In the immediate days after the hurricane, a major area of the ACLU's focus was assisting with the relocation of the New Orleans office of the ACLU of Louisiana, which was damaged beyond repair. The ACLU of Louisiana staffers moved the office to Baton Rouge, after weeks of working out of their homes and other makeshift arrangements. Similarly, the ACLU of Mississippi was without communication services for about 10 days, during which various staff and board members traveled to devastated regions of the state to check on homes and loved ones.
In mid-December, the ACLU of Louisiana re-opened its office in New Orleans.
Links to personal accounts of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath by the Louisiana and Mississippi ACLU staff.
"We prayed and prayed and prayed."
"It was ghostly traveling the deserted streets..." -- Joe Cook
"... the soonest available room would be Wednesday, four days later." -- Jenaya Dawe-Stotz
"...in Baton Rouge we were treated
like criminals..." -- Tory Pegram
"...trees around the house began to
crack like matchsticks..." -- Katie
During the week immediately before the storm, I stayed in Gulfport while working as co-counsel on a case. I returned to Jackson for a meeting on Friday and was scheduled to go back on Sunday. The other attorneys in the case who were still in Gulfport called and said they were leaving because of the storm and that I should not travel back. Having grown up in Louisiana (i.e. “Hurricane country”), I initially didn’t take them seriously. I thought it would be like all the other storms I’ve lived through. However, my mother who lives in Louisiana called to tell me she and other family members were coming to Jackson. I took this as a warning because my mother dreads leaving her home for any period of time. My mother, sister and two nephews came to Jackson
We never lost power at my place. We were able to provide relatives in other areas of the country with updates. I was even able to communicate with an aunt in Louisiana via text message. I can remember sitting at the desk in my apartment with my mom on the edge of her seat watching television and checking the computer for updates as the storm approached and hit land. We prayed and prayed and prayed.
It seems that life was at a standstill for the first week or so following the storm. While the world watched in outrage, we prayed for strength. Would we find my uncle who stayed behind to ride out the storm? Every relative with any method of communication used it to spread the word that we were looking for him. We called the coast guard. We listed him on every website imaginable. All we could do was wait. We continued to pray.
Nine days after the storm hit, he called to let us know he was okay. He talks about wading through water to rescue neighbors, waiting and watching as the water rose and flooded his home, sending others out with search and rescue teams, climbing into the attic for safety, and finally watching the water recede so he could walk out. Once he was able to do so, he made his way to an area where he could get help evacuating.
Following the storm, I was determined to never set foot back in New Orleans. I didn’t want to see/touch/feel what I’d only seen on television and heard from family and friends. Against my will, I went back after the New Year and was confronted with it all. Initially I was okay, but as I began to walk through areas like the lower ninth ward, I felt the life of my family and friends. I cried and endured the migraines, but now know it was necessary in order for me to really help my family move forward.
We continue to pool our resources and start the rebuilding process. The questions continue to bombard us: Where will they go? Can we find them jobs? What governmental assistance is available? How do we get it? Where are the insurance papers? How do we move forward? We’ve been blessed with help from others in terms of addressing the basic needs. This has given us some space to deal with other areas of life that has to be addressed…education, government red-tape, landlord-tenant matter, etc. The fight continues.
The effects of Katrina have been doubly hard for me as my family and the clients we represent on the gulf coast are experiencing the same hardships.
Reflections on the Road to Recovery: On Saturday, August 27, as the hurricane approached I was at my New Orleans home, gathering up up some valuables and one suitcase of clothes and preparing to head north. As had happened throughout my twelve Louisiana hurricane seasons, I expected to return within a few days. I never imagined the disaster in store for my beloved city and the people left behind.
From afar I got an unfolding picture of the devastation. I watched TV news and received first hand reports from a friend still in the city. The property loss paled in comparison to the human disaster of the starving, desperate, abandoned people at the Superdome and the convention center and those trapped by the water from the levee breaks. They were almost universally poor and disproportionately black, thus exposing for the whole world to see the betrayal of our country's promise of fair treatment, and liberty and justice for all.
While away for nearly three weeks, I worked day and night by phone and email to deal with Katrina's effects. My first priority was the physical well being of staff, governing board members, and friends, while handling my personal displacement and losses. Luckily, everyone seemed okay initially, except for the property loss and the emotional distress.
During this time, our National Affiliate Support Department and the staff of affiliates around the country contributed greatly to our recovery and rebuilding efforts. With their generous help, three staff members, including myself, reunited in Baton Rouge, where we have opened a temporary office and resumed the essential work of the ACLU in Louisiana. One colleague has relocated all the way to the West Coast for the time being, but she too remains focused on our work, albeit remotely from the offices of Oregon's ACLU affiliate.
I finally returned to New Orleans on September 16 to find what felt like a militarized zone in a foreign country. When military and police check points greeted me on River Road, then later the destruction from the wind and the flood, it reminded me of images from Iraq. It was ghostly traveling the mostly deserted streets and neighborhoods that usually thrive with life and give New Orleans its unique, distinctive flavor.
