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Hope in Hell
DECEMBER 2005
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Hope in Hell @ National Geographic Magazine
By Chris Carroll
Photograph by Kuni Takahashi, Chicago Tribune 
Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast as National Geographic was preparing a report on the mechanisms of global disaster relief. Staff writer Chris Carroll went to the Crescent City just after the storm and ensuing flood to see how the United States—one of the leading countries in delivering aid to disaster victims worldwide—would respond to a natural calamity at home.

Friday, September 2, 2005
My first impression of Willie Mae Davis is that she is out of place on Convention Center Boulevard. In her red sundress and straw hat, she looks fresh and healthy, as though she's going on a picnic with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. But no, she and her family are a few of the thousands of people still awaiting rescue in downtown New Orleans more than four days after flooding from Hurricane Katrina destroyed the city.

The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center is half a mile long, and from one end to the other on the street in front of it stretches a scene of human devastation I couldn't have imagined until I walked into it. Dead bodies have been left lying. Babies are withering from dehydration. Old people are passing out in the heat. And there seems to be no help anywhere.

I sit down on a crate next to Willie Mae and ask how she's managing.
"My children found a clean bathroom in the back of the dancehall," she says delicately, as if it's not a fit subject for conversation. Just behind her, Mulate's, a Cajun restaurant and dancehall, is a shambles, its door broken open, the floor inside smeared with filth. "We were able to get a wash—sort of a wash, anyway. So we're doing all right."

She's telling a polite lie. Later, at 2 p.m., an armored vehicle rumbles down the street, its loudspeaker ordering people to line up. But Willie Mae, 67, is unable. Since fleeing her retirement home before the hurricane Monday, being rescued from rising waters at her daughter Terri's apartment on Tuesday, and being shuttled first to City Hall and now to the Convention Center via city bus, she's run out of her diabetes and hypertension medication. She's exhausted, and her feet are in too much pain to budge.
At 3 p.m. Arkansas National Guard troops armed with M-4 assault rifles begin the first organized food and water distribution since hurricane survivors began arriving here Monday. At the head of the line that begins in the parking lot and stretches along the front of the giant convention building are the young and the strong, many of whom carry their ration to older relatives or children, then get back in line. That's what Willie Mae's daughter Dana, 42, does several times, bringing supplies first for her own family and then for other people.

"Dana should've been a nun," her brother Kenneth Clark says. "She doesn't care anything about herself." Watching her in action, it's little wonder that when I arrived here earlier today, Dana was passed out from exhaustion on the ground while her partner, Larry Rodriguez, helplessly fanned her and dripped water on her forehead.

"Those people over there, I don't know who's going to do for them," says Willie Mae. Across Julia Street is a motley collection of the disabled, the aged, and the sick. They slouch in wheelchairs or lie collapsed and panting on the pavement. "Thank God my family is with me," she says.

I walk over to a police officer in an SUV. Frank Rizzuto, of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) is unshaven, and his eyes are so bloodshot they hurt to look at. Why, I ask, aren't the police helping the sick or taking them to hospitals? I expect a hostile reply, but there's only exhaustion.

"Most of our assets are directed at rescue—getting people off roofs and out of water," he says. "There's not enough people in the city to do rescue and feed and house and look after people." Rizzuto shakes his head. He's supposed to be patrolling the streets, but he doesn't have enough gas to drive around. "I wish I could help," he says. "I'm stuck here too."

Late in the afternoon, someone decides the massive building has grown too filthy and has been the scene of too much mayhem and violence. Police move anyone left inside out to the street and barricade the doors.

As night begins to fall, fear seems to seep out of the stagnant water filling the city. The thousands trapped here on dry ground edge closer together. Families who will spend the night sitting in chairs hauled out of ruined bars and restaurants huddle around young women and children as the light fades. Many say nighttime is when the rapes, assaults, and murders have been happening. It's said that not all among the growing collection of corpses in the massive convention building are dead of disease or dehydration.

On the boulevard's grass median, Kenneth and Larry put the finishing touches on a makeshift tent that people have taken to calling Noah's Ark. It's simply a big hotel curtain draped over street signs, first erected two nights ago to provide shelter for their large extended family.

"I'm starting to think this is going to be our permanent home," Kenneth, 47, says. "They've told us every day since we came here that buses are going to take us to shelters. It's just lies and more lies."

Tonight there are dozens of people in and around the tent, and not just Willie Mae's family. Some of the weakest people in the crowd of evacuees around the Convention Center have gravitated to the tent over the previous few days. With Willie Mae's family they can find safety, food, and water. One reason is that Larry and Kenneth have scouted out abandoned stores throughout the downtown area and stripped them of food, juice, water, diapers, ice, and other necessities.

"I've looted," Larry tells me matter-of-factly. "But only to keep my family and myself alive. They left us here for days without any food or water, like we were just supposed to die. So we had to loot or die. But whatever's left over, we give away."

As it gets darker, Willie Mae's children begin escorting people to use the bathroom. "These older women aren't just going to go in front of everyone in the street," Larry explains. "They have their dignity."

But they are afraid to venture off alone. These expeditions terminate in the backs of looted restaurants and bars, in stomach-churning bathrooms without water or working plumbing. In one such chamber I find an overflowing commode and footprints through the slurry of feces and urine on the floor.

In the darkness out in the street, two elderly women suffering from dementia begin to fight. Their families try desperately to pull them apart. One falls on her knees, shaking and screaming: "Lord help me, Lord help me." Her family tries to pull her back to her chair, but she kicks at them. An NOPD convoy rolls through, assault rifles leveled at us, lights blinding us. The tires pass within feet of the woman's head as she writhes in the street. When the police are gone, a man named Clarence Horton comes over with a wad of packing material and makes a pillow for her head. She curls up like a toddler and is immediately asleep on the concrete.

I'd talked with Horton while it was still light. The fall of New Orleans, he'd said, is part of the end times as foretold in Scripture—one more sign the end of the world is coming on fast. Tonight I see no reason to dispute him

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