"Excuse my French, everybody in America, but I am pissed."
-- then-mayor of New Orleans Ray Nagin
September 4, 2005
Let it be written in the history books, that when America evacuated New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina in 2005, we left the poor, the sick, and the elderly behind.
The U.S. government has been soundly criticized for its disaster planning and response, and rightly so, but a more basic and indisputable fact is that when a mandatory evacuation was issued for New Orleans, no provision was made for the vast numbers of people who were unable to heed that warning on their own.
Many people have asked, "Why did so many people stay behind?" There is not one answer. Many people chose to stay behind, because they had been through many hurricanes before, and they could not fathom that this one was much, much worse.
But many couldn't leave. To evacuate New Orleans, one must drive for many hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic under a baking hot sun -- summer temperatures in New Orleans often reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, one must find shelter, typically in a hotel.
Many of the elderly are frail, and do not have the stamina to do this alone, and do not have someone who can reach them in time to help them out. Many of the sick cannot travel without special equipment, and cannot drive. Many of the poor have no vehicles, and no money for hotels.
The Superdome was opened as a "shelter of last resort" for those who could not evacuate the city, and ten buses were sent around the city to collect those who couldn't make it to the dome on their own. As we now know all too well, ten buses are pitifully insignificant in the face of the tens of thousands of people who need help.
In essence, the situation was "every man for himself." Those who couldn't leave were left to ride out the storm with their only assistance being the hope that it would turn out to be not so bad. We played Russian roulette with a category five hurricane -- Katrina was a five when the evacuation was underway -- and lost.
The result was broadcast across the globe. The tragedies were so numerous that they could fill page after page. One small part of this story was Charity Hospital.
Charity Hospital, which serves the city's poor, lost power and other utilities during the storm. When the levees broke Tuesday, flooding the city, Charity's entrances and exits and basement -- including its morgue -- flooded, and hospital officials called for their patients to be evacuated. As the DAYS dragged on with NO AID, food and water ran out. Nurses were forced to give each other intravenous solutions to continue to have the strength to carry on. Without water or clean linens no patient could be cleaned. Every patient came down with a fever. Some died; their bodies were piled in a stairwell. The storm struck on Monday. It was Friday night before the hospital would be evacuated.
Another example: One New Orleans woman tried vainly to find a way out of town for her and her husband, who as a cancer patient was on oxygen and needed specialized transportation. Unsuccessful, the couple rode out the storm at their home. The electricity failed; the oxygen ran out; he died. This woman, herself stranded and surrounded by floodwaters, put her husband's body on a piece of plywood and floated him down flooded streets desperately seeking help. Overwhelmed police officers -- who had no outside assistance -- could do nothing other than tell her to take the body to Charity Hospital. The woman was finally able to persuade a passer-by in a truck to take the body to the hospital -- for $20. The situation at the hospital has already been described.
Another: Christopher Palgrave of a lakefront New Orleans neighborhood had painful prostate surgery the Friday morning before the storm hit. His wife evacuated, but in pain, he refused to go on what would likely be an all-day drive.
"The water came in so fast it chased me up the steps into the attic," he told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "It seemed to take only 15 minutes ... All I had was a flashlight and a radio and a bottle of water, but that soon went."
Trapped in his attic for three days, he drank corrosion-laced water from a hot water heater and eventually mustered the strength to knock out a vent where he was seen by rescuers.
A handful of examples cannot convey the scope of this problem. This was repeated in hospital after hospital and home after home.
We left behind the most vulnerable among us to fend for themselves as a category five hurricane approached.