"Excuse my French, everybody in America, but I am pissed."
-- then-mayor of New Orleans Ray Nagin
September 4, 2005
A massive relief effort for the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina did not begin until days after the disaster, as people died from the lack of help.
DAY 0 (Sunday, August 28, 2005): After a mandatory evaction order was issued for the New Orleans metropolitan area, hundreds of thousands jammed the highways fleeing the city. Tens of thousands stayed behind, some by choice, some by necessity. Some of those staying behind began filling the "shelter of last resort," the Superdome in downtown New Orleans.
DAY 1 (Monday): Katrina strikes the Gulf Coast, causing immense damage. The Louisiana National Guard has 3,000 soldiers working relief efforts across Katrina's very wide area of devastation. An equal number are unavailable; they are in Iraq.
The hurricane wipes out all utilities and nearly all communication in New Orleans. Mayor Ray Nagin stays, marshalling resources from a downtown hotel, relying on runners to convey information to responders on the ground.
Some people are able to send text messages from their cell phones, starting a steady flood of rescue requests. Friends and relatives post desparate pleas on the "Share your stories" forum of NOLA.com, the Web site of the city's newspaper, the Times-Picayune.
The newspaper initially tries to maintain operations from a generator-fueled room at the offices, and initial reports are that New Orleans has escaped widespread carnage. However, late in the day, there are ominous reports that a levee near the Ninth Ward is leaking floodwater into the city. There were actually three levee locations breached and inundating the city.
Rescue efforts, particularly by the U.S. Coast Guard, did begin Monday, but in woefully inadequate numbers. From Monday to Friday, the Coast Guard evacuated about 4,000 people, an incredibly heroic struggle but only a fraction of those who needed help.
DAY 2 (Tuesday): Survivors wake up to massive flooding throughout the city. High ground, like the French Quarter, does not flood, but 80% of the city does, with anywhere from a few inches to twelve feet of water.
Tens of thousands of people are stranded without much food, water, medicine, or communication, and without any electricity, running water, or sanitation. Many are trapped in attics or on roofs. Many perish. Newspaper staff flee the city, as does just about anyone who is able.
Louisiana's congressional declaration sends President George W. Bush a letter asking that he come to see the damage first-hand.
DAY 3 (Wednesday): Bush views the region from Air Force One as he flies back to Washington from a month-long vacation at his Texas ranch.
NOLA.com is flooded with pleas for help, as people have no direction from authorities as to how to help their trapped friends and family. Emergency officials are apparently not monitoring the online forums of newspapers in the affected area, or worse, if they are, they are ignoring them. A small sample:
"Life/Death ..Please rescue Mrs. Geneva Givens (tube fed, elderly), Johnnie Keller, Roylene, Janavia from 2132 Peniston St. She's out of medical & food supplies ..."
"My aunt is sick and needs to be rescued ..." "We have a 54 year old diabetic man stranded ..." "they have no gas for their car.no water, no food and little meds to last ..."
Hotels are unable to cope. The Wyndham Canal Place evacuates everyone from ther building; anyone who doesn't have transportation is left on the street, in the same boat as New Orleans' poor, who mass in downtown areas without adequate supplies.
DAY 4 (Thursday): After a very long night in New Orleans, reports emerge that the city's criminal population has taken advantage of the breakdown in utilities and security. New Orleans' police force is entirely dedicated to rescuing the stranded. Reports of "looting" vary -- most are simply people trying desperately to survive and escape, but some are criminals taking whatever they can. There is no large National Guard or federal presence in the city.
A few NOLA.com posts:
"They are running a hospice unit there. They have 8 patients, and about 15 other people ... They're about out of food, water and generator fuel ... They are scared to death of looters, heard gun shots all night ..."
"I just talked to my neighbor who stayed behind at Camp and St. Mary. He walked along Jackson St and saw dead bodies everywhere from gun shoots. After coming upon two dead girls, probably around 12-15 yr old, he had to get out. Where is the national guard? ..."
"an elderly couple and three babies- are stranded on a rooftop ..." "There are 3-4 adults with her, one with severe asthma and no medications ..." "The looters have also commandeered a backhoe and are ramming homes ..." "They are in dire need of rescue. I have contacted the national Red Cross as well as my local chapter with no luck. I have contacted FEMA, but have not been able to get through ..."