Fortunately, our space and valuable papers in New Orleans were found mostly safe, although the first floor of the office building was flooded. Thanks to the great effort of staff and volunteers, essential documents have been retrieved.
Now, new complaints are coming in from displaced Katrina evacuees, returnees to New Orleans and from others across the state. At the same time, new litigation is under consideration, cases already filed are being covered, and public education initiatives are underway.
When the storm came and the levees broke, our government at all levels failed its most vulnerable in their time of greatest need. Now, we of the ACLU and others who care about the great principle of equality embedded in the Constitution must hold those accountable who have neglected their duty to protect and to serve. At the same time, we have to work to rebuild a city with levees of justice that protect the fundamental rights of everyone without regard to race, wealth or any other status attached to persons living in this country.
My husband and I don't drive. In the interest of the environment and economy, we don't have a car and we travel by bicycle. In New Orleans, a city of staggering poverty, this is not unusual, and as we bustled to clear our front porch of "potential missiles", listening to a call for mandatory evacuation on the radio, I thought of the tens of thousands of New Orleanians that simply lacked the resources to leave the city.
Ryan and I each grabbed a small bag and biked, sobbing, three miles to the home of a friend of a friend, Darren, who would take us from the city. As we rode down St. Charles Avenue, we watch people packing up their cars, while others walked towards their homes with grocery bags, clearly planning on riding it out. Taking back roads, the hour-long drive to Baton Rouge took seven. If we had taken the freeway, the drive would have been longer.
Once in Baton Rouge, we found ourselves without a place to stay. The sole downtown hotel was filled with people, and we were told that the soonest available room would be Wednesday, four days later.
In the end we stayed with friends of Darren's friends, cozy and quiet in a house near the levee. We slept on air mattresses and glued ourselves to the television. We were able to watch the storm pass over the Gulf on television, even after the wind knocked out the power in Baton Rouge using a generator. When it was over, we all sighed with relief, and began to think of returning - maybe even that day.
Breach in the levee at 17th street.
Breach in the London Avenue levee.
Steadily our fears came true. People were drowning, the homes of the poorest of New Orleans were being destroyed, the centers of history in New Orleans were being washed away. We watched people make their way to the Convention Center, to the overpasses of freeways. Sitting in that air-conditioned house, we thought of the ever-present New Orleans heat. We watched the news all day, switching from station to station, seeing Gulfport flattened, Chalmette flooded, Biloxi in shambles.
The next morning it was clear to Ryan and I that we would not be going home soon.
We knew we needed to get out of Baton Rouge - there would be nowhere to stay and no transportation. We knew that it was in our best interest to get ourselves out of the area and to a place where we had support - my hometown of Seattle, or my husband's hometown of Eugene. Luckier than most, we had a credit card and a paycheck in the bank, which translated to stand-by airline tickets guaranteed for Thursday. We prepared for several days in the Baton Rouge airport, but somehow got on the first plane out to Houston, and in Houston, the next flight out to Portland, finding ourselves in Oregon just 8 hours after arriving at the Baton Rouge airport.
Once in Eugene, Ryan and I decided that it would be in our best interest to stay there until such time as we could return to New Orleans. With the help of the Affiliate Support Department and the ACLU of Oregon, I have been set up with office space in Oregon's Southern District Office, where I am continuing my work as an for the ACLU of Louisiana. Through telephone and email, I continue to manage the office, handle legal intake, draft correspondence, and update our website at www.laaclu.org.
I had only really started to worry about the storm late Saturday night when my parents and several worried friends who were watching CNN called to make sure I was going to evacuate. I reassured them that my house had never flooded, not in 1927 when the city blew up the levy, not for Bessie or Camille, and that I would be fine riding out the storm. However, when the mandatory evacuation was called, I quickly packed up a bag, my laptop and video camera, and a box of important papers and videotapes. I went around the corner, trying to convince some of my closest neighborhood "family" to come with me.
After almost 5 hours my 1993 Toyota Corolla joined a caravan of 5 cars carrying a total of 22 people. Not one of the 22 people had ever evacuated for a hurricane and as we drove away we saw those who didn't leave - at least 1/3 of the neighborhood stayed behind.
We went to my neighbor's daughter's apartment in Baton Rouge, a 65-mile drive that took us 12 ½ hours. Our now-exhausted crowd went up to the apartment only to realize that we had the wrong key. Wayne and Patrick proceeded to break into the house, as by now the rains and wind were becoming quite fierce.
Sleeping on the floor, covering every available inch of space, we awoke only a few hours later. The electricity was out and would be for another 4 days. A battery-powered mini-TV was quietly giving word of what was happening in New Orleans. I spent my days playing games with the kids, and listening quietly to the news of our city.
Our first word that the levies had broken came from the neighborhood. We started getting calls from those left behind, "The water is rising," they said. We got updates of the inches every half hour.
Meanwhile in Baton Rouge we were treated like criminals - armed guards following us around convenience stores, waiting in FEMA lines for hours while people passed out from the heat. We cried and sat stunned by the lack of humanity, watching as many of those we loved were left behind to die, and no one seemed to be trying to stop it.
