turn it off and move along. When I approach a cop, and ask why these people aren't getting taken care of, he sips a Coke, while reclining against a squad car. "If it were up to us, we'd have all of them on vehicles, and get them someplace safe." Well who's it up to, I ask irately. "I have no idea," he says.

IF THE I-10 SCENE COULD PASS as Dante's eighth circle of Hell, then the Convention Center would easily qualify as the ninth. The next day, we go back, minus the Kingfish, for a lengthier visit. The people who are left have moved out to the steps to escape the excruciating smell. One man leads me in to show me around. Parts of it are so dark that even a flashlight hardly illuminates anything. Though I'm wearing thick-treaded hiking boots, I nearly go down four times on the urine-soaked floor. Numerous reporters who've visited, including an MSNBC producer riding with us, throw up from the noxious fumes.

Many have said there are no words to describe the smell, but I'll give it a shot since it's my job. If you packed a trashbag with used diapers, rotten produce, and curdled milk, stuck it in your garage in the heat of August, and waited for a thick porridge to collect at the bottom of the bag, then poured that liquid all over the floor, you'd be about halfway there. Children with nowhere to go lived in this sludge for days without relief, and without any explanation for why relief never came.

On the street right in front of the Convention Center, I see a circle of chairs around a black tarp. A body lies underneath it. It's been there since the night before. I pull the tarp back and see a black man lying in a pool of blood. He wears work pants and a shirt featuring an ascending angel, not unlike the angels standing sentry over the whitewashed crypts in Metairie.

There's a pair of scissors pointing at his head, which look like a murder weapon. But they're not. They were used to cut duct tape and paper, which are attached to his torso, notifying whoever removes him of the phone numbers of his next of kin. Whoever his people were wanted to get the hell out of New Orleans, even if it was without him. They could hardly be blamed.

Witnesses tell me what happened. Dwight Williams, who wears shorts without underwear and no shirt (what he escaped the flood waters in), says the night before, a New Orleans Police Department vehicle pulled up. "For whatever reason, the gentleman made a move to the car," he says. "It took five seconds, the entire incident. The cop opened the door, shot him, and that was it." Another black man walks past me, barking, "He didn't stop. If we don't stop, they got the right to shoot the f--out ya. I'm a refugee in my own country! They shot that old man. F--this here!"

Avon Delpit, a doughy, bespectacled 12-year-old boy with a stutter, sits about 30 feet away on a step. He didn't see it, but he heard it, along with his mom and six-year-old retarded brother who has seizures, and who hasn't been able to get any medical assistance in the six days they've been here. "What happened was," Avon says, "is I was asleep, and all of the sudden, I saw this man dead. See, I have anxiety, so I was going all crazy and I was crying. And my mother had to calm me down. What happens is," Avon continues, hiccuping out his words, "thoughts run through my mind. I get crazy. I need to play a video game to calm myself down. But I lost my video games. I can't play anymore. That's why I'm so crazy. I'm hearing these gunshots, and I'm like, 'God, what am I gonna do?' It's just too hard for me to handle."

And that's not even the worst of it. A block away, I meet Patricia Watts, a postal employee, standing in the back of a line for escape buses, a line she's stood in futilely for three successive days. The buses never came. Watts tells me that there are dead babies, and that they are being kept in the freezer in the kitchen of the convention center. I dash to the side service entrance to confirm this and am forbidden from entering by an Arkansas National Guardsman. "Sorry sir," he says. "We can't let you in." I tell him why I've come, and though he hasn't seen them personally, he tells me it's his understanding that the story's true. "But I can't let you enter in case something happens to you." God forbid a reporter should slip and fall on his way to checking out dead babies in the freezer.

This time, I have no words. So I'm forced to lean on those of Walker Percy, a good Louisiana boy who, contemplating race in Love in the Ruins, wrote: "Even now, late as it is, nobody can really believe that it didn't work after all. The U.S.A didn't work! Is it even possible that from the beginning it never did work? that the thing always had a flaw in it, a place where it would shear, and that all this time we were not really different from Ecuador and Bosnia-Herzegovina, just richer."

That evening, my MSNBC companions set up on Canal Street to broadcast live. But I am skunked from what I've seen and heard. For respite, I take a walk through the ghostly French Quarter. Aside from the floodwaters, which encroach from the north as far as Dauphine Street, it is largely intact because of its higher elevation, praise Jesus. I find a rest stop at the Blues Club on Bourbon Street, across from Galatoire's. Three employees are guarding it: an old retired-Navy salt named George Miller, a Richard Pryor lookalike named Ted Mack, and Vaughn Couk, a cowboy with a cigarette-smoking skull tattooed on his forearm (who also runs the Hog Bar, owned by the same people, a few blocks away, a 24-hour establishment that lives by the motto "The place to go when nobody else wants you"). Vaughn so resembles Richard Petty that he once ran into the NASCAR great at the FireCracker 400. Sizing up Vaughn, Petty took off his STP sunglasses and said, "Hello, little brother."

Sitting outside the dark club, they tell me to join them, and Vaughn fetches me two bottles. "That one's for now," he says of the Budweiser. "That one's for later," he says of the water. They give me what I've come to expect from the Quarter--a few pops and good conversation. Though they're suffering damaged houses and lost wages, they shrug the shrugs of men who don't seem to have fallen that far, perhaps because they didn't have that far to fall. Some of them have known greater pain. George, a recent widower, has prostate cancer. And Ted's wife was killed 12 years ago in a car accident, leaving him with two young children.

They're not worried for the most part, though Vaughn likes to point out that since the storm, his pal Ted's afro is flecked with extra gray. That may be true, says Ted, though that doesn't keep him from breaking out the religious material: "'On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.' 'Yea, though He slay me, yet will I serve Him.' He is my everything. I pretend everything else." For hours, we talk about the good and bad things we've seen in their city, and they restore my faith. "We have strong souls," says Vaughn. "We can take pain. We can take loss of everything. If it wasn't for people like us, there's a lot of weak-minded, weak-souled people out there who would blow their brains out. I'd like to think we at the Blues Club help people smile, help them out, make them understand that it's not that bad."

The sun flickers out on us, and as darkness takes over the Quarter, Vaughn insists, "You're not walking out of here alone." I wave him off, telling him he's being ridiculous. But he won't hear it. "They know me around here, we'll be all right." As I stand up, I announce to no one in particular, "The three Wise Men of Bourbon Street."

"We ain't the wise men," Vaughn says. "We're just the only ones left."

Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.