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LARRY BRADSHAW and LORRIE BETH SLONSKY are Emergency Medical Services workers in San Francisco. Last year, after attending a paramedics’ convention in New Orleans, they were trapped–first by Hurricane Katrina and then by a martial law cordon that prevented them and hundreds of others from evacuating.
Their account of how they survived, published first in Socialist Worker, was an electrifying testament to the callousness and incompetence of the authorities at every level, and the contrasting selflessness of ordinary people trying to escape the nightmare.
One incident they described–trying to evacuate across a highway bridge over the Mississippi River and being turned back by police from the city of Gretna, who fired warning shots over the heads of the survivors–is now the subject of a federal investigation and at least one class-action lawsuit.
Larry and Lorrie Beth’s story shot around the Internet in the days after Katrina, eventually forcing the mainstream media to report on the confrontation at the Gretna bridge and other experiences that went untold in the first days of the disaster. They were joined by other survivors on CBS’s Sixty Minutes in a segment about Gretna.
ROCKEY VACCARELLA, a fast-food restaurant manager in New Orleans, drove from the Gulf Coast to Washington in a mock FEMA trailer–to thank George W. Bush for all he’s done to help Katrina survivors. What would you have to say to President Bush if you were to drive to Washington?
LARRY: You mean he went to thank George Bush? Is this a joke?
This is the same George Bush who continued vacationing for four days after Katrina hit? Who flew to Arizona to eat birthday cake with Republican Sen. John McCain while thousands were stranded on rooftops and drowning in their attics?
Who staffed the top levels of FEMA with political cronies who didn’t have the slightest experience in emergency or disaster work? Who lied when he said, “I don’t think anyone anticipated this breech of levees,” and was later shown on video being warned of just such a breech?
Who cut federal spending for repairs and upgrading the levees by 80 percent against the advice of the Army Corps of Engineers? Who sent 3,000 members of Louisiana National Guard and two-thirds of the Guard’s equipment to Iraq?
Whose energy policy is based exclusively on oil and gas, which leads to the dredging and canal-cutting of Louisiana’s wetlands and contributes to further global warming? Who fretted over Trent Lott’s loss of his house, while thousands of poor Black, white, Vietnamese and Latino New Orleanians lost everything? Who cut taxes on the wealthy and offset Gulf relief with $50 billion in cuts to food stamps, Medicare, energy assistance and student loans, shifting hurricane relief onto the backs of the poor?
Now what exactly was he thanking George Bush for?
If I could address George Bush, I would say that your war in the Middle East is choking the life out of Baghdad, Beirut, Gaza and New Orleans. You spend obscene amounts of taxpayers’ money to rain death and destruction down on Iraqis and to destroy the infrastructure of that country. In doing so, you are stealing critically needed resources that could and should have been used to rebuild New Orleans.
I would also say to George Bush that your religious fanaticism and your disbelief in science will lead to many more Katrinas the world over. You continue to rehash arguments against climate change, which have been repeatedly addressed and rejected by the vast majority of scientists.
Not a single paper in a peer-reviewed scientific journal has refuted global warming or its cause–greenhouse gases caused by burning fossil fuels. Your denial of science will lead to increased global warming, which means more storms, hurricanes, floods, famines, droughts and food shortages.
More important than what I would say to George Bush is what I would say to the millions of people who hate George Bush and hate his policies. I would say, let’s continue to demand justice and reconstruction for New Orleans and the entire Gulf coast.
Keep raising the issue of Katrina. When you go on an antiwar march, raise the issue of New Orleans with signs like “Make Levees, Not War.” When you go on an immigrant rights march, raise the issue of Katrina. Don’t let them pit immigrants against Black evacuees who want to return to the city. As David Bacon says, let’s demand a reconstruction plan that puts the needs of people first.
More than what I would say to George Bush, I would want him to see the anger in my eyes–anger for letting New Orleans drown and for letting his friends profit from the limited reconstruction. I would want him to see the anger and the determination to get rid of him, his administration and the class he represents.
LORRIE BETH: I would use the very words that Vice President Dick Cheney told Pat Leahy on the floor of the Senate: “Go fuck yourself.”
THIS IS one year after your ordeal in New Orleans–what are the things that are most on your minds?
LORRIE BETH: One year to the day after Larry and I returned from our ordeal in New Orleans, we are being evicted from the house we have been living in for well over a dozen years. The irony of this eviction on the one-year anniversary is not missed by us.
Like so many people flooded out of New Orleans, I am frightened, scared and uncertain that we will be able to find another affordable place to live.
