Twelve years ago, I came to New Orleans, a 23-year-old professional cook, looking for something more exotic than my home-town of Minneapolis. What better place, I thought, than the opposite end of the Mississippi River: New Orleans. Over the years, I learned Cajun cooking and French/Italian Creole in French Quarter restaurants. I rose to the level of chef de cuisine in one of the legendary Brennan family restaurants, the same family that groomed Emeril Lagasse and Paul Prudhomme. I don’t claim to be another Emeril or Prudhomme, but the experience and knowledge I gained in New Orleans was priceless. The racial knowledge I gained in a city that was 67 percent black was priceless in its own way, too.
As for hurricanes, people in New Orleans thought of them the way people in Los Angeles think of earthquakes. We all knew “The Big One” was coming eventually, but we never thought it really would — not in our lifetimes, anyway.
Friday, August 26
I got home from work and turned on the 10:00 p.m. news to see how badly Florida had been hit by Hurricane Katrina. It was a Category Two storm, and the forecast was for it to turn north, and head further up the East Coast. I felt a sense of relief. It seemed Katrina was coming nowhere near New Orleans. We had dodged another bullet.
Saturday, August 27
All day at work we got conflicting reports. Katrina was going north; Katrina was coming west. The mayor had ordered mandatory evacuations; the mayor had ordered voluntary evacuations. All roads out of town were grid-locked. No time to worry about it now, since the restaurant was packed.
I got home again in time for the 10:00 p.m. news, and tonight was a different story. Not only had Katrina not turned north, it had picked up strength and was heading straight for New Orleans. I had no car, but plenty of canned food and bottled water, so I battened down the hatches and did what any self-respecting New Orleanian would do: I headed to the bar to wait and watch and worry. I came home around 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. to pray for the best and plan for the worst.
Sunday, August 28
I slept until about 9:00 a.m., watched the news, and began calling family and friends to tell them cell phones would probably be out for several days, but that I would call as soon as I could after the storm. By about 8:00 p.m. there was rain, and the wind was up to a steady blast of about 30 mph with frequent gusts up to 60 mph. Around 9:00 p.m. the power went out. I turned on my battery-powered boom-box but the batteries were dead. I grabbed all the candles I had rounded up, and set up a “camp” of sorts with pillows, blankets and couch cushions in a central hallway with no windows. This is what we had been told to do: keep away from windows in case the wind blows them out and fills the room with shards of glass. I lay in that hallway all night praying, as the wind and noise got worse.
Monday, August 29
About 4:00 a.m. the noise of the wind was deafening and a window or two had blown in. Something very large fell over with a thud in the upstairs apartment, and the water was about two feet deep out in the street. The storm continued to rage and gain strength. It was terrifying. The last weather report I had seen had said the storm would hit the city about 11:00 a.m. Eleven a.m.?
I began to doubt the odds of surviving if this thing was going to get stronger for seven more hours. My apartment at the corner of Josephine and Brainard Streets was on the ground floor of a two-down, two-up, four-unit building on a slightly raised lot. The wood-frame structure sat about two feet off the ground and was fairly new by New Orleans standards, built perhaps in the 1920s or ’30s. Two feet of water in the street meant I had about another two or three feet before my floors got wet. Two feet of water was not uncommon where I lived. We got two feet of water after a light rain. However, we had always been told that a major hurricane would cover the city with 20 feet of water, and that now seemed entirely possible.
There was a steady racket of debris smashing into things outside, and to distract myself, I started counting time intervals between major gusts. I did this for several hours until I realized the gusts were no longer getting stronger, and the intervals were growing longer. Maybe the worst was over.
By 10:00 am the rain had subsided and there was a hint of daylight in the sky. By noon, the wind had died down enough to risk a walk around the block and survey the damage. Not too bad! Lots of wind damage, missing siding and stripped roofs. A lot of downed trees and power lines, but no flood water. I was safe. I had survived the storm, at least the one provided by Mother Nature.
I got back home and rounded up a bunch of different-sized batteries and some tape, stripped a computer cable and wired it all up to my boom-box and finally got a news report. I was shocked. Whole neighborhoods were under 20 feet of water, and people were being plucked from rooftops all over the city. Conditions in the Superdome were deteriorating.
This was not going to be over in a couple of days. I took a quick inventory of food and water — about six or seven days’ worth if I were careful — and decided I would hole up for as long as I could before heading for an evacuation point. I cooked a hot meal (the gas was still working), and took a cold shower (the water was still running).
