Labor Day morning in Houston (seven days after Katrina) saw volunteers jammed elbow to elbow behind steam tables, shoveling eggs, sausage, and potatoes. There were so many people helping that the effort to feed the quiet, traumatized people from flooded New Orleans, bused to shelter at the city's convention center, seemed almost like a competition. One American city was trying desperately to rescue another. Red Cross ofﬁcials on local talk radio begged Houstonites to stop bringing food donations to the major shelters because they were blocking giant aid shipments from local corporations. A frustrated restaurateur trying to get 500 pizzas to displaced children in the Astrodome couldn't find a way to deliver them.
I'd just arrived in Houston from New Orleans. As I waited to check in at my downtown hotel, I met a refugee whose family had, that morning, been helped by a wealthy woman to move from a shelter into a brace of suites at the hotel. The family was now preparing to move to two apartments—the first few months rent paid for by the same woman.
Hearing that story was like breathing clean air for the first time in days. I had driven alone from New Orleans, but the disgust and sadness at what I had seen there felt like passengers in the truck with me. People go to jail, I kept thinking as I drove west on I-10, for keeping animals in conditions the same as those endured by tens of thousands of people trapped for days at the Superdome and the Convention Center in New Orleans.
I'd had my first glimpse of rescue gone awry on Friday, September 2, as I drove over the Mississippi River into downtown New Orleans. I saw a pickup headed in the opposite direction on the bridge, its cab and bed packed with perhaps a dozen men, women, and children. The pickup pulled a bass boat similarly loaded with human cargo. To me, the entourage looked like an extended family of African Americans trying to escape the metro area. Gas, food, and lodging were all available about 30 miles west.
The police on the bridge acted like the group was a potential raiding party intent on sacking Gretna, a suburb just across the bridge. "Turn it around!" a plainclothes police ofﬁcer shouted as he strode purposefully toward the slowly approaching truck. The driver brought the truck to a halt and pleaded his family's case. "TURN IT AROUND—NOW!" the ofﬁcer bellowed. Several others, heavily armed, stepped up, and the driver got the message. Nearby a couple slumped against a concrete trafﬁc barrier next to a supply-laden grocery cart they'd been trying to push over the bridge until they, too, had been turned back.
Later I saw what the people on the bridge had been trying unsuccessfully to escape. The Convention Center—now four days after the hurricane—was a kaleidoscope of human degradation festering in the late summer heat.