August 31, 2008–5 PM
Pink sky colored the morning as cicadas buzz in waves in the old oak trees. What is it they say about “pink sky in morning…?” In New Orleans it is one day to Gustave.
A steady river of people arrived at the bus station, many walking from home. People lined up, men, women, young babies and people with walkers. Suitcases, Batman backpacks, pillowcases stuffed with belongings, even black plastic garbage bags clutched tightly in nervous hands.
How many of us would shove some things in a pillowcase, turn out the lights, leave our home and catch a bus filled with strangers going to places unknown? In New Orleans and all along the Gulf Coast, tens of thousands are doing exactly that.
Big 64 passenger buses roll into the station from across the country to pick up the people of New Orleans. Some going to public shelters, some to military bases, some to churches.
Spent the day unpacking and opening hundreds of boxes of MREs (military meals ready to eat) to distribute to people getting on buses out of town. Spaghetti, barbecue, even vegetarian in slick brown packets complete with plastic spoon. Tastes much better than you would think, especially if you are, as most are, pretty hungry.
Outside satellite TV trucks idle by waiting buses and ambulances. The sun is out and the wind is up. Soldiers, who yesterday clutched their M-16s, today sat on folding chairs texting their families.
Volunteers pitch in with city, state and federal officials. Every kind of police and military you can imagine, many in full battle gear.
Women volunteers in day-glow vests guide the blind, carry bags for the unable, and lift the wheelchairs into the ambulances. Hundreds and hundreds of people with walkers and canes and wheelchairs are flushed out of their homes and forced to flee.
The occasional big shot strolls through and people politely allow them to fantasize that they are in charge.
Outside the wind continues to pick up. The U.S. flag flaps ferociously clanging the chains against the metal flagpole.
Those who say they hate government please consider our situation. Since Katrina our Gulf Coast has benefited from thousands of faith-based groups and hundreds of thousands of volunteers. But we need the public sector to help make it all work. Think where New Orleans would be tonight without the buses we all helped pay for, the police and soldiers we all helped pay for, the water, the MREs, the bus drivers, the shelter workers and the Coast Guard. As you watch the disaster unfold on TV, think where we would be without public help. We need each other. In a complex society like ours, we help each other and build the common good through the public sector. If it is bad, we fix it, not destroy it. Please think about it.
Back home, a mandatory evacuation has started. Curfew starts at dusk. The buses continue to arrive and depart but the passengers slow to a trickle. Generators and engines roar as the air smells of dust, MREs, and humidity.
As dusk starts, waves of cicadas humm. Thousands of people are in shelters. Hundreds are still riding buses.
Gustave is coming.
Waiting in New Orleans
August 30, 2008 – 4PM
In the blazing midday sun, hot and thirsty little children walk around bags of diapers and soft suitcases piled outside a locked community center in the Lower Ninth Ward. Military police in camouflage and local police in dark blue uniforms and sunglasses sit a few feet away in their cars. Moms and grandmas sit with the children quietly. Everyone is waiting for a special city bus which will start them on their latest journey away from home.
Hundreds of buses are moving people away from the Gulf Coast. Hurricane Gustave is heading for the Louisiana coast nearly three years to the day after Hurricane Katrina destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes across the Gulf Coast. Many now face mandatory evacuation.
Dozens died in Haiti and the Dominican Republic after Gustave visited. After Katrina, few underestimate the potential of Gustave, now a Category 5 (out of a maximum of 5) storm.
Yesterday marching brass bands led commemorations for those who died and for those who lost so much in Katrina.
Today, Humvees crawl amid the thwack thwack thwack of plywood boards being nailed over windows.
Soldiers with long guns and police of all types are everywhere. Fifteen hundred police are on duty and at least that many National Guard are also here.
One estimate says two million people may be displaced.
In the lower nine, still no bus even after a wait of over two hours. Another mom clutching an infant walks up to the center with a small suitcase and adds another diaper bag to the pile. Children ask for water but nothing is provided. An African American nun named Sister Greta drives up with a few bags of ice and some water and paper cups and everyone happily shares.
This is the first step of displacement. Those with cars drive away. Those without walk to a community center with their children and wait for a bus. The first of many buses they will take in their journey to who-knows-where. The bus that people are waiting for will take them to the train station where people will get off the bus, be entered into computers, be given bar code bracelets, and then put on other buses for a trip to public shelters in places like Shreveport, Alexandria and Memphis.
New Orleans expects 30,000 people need help evacuating.
Many waiting for this bus were in the Superdome when Katrina hit. One of the men shows a picture of himself on a bridge surrounded by flood waters where hundreds waited for boats.
There are still big problems. A 311 call system for the disabled and seniors never properly functioned, crashed and has been abandoned.
Though the wait for the bus is rough, this appears to be a huge improvement. When Katrina hit, there were no buses and no way out of town for the 25 per cent of the city who had no cars. As a result, nearly 100,000 people were left behind. This time the hospitals and nursing homes are emptying, the prisoners are already moved out, and there are buses to carry out tens of thousands. There are still big problems, but people do have a chance to get out.
Seniors worry about their social security checks, due the first of the month. Others worry about leaving behind pets. (One semi-rural area announced that each person getting on the buses could bring one pet, a dog or cat, no roosters, no pigs). Others worry about the looming 24 hour curfews. St. Bernard Parish promises that those out during curfew will be arrested and immediately transported to Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary.
Back at the community center, the bus finally pulls up. No one complains that it is late. Holding bags and children, people line up quietly in the sun to climb into their first bus. A blind man is guided into the bus. Little kids pull smaller children. Forty-three get on the bus. There are three nine-year old children, one seven-year old, one six, four three year olds, three one year olds, one infant is 11 months, a 3-month old, and a couple of young teenagers. All the moms and grandmas and kids and bags and diapers make it onto the bus and it pulls away.
Across the Gulf Coast, another journey starts.
BILL QUIGLEY is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. His essay on the Echo 9 nuclear launch site protests is featured in Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance from the Heartland, published by AK Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org