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Ten years after Katrina

Many, and expats of US-origin in particular, will remember how hurricane Katrina dominated the headlines ten years ago.

At the end of August ten years ago Hurricane Katrina, the most momentous storm ever to hit the USA, devastated the southern states of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. After the dams had broken in New Orleans three quarters of the city fell victim to the floods. An estimated 1’500 people lost their lives, over one million people became homeless, and after their evacuation many of them still have not been able to return, have become uprooted and lost their social environment.

In 2005 freelance journalist Sabine Theil, together with her husband and their three kids, spent part of her holidays in New Orleans and experienced the hurricane first-hand: the floods, the looting, the curfew, the declaration of a state of emergency, tanks and armed soldiers, the news about the first murders, the reports of rape, the hopelessness, the chaos reigning everywhere, the peoples’ suffering, the powerless wait for help and the thirst. To cope with the situation and not feel like a victim she wrote down what she experienced. Here are some excerpts from her New Orleans diary.

Thursday, 25 August 2005

Miami:

Having just returned from the beach we receive a warning: a tropical storm, named Katrina, will be approaching the USA’s east coast and will hit Miami. We decide to book flights for the following day, with New Orleans as our destination.

Friday 26 August

Miami/New Orleans:

Last night there was heavy rain and a storm that uprooted several trees and damaged some houses. The tropical storm had turned into a class I hurricane overnight but only struck Miami marginally. The damage was contained to some extent. Further forecast: “Katrina will continue to move northwards along the eastern coastline”. With several hours’ delay we take off towards New Orleans. We are excited. A fantastic atmosphere. So much to discover. People are partying and dancing on the street. We discover a bar that carries the name “Hurricane City.”

Saturday, 27 August 2005

New Orleans:

After breakfast we head to a launderette. Its owner is boarding up the windows, and he  asks us what we are doing here. He tells us that Katrina had changed course during the night and that “the storm of our life time” is now heading directly towards New Orleans.

At the hotel nobody is aware of this. We are trying to book a flight, not matter the destination, just away. No chance. All airplanes have been flown out to take them out of harm’s way.
We are bewildered.

The phone rings. An employee of travel agency FTI informs us about hurricane Katrina. Her advice: to leave our hotel immediately and to take rooms at the Astor Crown Plaza on Canal Street. It is the safest building, she says. She would like to have us picked up, but nobody is allowed to enter New Orleans anymore. She suggests that we hurry up, or we would be evacuated and brought to the Superdome.

At the hotel’s pool carefree guests take a dip. We notice that all hanging lights at the hotel are being secured tightly, and we book our new rooms.

Sunday 28 August 2005

New Orleans:

The people of New Orleans leave the city in their hundreds of thousands. Immensely long traffic jams have formed – with cars loaded to the brim with people and valuables. Relatives of the hotel’s staff are allowed to find shelter at the Crowne Plaza. Petrol has run out. Meanwhile, hurricane Katrina continues to race towards New Orleans, with a speed of 280 kilometres per hour (175mph) and an enormous pressure wave. The newscaster on TV says: “It’s as if you’re run over by a train.” An enormous flood wave is expected to hit the city, burying everything under it. Price hikes have been forbidden. Rain begins to pelt down in sheets. Around 10’000 people are standing in front of the Superdome. Katrina is still around 250 kilometres (220 miles) away from New Orleans.

6pm: There are still around 5’000 people outside the Superdome – completely and utterly soaked by the rain. Everybody undergoes a most painstaking body check for weapons, fire, alcohol and drugs. The temperature rises. The newscaster: “this is a once-in-a-life storm” and “monster storm – pray for New Orleans.” He also says that all security forces and emergency staff have been taken out of the city. “There’s no use calling 911 – there’s nobody around to come.” Mayor Ray Nagin appeals on television: “Leave – leave now!”

Monday 29 August 2005

1am: First fires are reported. Strength of Katrina is raised to level V, on a scale from I to V.

3.30am: The ceilings of the hotel rooms are leaking.

5.44am: The hurricane is raging like crazy. All the window panes are burning hot. The noise is so loud you would think you are standing next to a plane taking off. Tornado warnings are coming in. Still everybody hopes that Katrina would drift eastwards. Each mile would be welcome. The hotel’s lobby is already flooded. All hotel guests flock to the ballroom for security reasons – it has no windows. Everybody jumps when the hotel’s alarm sirens go off.

7.46am: We receive a text message from my parents: “We wish you all the luck in the world, and our thoughts are with you.” Dog excrement in the hotel’s corridors. Incoming news: houses flooded, the roof of the Superdome damaged – where around 26’000 people are staying.

11.30am: The eye of the storm has arrived over New Orleans. For one moment it is spooky how everything seems to stand still. Then a noise as if a bomb had exploded somewhere. The Hyatt hotel just opposite where mayor Ray Nagin is staying has been hit really badly – almost all the windows have been blown away. Water pours into our hotel through numerous leaks, but apart from that the Astor Crown Plaza seems to be able to withstand. No internet, no radio, no TV, no contact with the rest of the world. The hotel guests are calm, poised, waiting – only the little ones are crying. Many have now become aware that they have lost their homes.

5pm: The storm has abated. The doors of the hotel are being opened again. Finally some fresh air. There is still a strong wind. All the time there are things falling down from damaged buildings onto the street.

8.30pm: Curfew. Anybody who is still on the streets after that time is regarded as looter. A dead bird lies on the walkway in front of our hotel.