Thinking over the last year, I realize that in actuality, we have faced multiple evictions since Hurricane Katrina hit land. The first eviction was when we were forced to leave the uninhabitable hotel we were staying in while attending a paramedic conference in New Orleans.
When we tried to make our way out of the drowning city by crossing a highway bridge, we were forced at gunpoint by Gretna police officers to halt our exodus or be shot.
As described in an article that was first published in Socialist Worker last year, we improvised a new home on a freeway embankment. The hundred of us did the best we could to take stock of what we had and what we could do for each other in our new residence.
The basic necessities to survive in our new home were provided to us only because a man, a woman and their child bestowed on us gallons and gallons of water from a truck they had “looted.”
We ‘lost’ members from this makeshift embankment homestead because the stolen water truck was loaded up with elderly people, people with disabilities and families with children. As they drove off, nearly all of us waved them onward, and inwardly hoped their destination was a place of safety.
On the embankment, in a very short time, people found a place to bed down. We had food, water and a place to take care of sanitation needs. Just as we got settled, and just as it became dark, we were forcibly evicted from our temporary refuge at gunpoint, by a mean, crazed police officer from Gretna.
Our next place of residence was hiding on an abandoned school bus. For fear of being caught vandalizing property, we spent the night hunkered down low. The sleepless night was spent listening to “rescue” vehicles screaming sirens, sniper shots sporadically zinging in the near distance and a swarm of deafening helicopters beaming blinding rays of spotlights that often seemed to be focusing on our place of refuge.
We inadvertently broke a mirror on the bus. We left a note of thanks for the use of the bus, an apology letter for breaking the mirror, and a promissory note to reimburse the cost of replacing the mirror (we were able to fulfill this promise once we returned home).
Once we escaped New Orleans, we housed for a night at the Marriott Hotel in Texas. Although we stayed for only four hours, we received our bill for $97, the special “refugee” rate! Mind you, this was only $15 less than what is charged during the high season.
And back in New Orleans, 200,000 people still have not made it home. Tens of thousands of Katrina victims are still without homes.
Renters, who comprised most of the people living in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina, are not scheduled to receive a single cent through the Federal Community Block Grant. This is in the face of huge increases in rents of nearly 40 percent. New Orleans is experiencing an unprecedented real estate boom as prices for housing has skyrocketed.
Meanwhile, public housing has been gutted and bulldozed. Some 36,000 former residents remain locked out of public-housing projects. Republican Rep. Richard Baker jubilantly proclaimed, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did!”
Thousands of the fortunate are living in cramped FEMA trailers. Meanwhile, 10,000 unused FEMA emergency housing trailers still sit empty in Hope, Ark. Immigrants are facing evictions from FEMA trailers if they can’t prove citizenship. Evacuees across the country, temporarily housed by FEMA, are subjected to constant threat of evictions.
FEMA housing vouchers have failed to materialize. One study found that evacuees have moved on an average of three-and-a-half times since the hurricane. Some have been forced to move as many as nine times!
Black neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward are redlined through a combination of lack of insurance coverage, refusal of lenders to refinance mortgages, lack of essentials like public schools and delays in the release of official reconstruction plans. Just one homeless shelter on the Gulf Coast is open, and it only accepts men.
Meanwhile, billions of dollars are lavished on big business for crooked, behind-closed-door real-estate adventures. It is equally infuriating the millions of dollars in subsidies, tax breaks and other forms of handouts are supplied to landlords and rich homeowners. Developers will receive financial incentives to build low-income housing, but the actualization of these apartments for seniors, disabled people and families will be years down the road.
Now that we are back home and facing eviction, I keep telling myself that at least I am not in Baghdad or Palestine or Lebanon or one of the numerous other places where the United States is destroying lives, homes and communities.
As Larry and I search for a new place to live, I wonder if things will ever get better for ordinary people? Given our current economic and political landscape, I don’t see the balance of power shifting between landlords and tenants.
That is one of the reasons why I am a socialist. I believe that housing along with health care and other basic necessities of life should be available to everyone.
LARRY: I often find myself wondering what happened to the many people we encountered trying to escape from New Orleans. Did they make it out? Are they okay? Where are they now? Were they ever reunited with family and loved ones?
We saw a lot of families with kids and a lot of elderly folks on the streets of New Orleans. I read somewhere that a large proportion of those who were left to die were either seniors over 60 or disabled.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. It is often the most vulnerable–the kids, the elderly and the disabled–who suffer disproportionately from poverty and lack of access to health care, and who are left behind in our society. But to actually see it in a life-and-death situation brought it home on a visual and visceral level.