I noticed an awful lot of black people — men, women and children — running down my street excitedly, and wondered what was going on. I soon had my answer as a caravan of shopping carts from the Wal-Mart down the street headed back. The carts were loaded with food, basketball shoes, plasma TVs, and all sorts of electronic gear. I remember one older black lady pushing a cart jammed full of Tide laundry detergent. One black boy of about eight was struggling to keep up with the others because the cart he had filled with goodies had a bum wheel. The looting was definitely a family affair. Nice values to teach your kids, I thought.
It was beginning to get dark outside when it dawned on me that once the stores had been fully looted, the looters would turn to the houses. I grabbed the shotgun from my roommate’s closet (he worked as a chef at the Superdome and had decided to go stay there Sunday morning). Just my luck: no ammo.
All my windows opened directly onto the street at about chest level, and many of the looters were passing by and looking in. I decided to light all my candles, open the blinds, and sit in front of the windows with the shotgun across my lap just to make sure all my “neighbors” knew there was somebody home.
I stayed up as late as I could watching as bands of drunken young black men began to break into the empty homes on my block. I finally moved all my food and water and some bedding into the windowless bathroom, and barricaded the door with a chair and went to sleep. With all the looting going on outside my windows, I was not taking the chance of being caught asleep and having my food and water stolen — or worse.
Tuesday, August 30
This was a fairly uneventful day for me. If you have ever been in New Orleans in late August you know how hot, humid and miserable it is. Despite the threat from looters, I opened a few windows to catch a whiff of breeze. Also, it made it easier to hear what the bands of roving blacks were saying, and I wanted “street news.” All I heard, though, was babbling about where to get the best stuff — two blocks over on wealthy St. Charles Avenue, apparently.
I also listened to the radio. More stories of rooftop rescues, a confirmed report of a cop shot in the head when he tried to stop looters, a desperate call for help from someone in a retirement high-rise full of sick people, and conditions getting worse still in the Superdome. I cooked a hot meal (still had gas), and took a cold shower (still had running water) and sat in front of the windows with my ammo-less shotgun again all day. I retired to the barricaded bathroom for a few hours of sleep.
Wednesday, August 31
I turned on the radio. Things are not good. The Industrial Canal to the east of me was broken, and the 17th Street Canal to the west was broken. Water was pouring into the city. The storm was over, but the water was rising.
I was living in what is called the Garden District, which is upriver from the French Quarter and downtown. The area is and isn’t affluent. One block is old Colonial/Civil War era mansions, the next block is old worn-out shanties. I lived somewhere in between. One myth about the busted levees was that they were blown to save rich white neighborhoods, but there really are no rich/poor, black/white neighborhoods in New Orleans. They are all mixed and blended, so you could not flood a poor neighborhood without flooding a rich one.
I was a long way from the levees but I kept a nervous eye on the street outside. Sure enough, water began to bubble up out of the storm drains in front of my house. The mayor was on the radio telling everybody left in the city to head for the only high ground in town — the Superdome or a highway overpass! I tried to cook a hot meal, but there was no more gas. I tried to take a cold shower, but there was no more running water.
The water was rising all over the city and all attempts to halt it had been futile. The radio kept telling us to get out right away. I didn’t know how high the water would get in my neighborhood. If I didn’t leave, I might end up on a rooftop. I had to make a hard choice: go to the known danger of the Superdome or stay and risk ending up dead, or being rescued from my roof and being airlifted to the Superdome anyway. If I knew then what I know now, I would have risked death and sat on my roof. Instead, I packed a bag with a change of clothes, some food, and bottled water. I headed out to the Superdome, 15 blocks away.
I got to within about three blocks of the dome and discovered it was an island, and the only way in was through nasty-smelling waist- and chest-deep water filled with gas, oil, broken plate glass from skyscrapers, and raw sewage.
I holed up under some shade to rest and get out of the unbearable noon sun before I made the final attempt. There was a convenience store across from me, past a large parking lot covered with water. There were some black teenagers trying to get the metal bars off the front window. After a while they gave up and start monkeying with a construction front-loader parked nearby. They managed to get it started, and tried to drive the thing into the store. A few people almost got run over in the parking lot before an older black man jumped up on the front-loader, kicked the kids off, and parked the thing.