On the Friday after the storm everyone was still stunned but my family in Missouri was desperate to see me. I packed up my car and left behind all the intrigue to drive 11 hours to Ozark to my parents' house in a 40 acre cowfield.
Not 5 hours after I arrived to hugs of aching concern, I got a call from my friend Von back at the apartment - which without me had now only 23 people. The landlord would be inspecting with police on Sunday morning and any evacuees still there would be asked to leave, and forced to if they did not comply.
My dad and I climbed into his van and set off on a 24-hour trip to pick up as many people as we could. We nearly ran out of gas twice, armed guards at Shell stations in Mississippi and Georgia stood next to you at the pump, forcing you to stop pumping when you hit $30.
A month later, to my surprise there were many who came back to our neighborhood. We greeted each other like long lost family, crying and sharing Red Cross issued facemasks and bug spray and bleach. Telling our stories of evacuations, or narrow escapes from rooftops or horrific days spent in the Superdome or on highways waiting for buses that herded people on without telling where they were going, that refused to stop for bathroom breaks.
I definitely count myself one of the lucky ones. I have a job where I can fight for change and a house to go back to and most - although certainly not all - of those whom I love made it out alive, although not unaffected.
I spent the storm at my parents' house in Hammond, Louisiana across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. The real reason we stayed is that, when the power goes out, someone has to be there to put gas in the generator to power the freezer. Were the freezer to fail, we would lose all of the redfish and specked trout my parents spent the last year catching. We are talking about hundreds of pounds of fish; my parents love to fish. Making sure that the freezer stayed on, in their minds, warranted remaining behind to face Katrina.
The TV went out about 7 p.m. on Sunday. From that point all we had was the battery-operated radio, and we tracked the hurricane on a map by coordinates the announcers gave us. The station wheezed and cracked. My parents live in rural Louisiana, in a house surrounded by about 25 100-foot tall pine trees. The trees swayed, but my parents reaffirmed that they were glad they had stayed. After all, when a tree lands on the house, if you're not there to put a tarp on the roof, you lose your furniture. Plus, what would happen to the frozen fish?
At 8 a.m. the tree fell into my parents' bedroom - I heard it hit the house. I looked outside and the two trees outside the bedroom where I spent my childhood were down. The pine trees around the house began to crack like matchsticks. You would hear a tremendous crack, and everybody would hold their breath until the tree thudded to the ground. You never knew which way they were falling, or whether it would land on the house. We moved all of our cats and dogs to rooms on the interior of the house. The radio had gone out, so we had no idea where the storm was. The branches flew around outside for hours, at times flying straight at the windows. We all sat huddled in the kitchen, as the wind howled around the house, and trees fell into our neighbors' houses. Very slowly, things settled down.
We began to try to chop our way out of the driveway and neighborhood. We got on the roof and in the attic, patching the holes. Of course we had no electricity, and the generator was used only to preserve my parents' precious fish, and for one fan. It was really, really hot. We pulled the trees out of my parents' swimming pool so that we could sit in the pool and drink beer. For awhile, it seemed like we had dodged a real bullet. Our mood was high. We were okay! But then, the radio came back to life.
WWL had no communication with other media. Their programming consisted exclusively of individual callers. The callers obviously had battery-powered radios, and could hear WWL, and knew that was their only chance of surviving. In bits and pieces we got glimpses of what had happened to our beloved city. One caller at a time, crying, hysterical, pleading for someone, anyone, to respond. One after another they called and cried on air because the water was rising, and they had no way out. My family sat around the radio in horror, crying with each other, crying with these people who we couldn't see, but whose voices-and absolute desperation-were unlike anything we'd ever heard. It was the worst feeling of helplessness I've ever experienced. Those stories are burned in my brain forever.
My dad has two big fishing boats, so we made plans to try to go in and rescue people. My sister and I set out in a car to check on whether it was possible. When we were on our way, the radio reported that Orleans Parish was not letting anyone else in to help with the rescue. The sense of helplessness compounded. We sat in my parents' hot, dark kitchen, listened to the radio and cried.
I spent the first few days after the storm helping friends and family clean up. Five days after the storm I was supposed to be going to Nashville for a wedding. After five days of being glued to the radio, I knew I had to go. On the nine-hour drive I passed literally hundreds of electric trucks, headed toward Louisiana. I honked my horn and cheered them, waving them toward Louisiana. I passed dozens of police cars from various jurisdictions, and I cheered them on too. I passed several caravans of private busses, and was hopeful that they were headed right to the Superdome or Convention Center. But slowly, as I edged through Alabama and into Tennessee, my hope turned to fury. I had not seen one-not one-military convoy or FEMA vehicle. Five days after the storm, as I drove northward through three states, I did not see any sign of federal help. And I knew that people were dying. If I, from my parents' hot, dark house in Louisiana, could hear the crackling radio tell me that people were dying, I know that the government knew. That rage is still within me, and I still do not understand.