One image that I cannot get out of my mind is that of a young father we met as we were being ordered off the freeway, at gunpoint, by a crazed cop from Gretna.
This young dad paused for a moment. He had two little kids, fearfully holding onto him, and he was carrying a baby. We encouraged him to seek shelter in an abandoned school bus with us. With tears in his eyes and desperation in his voice he said, “I can’t go down there with you [off the elevated freeway]. I’ll never be seen, and my family will never be rescued.”
You take this one man’s anguish and distress, and multiply it by the pain and trauma of tens of thousands of other individuals–it still stays with me. It’s still gut-wrenching, 365 days later.
Buses are also on my mind a lot. I’m sort of obsessed with buses since Katrina. Tens of thousands of us were sitting and standing in the heat and squalor for six friggin’ days, waiting for evacuation buses.
Shortly after I got home, I started doing research on why it took a week to mobilize these buses. It turns out that a company called Landstar holds the federal contract for evacuation buses. And Landstar doesn’t own a single truck or bus. But the company is politically connected, and its chairman is the former head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. So without owning a single transportation vehicle, Landstar won the evacuation contract.
I remember the original headline Socialist Worker put on our story last year. It read in part, “Stranded by Martial Law.” Well, it turns out we were not only stranded by racist cops, but equally so by the profit system–by a system that awards bus contracts to companies that don’t own a single bus.
The profit system continues to distort the recovery effort. One example: the company that won the single biggest contract to remove debris from Mississippi is called AshBritt. Guess what: Ashbritt doesn’t own a single dump truck. But the firm donated $50,000 to the Republican National Committee and $40,000 to the law firm of the former governor of Mississippi.
This is simply one of countless examples of how the profit system is delaying and distorting the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast.
Racism is also on my mind–the overt, institutionalized, systematic racism that Katrina exposed. I’ve known for the past 35 years that racism exists, and that it exerts a powerful influence on every aspect of American life, culture and politics. What shocked me in New Orleans was how blatant, unrepentant, unabashed and unchallenged that racism is.
Even today, we have the mayor and police chief of Gretna, along with white politicians from other suburban cities and parishes, saying in essence, “We were afraid of Black people, and we didn’t care about their lives.” The Gretna politicians say we make no apologies, we have no regrets, and we’ll do the same thing tomorrow–i.e., use police with guns to prevent Black New Orleanians from evacuating to safety through their cities.
And what is shocking is that no one challenges that. No one in the Republican Bush administration, nor anyone in Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s Democratic administration. Then add to this Mayor Ray Nagin’s inflammatory comment, “How do I ensure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?”
But my memories of New Orleans are not simply negative. The generosity and kindness shown to us by so many people will always stay in our hearts and in our minds.
Lorrie Beth and I are not naïve. Our jobs as paramedics exposed us to some of the worst in human beings. We see on a daily basis what working-class people are capable of doing to each other in a society that grinds people down, dehumanizes many, and rewards competitive, selfish behavior.
But we have to say that we didn’t see that in New Orleans. We repeatedly saw and experienced the opposite. Those with the least offered us the most, and those with the most constantly and consistently placed roadblocks in our path.
Similarly, I’ll always remember the self-organization and self-activity of common people in New Orleans.
Recently, we attended a paramedic training conference. Part of the training consisted of a presentation by a search-and-rescue team on their activities and experiences in New Orleans. This team did some good work, but during their slide presentation, they related how the local folks kept getting in the way of professional rescuers.
They showed us one slide of a small boat overloaded with 30 or so people being rescued by fellow New Orleanians. The boat, the presenter pointed out, was designed to safely hold four people–30 people was way too many, and the boat was in danger of capsizing and sinking.
Later in the talk, the professional rescuer revealed that on the day the photo was taken, his team was not out rescuing. They had been ordered to stay in their base camp because of rumors of snipers and assaults on rescuers–all of which later turned out to be unfounded.
The presenter missed the irony of his remarks. He was criticizing those who were stranded by official relief efforts for improvising and risking their lives to save their neighbors and strangers.
Finally, I find myself reflecting on the importance of alternative media like Socialist Worker. Our story was not unique. Thousands of people were shot at and prevented by armed police from self-evacuating from New Orleans. We were fortunate to have access to Socialist Worker, which put our story out to a larger audience, from which point, it hit the Web, attracting a mass audience that ultimately forced the mainstream media to also report our story.
So I guess, I have a lot on my mind on this one-year anniversary of Katrina.