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The day after the hurricane: damage assessment (Photo: author)

Tuesday 30 August 2005

8.30am: A horrible stench wafts through the hotel’s corridors, and you get squashy noises when walking across the carpet floors. Even the walls are damp. Bottles filled with urine, soiled nappies in front of the doors, air conditioning out of order, no lift, none of the toilets are working, faeces next to them, no fresh air, cigarette smoke, only one meal per day. For the guests at lunch, for all employees and their relatives at dinner time, breakfast only for the smallest kids. Hardly any drinking water left. Police are taking people out of the hotel by force. Rubbish everywhere; and empty shoe boxes that belonged to the shoe shop opposite the hotel. There is no chance to get out of New Orleans.

11.50am: We are sweating profusely. Police tell us that there is no water and no electricity at the Superdome – with 26’000 people in it. They tell stories about women being raped, muggings, assaults, murders. Outside the hotel’s front ten soldiers with machine guns are hunting looters. We can see policemen that help themselves from the loot that has been seized. A state of emergency has been declared, martial law has come into effect, with a simple order by Louisana’s governor, Kathleen Blanco: “Shoot to kill.” Our hotel is boarded up. We are locked in.

1pm. Power failure. And no diesel fuel for the emergency power generator. Stairs and corridors are pitch-black. Still no contact with the rest of the world. Military helicopters are cruising overhead. Most of the city is under water – including our hotel’s lobby. A pink flip-flop floats past our hotel, followed by a mannequin with only one arm. The woman in the room next to ours is looking for her suitcase. The first shots. Screams.

6.20pm: The police tell us that even more water is flooding the city after the dams have broken. Even inside the hotel the hoarding of food and drinking water has begun. A piercing alarm goes off. Nobody knows why. The hotel manager promises us to have us driven to Baton Rouge with a car from the hotel’s fleet the next morning.

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The day after the hurricane: view from one of the hotel’s balconies (Photo: author)

Wednesday 31 August 2005

3am: The heat and the humidity air are unbearable. Breathing is difficult.

8.50am: The “rescue car” we have been promised has been taken by a hotel employee. We pack and carry our luggage outside through the water nonetheless. A bus is to be organised. My husband accompanies the hotel’s owner Pat Quinn on his search for a bus.

10am: A yellow school bus arrives. “The old and the infirm first”, they say. A parrot cage is loaded as well. We are neither old nor infirm and stay behind, hoping for the second bus that has been promised. Tanks full with soldiers, holding their machine guns at the ready, pass us.

2pm: Still no bus in sight. In his own car the hotel’s owner drives us through the water, past burning houses, to another hotel where we are supposed to get help. Due to lack of space my husband remains behind. He is supposed to follow later. The hotel to which Pat Quinn drives us is a bit elevated. The streets here are still dry. Many people are on the move, their children and all their belongings in shopping trolleys they have taken, or in kids’ beds with little wheels. They try to find shelter, are shouting “the water is coming – help us – which way should we go.” The hotel’s owner wants to board up her hotel with ropes. Panic everywhere. My husband is long overdue. We prevent the owner from locking the doors and allow the people looking for help into the hotel. Finally, my husband arrives. We decide to move on to the Convention Center, although it is situated right next to the Mississippi. There are supposed to be buses there…

3pm: We arrive at the Convention Center. It turns out to be sheer hell with no way out of the scorching sun. For days, thousands of people and whimpering children – who have lost the energy to cry – have been waiting here to find help. The Riverwalk shopping mall has already been looted. Desperation everywhere. No drinking water. All the time military helicopters are landing and discharge armed soldiers – but no sign of help. Neither injured people nor any people that have stopped moving on the ground are noted. The silence around us grows.
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Armed soldiers galore – but little help in sight (Photo: author)

4pm. It will be getting dark in two hours – pitch-dark. My husband has managed to borrow a bicycle and drives past rows of tanks, back through the water to the Astor Crowne Plaza. He intends to again ask the hotel owner, Pat Quinn, to help us. Half an hour later he returns – with some good news: “Pat Quinn will come around with two cars to pick us up. We’re supposed to be ready then.”

5pm. We recognise the approaching vehicles – a Mercedes and a pick-up truck. To prevent other people from storming towards the vehicles we all start running together and jump into the still slightly moving cars. We are driven to the Sheraton hotel that has managed to organise a number of buses for its guests. Somehow we are smuggled as “hotel guests” into the waiting crowd and just about manage to make it into the last bus. Behind us the bus doors close, and we are on our way, escorted by police, towards Dallas – past flooded city districts. Only now do we really realise the true extent of the catastrophe. We are safe now. But what about the many thousands of people that have to stay behind?

Final note:

For several days we follow what happens on television. Day after day and night after night went by, and still those left behind had received no help, and there were still people dying many days after the hurricane had passed. Mayor Ray Nagin shouted into the microphone, demanding: “Get off your asses.” For about two or three days and nights around 40’000 people – almost all of them of non-Caucasian origin – have to wait outside the Convention Center before relief operations really had an effect and people finally received food and, most of all, drinking water. Rows upon rows of buses brought them into rescue camps.

With bitterness we watched on television how US president Bush gave media-effective hugs to people and played the act of a comforter. With horror I thought about how many more people must have died of exhaustion in the meantime, and I started to cry, with both grief and anger, for all those people who for some unexplainable reason had been left to their fate for a week, but I also cried with sheer relief that my family and I had managed to get out of this crisis zone, with almost no harm to us.

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