"We've been calling FEMA and the Red Cross. We've been communicating with Cassia through text messaging. The people inside have banded together and were taking turns going two-by-two to get food from the shopping center (probably the Union Supermarket). The last two people they sent out never came back. and they don't know why. "
"There was no crowd control," Times-Picayune reporter Gordon Russell said after touring the area. "People were swarming. It was a near riot situation. The authorities have got to get some military down here to get control of the situation."
Russell witnessed a shootout between police and gunmen that left one man dead. Russell, who had been reporting in the city since Monday, left. "I'm scared. I'm not afraid to admit it. I'm getting out of here."
"You've got no organization here. It's mass confusion," Paul Davis, 54, told the Times-Picayune after evacuating to the New Orleans Convention Center -- what FEMA would later call an "unapproved destination." "There's no water. There's no food. They didn't do nothing to prepare for Katrina."
People began to die from lack of water and medical care in the dome and convention center, their bodies placed whever space could be found.
"People are getting raped. People are getting killed. People are getting diseases. We're fighting for our lives right now," area resident Lisa Washington told the Times-Picayune from the dome area.
Across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, a large shopping center was burned by looters. With no water pressure, firefighters could do nothing.
Hotels with stranded tourists desperately began trying to evacuate guests, but buses they arranged to be brought in were commandeered by police to deal with the tens of thousands now around the dome and convention center without electricity or sanitation.
Doctors among 300 people stranded at the Ritz-Carlton broke into a drug store to obtain antibiotics, giving a dose to everyone so they could make the several-block walk through polluted, feces-filled floodwaters to a bus staging area.
Hospitals with thousands of patients are no longer able to function. A University Hospital doctor telephones a Baton Rouge TV station, hoping to bring attention. The hospital was running low on food and water, and had no power.
"We have 160 patients in the hospital and they are actively dying," he said.
"I'm sure that people have died and will die because there's not enough resources to go get everybody," Health and Hospitals Secretary Fred Cerise said. Cerise went to New Orleans Monday afternoon and had spent three days in a trailer at the dome helping the sick and injured.
However, medical staff evacuated the dome due to deteriorating security and moved to a nearby hotel. They would be unable to re-enter the dome without military escort.
The National Guard promises 7,500 more troops "over the next few days." About 300 arrive from Arkansas, fresh from duty in Iraq.
Residents, journalists and state lawmakers who toured the area all report bodies floating in the streets, but all efforts are focused on the living.
As bad as New Orleans is, where media and relief efforts are focused, outlying areas are suffering as bad or worse with no outside assistance.
Polly Boudreaux, clerk of the St. Bernard Parish Council, breaks into tears during a telephone interview with a Baton Rouge television station, saying the parish is wiped out.
"St. Bernard has been rescuing St. Bernard for days," she said, decrying the lack of assistance despite pleas by parish officials. "We are not seeing it. We need help."
In the nation's capital on Thursday, the White House announces that the president will tour the area on Friday.
"The response that is occurring is actually a quite efficient and quick response at this time," says Mike Brown, who is coordinating federal relief efforts for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
DAY 5 (Friday): The mayor issues a "desparate SOS" as the condition continues to worsen.
Some posts from NOLA.com:
"100 residents are still left in The Point and they are now under seige from the mob that was released from the convention center. They have had to kill 4 people in an attempt to protect their property and life."
"We received a call from a friend of ours in the NOPD. She and 9 other cops from various units are holed up in the Hampton Inn near the Convention Center, running low on ammo ..." "there are about 300 people sheltered at St. Augustine High School ..." "water and food supplies have run out. a nearby rooftop is on fire ..."
State Rep. Karen Carter, D-New Orleans, makes an urgent plea in the morning. "If you want to save a life get a bus down here ... Don't give me your money. Don't send me $10 million today. Give me buses and gas. Buses and gas. Buses and gas," she said. "If we don't get them out of there, they will die."
The mayor, during an radio interview, blasts the federal effort.
"They don't have a clue what's going on down here. They flew down here one time two days after the doggone event was over, with TV cameras and AP reporters, with all kinds of goddamn excuses. Excuse my French, everybody in America, but I am pissed," he said.
"They're thinking small, man, and this is a major, MAJOR deal," Nagin continued. "They're feeding the public a line of bull and they're spinning and people are dying down here ... Get off your asses and let's do something and let's fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country."
With no water pressure for fire trucks, gas lines broken, and looters burning businesses, several fires burn uncontrolled in the area.
Friday afternoon, President Bush tours Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, and large-scale federal help finally begins to pour in. If it had started immediately after the storm, countless lives could have been saved.