Published: December 2005
Hope in Hell
Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast as National Geographic was preparing a report on the mechanisms of global disaster relief.
By Chris Carroll
National Geographic Staff

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.

Saturday, September 3, 2005

Dawn at last begins to light up the street. One of Willie Mae's daughters, Terri, is grimacing and massaging her legs, which are swollen and oozing yellow pus. She's been fighting an infection since she cut herself wading through floodwater.

I hear a choked, sobbing sound to my left. It's an elderly man with tears running down his face onto a dirty undershirt. "His wife passed at 2:20 a.m.," a woman whispers.

I look with alarm at what I had identified yesterday as a pile of soiled bedding. Now I see short, fuzzy, white hair sticking out the top. Walter Pinckney, the dead woman's husband of 54 years, says he covered her face the day before at her request when a TV crew tried filming her. She had been dying ten feet (three meters) from me. I didn't know.

Several hundred yards south on the Mississippi bridge, there is a steady flow of traffic. Why isn't any of it headed here, I wonder. There's nothing physical to block convoys of buses or military trucks or even people in private cars from driving in here and taking at least the sickest of these people to safety.

I retreat to a hotel about six blocks away that has been filling with media types since the storm passed through, then return a few hours later. Rounding the corner from Poydras Street, I see that banks of blue-green Port-o-Lets have been set up along the street. There are empty chairs everywhere. At least two-thirds of the people who spent last night here are gone. The long-promised buses have come, five days after Katrina struck.

Willie Mae and her family are in the street near the remnants of the Ark. The resignation and despair of yesterday are gone. Willie Mae herself seems almost giddy with relief. "You have to meet Doc Jones," she tells me. "He's done so much for us."

Dana brings over Spec. David Jones, an Arkansas National Guard medic who had recently served in Iraq. He's a ruddy, cheerful sort who banters with Willie Mae and her family as if he's known them for years. He's been able to set up fluid IVs and pass out basic medication. Which is worse, I ask Jones, post-Katrina New Orleans or Iraq? This is worse, he says. "Iraq was dangerous and violent, but I never saw this many people this bad off."

An officer announces that it's time to move to the buses. Among the family members waiting to be evacuated is Willie Mae's ex-husband, James Clark, a large affable man with multiple health problems. He can't walk very far, so Kenneth and Larry head off on one last mission. They reappear with a blue laundry cart into which they load James Clark and roll him toward the boarding point on Tchoupitoulas Street. Finally, with their remaining possessions—some clothes, a dirty bedspread, a few toys the children in the family have managed to hold onto—they climb into the air-conditioned tour bus.

The driver, Bill Goss, is bleary-eyed and unshaven. Two or three days ago he drove a busload out of the New Orleans Superdome. "It was chaos, man," he says. "I saw grown men running over little children to get out of there."

I ask why he thinks it took so long to rescue people from the Convention Center. His reply is quick and cutting. "There's not a person here or in Washington who knows what the hell's going on," he says. "There doesn't seem to be a plan. No one even knows where this bus is going. We might be going to Georgia, Arkansas, Texas. I have no idea."

I get out before the bus climbs the on-ramp toward I-10. The last I see of Willie Mae, her eyes are closed.

Wednesday, September 7, 2005

I catch up with Willie Mae and her family four days later in Fort Smith, Arkansas, where they have been given shelter in a monastery. The bus trip, it turns out, was no joyride. The first stop was somewhere in Louisiana—Shreveport, Larry guesses—but the shelter was full, so they rode on. Early in the morning, after about 15 hours in the bus, they arrived at Fort Chaffee, a former military base near Fort Smith.

By now, Terri's infection was tormenting her. Crying with pain, she was taken to a nearby hospital. Later Willie Mae began to experience chest pains, and she too was hospitalized. The rest of the family sat in the bus, a wait that stretched to ten hours.

Then word came that Fort Chaffee had all the New Orleans refugees it could handle. Yellow school buses arrived, and passengers were told to prepare to continue on the next leg of their journey—destination unknown. That's when Kenneth stood up. "I told them my mother is in the hospital here in Fort Smith. I'm not going anywhere," he says. The yellow buses left with other passengers, and then Goss told the family it was time for him to go too. "We wound up back on the side of the road," Kenneth says, "just like in New Orleans."

But they didn't stay there long. A female National Guard soldier, worried about the family, located several sisters from the Benedictine St. Scholastica Monastery who had been doing relief work at the base that day. The sisters took the family in.

When I arrive in Fort Smith, they're settled in private rooms in a wing of the monastery normally used for spiritual retreats. Larry shows me around. He's a highly kinetic man, bouncing around like a boxer as he talks. "God is really watching over us," he declares. "These nuns have been an unbelievable blessing. They took us in and treated us just like we were family. I already got a job, man!"

It is with a local branch of the inventory supply company where he worked in New Orleans. They hired him without an interview. He shows me into the living room area, where Willie Mae is watching tennis on TV. Her chest pains proved not to be dangerous.

She starts crying when she sees me. Soon after, when telling me about how the nuns have taken care of her family, she breaks down completely. She cries before lunch in the monastery cafeteria, and afterward. At the Convention Center, she had been a rock. In this safe haven, the numbness is wearing off.

Thursday, September 8, 2005

The next day, Coach Gerry Matlock comes to visit. He's the football coach at Trinity Junior High School, a Catholic school at the monastery. He had met Larry and Kenneth when they went to watch football practice, and had immediately begun collecting clothes for the family.

He'd also volunteered with relief efforts at Fort Chaffee, and came away profoundly disturbed. The refugees from New Orleans, he said, had been driven about like cattle, guarded by heavily armed SWAT teams, and given little of the solace and comfort that people who had lost their homes, possessions, and in some cases, loved ones, so desperately needed.

His temper rises as he recounts what he witnessed. It's a surreal sight: An average-looking middle-aged man in polyester coach shorts, complete with a whistle and a clipboard, standing here in Middle America making a charge that borders on genocide.

"When I was leaving the base, I was thinking that if the government could dig a ditch and shoot them and throw them in it and cover it over, that's what they would have done," he said. "These black people coming out of New Orleans are not people to our government—they're just an embarrassment and an annoyance."

Friday, September 16, 2005

Doctors in Fort Smith amputated Terri's left leg this morning. Her intense pain at the Convention Center and on the bus was the work of Vibrio vulnificus, a flesh-eating bacteria she picked up in the floodwaters and that ravaged her system as she waited for evacuation from the Convention Center. Infection still burns throughout her body, and she is too sedated to speak, but doctors now tell the family it is likely she'll live. And Terri stands a good chance, Willie Mae believes, of keeping her other leg.

Author's Note:

Soon after I said goodbye to Willie Mae Davis and her family in Fort Smith, they moved out of St. Scholastica Monastery and set about rebuilding their lives—and that included buying cars, renting apartments, finding jobs, and settling into their new city. "This city has been good to us, and I really think I'm going to stay. I really do," Larry Rodriguez said in late September.

Best of all, Terri's flesh-eating infection was brought under control soon after the loss of her left leg, allowing doctors to save the other leg. Weakened but on the mend, she's now undergoing physical therapy.