Some time later, a milk truck from the local dairy processor near my house came careening down the flooded street with another black teenager at the wheel. He managed to steer the truck through the front of the convenience store. It was like someone busted open a piñata — there was a mad frenzy of black folks fighting each other to get into that store. The winners came out with garbage bags full of cigarettes, booze, chips, candy, and, most precious of all, ice. Remember, the power had been out for almost three days, and the heat was unbearable. Everyone needed a cold drink. Cold was like gold.
The looters proceeded to sell what they had stolen at extremely inflated prices. It was a sad spectacle.
About 2:00 p.m. I decided it was time for the final push, and headed into the murky waters toward the Superdome entrance ramp. The line was only about a block long, but it took me almost four hours to get in. That was four hours in 100-degree heat, standing in shoes and clothes soaked in gas, oil, and raw sewage. The National Guard had stationed only two people to go through everyone and his belongings.
The line was 99 percent black and very ill tempered and ill behaved. Fights kept breaking out among rival gang members. The line would get muddled and the guard would have to stop processing people and restore order. This was no place for a lone white boy. The blacks repeatedly called me “cracka-ass-mutha-fucka” or “bitch,” and violently shoved any non-black aside to let “homies” into the line in front of us. After about three hours of this I seriously considered going back out into that filthy water, and finding a place to hide in one of the nearby high-rises, but the dome was the only evacuation point in the area. I toughed it out because I wanted to get out of this disaster.
I eventually got inside the dome and immediately regretted it. It was an absolutely putrid-smelling zoo. The air was so foul I could barely keep from throwing up even with my shirt pulled up over my nose. The strong urine/feces/ammonia smell made my eyes burn, and it was hard to see because the only light came from wall-mounted battery-powered emergency lights. The bathrooms had stopped working the day after the storm, so people started urinating and defecating any place they could find. The main concourse around the inside of the dome was a river of urine. I do not know how all those people inside could stand it.
I made a bee-line to the nearest exit, which led outside onto the open-air, second-floor plaza that surrounds the dome. It was packed with people but at least the air was breathable.
I was utterly alone, exhausted and surrounded by angry blacks. Apparently, the dome had become a “blacks only” area, and I was “white-boy,” “white-bread,” “white mutha fucka,” “cracka-ass bitch,” or “ho.” I found a piece of cardboard, cleared a patch of the cobblestone plaza of trash near a National Guard outpost, and lay down to rest. It was a very long night.
The guardsmen were 90 percent white, mostly from Tennessee, Kentucky, and Arkansas. Every so often some loud-mouthed black would get in their faces and start screaming about how the white man blew up the levees. Why wasn’t the gub’mint sweeping all 30 thousand of us off to safety this very minute? Why were they leaving “black folk” here to die in the dome? Time and again the mob was whipped into a near riot by these screamers. Every time the crowd got going I thought, “This is it for you, white boy.” I was very grateful for the presence of the National Guard, even if there were very few guardsmen.
That was how I spent my first sleepless night at the Superdome: alone and scared.
Thursday, September 1
I decided to reconnoiter the area and found a white family of four. We agreed to stick together and watch each others’ backs. Later, I ran into a former co-worker and he happened to know the family I had hooked up with. We picked up a few more stray white people and circled the wagons.
The men in our group paired up and went out in shifts in the day-time and scavenged enough junk to build makeshift sun shelters. There were elderly black couples who desperately needed help, and we gave them food and water and built shelters for them, too. Young belligerent blacks seemed to take pride in knocking the shelters down. They didn’t care whether blacks or whites were using them. They were only too happy to knock down anything, especially anything whites had built.
The National Guard at this point was very undermanned and seemingly leaderless. They dared not attempt anything more than keeping the chaos away from the rescue chopper landing pads and their own area. This meant there was indescribable destruction that went unpunished. Even more shocking was the outright joy young ghetto blacks took in acting as savagely as they wanted with no threat of consequences. They broke into all of the more than 80 private suites and every office in the dome, and stole the alcohol and anything else of value. Then, most disgustingly, they smashed everything and anything they couldn’t cart off. They completely smashed the TV broadcast room. Millions of dollars of equipment was smashed in that room alone. Other expensive equipment was similarly smashed, and I mean smashed beyond recognition, much less repair. It was pure, senseless destruction.
I spent yet another sleepless night, not alone, but still plenty scared.
Friday September 2
Today, the guard brought in pallets of military-issue Meals Ready to Eat and bottled water, but they just dropped the pallets and ran. Gang-bangers swarmed off with cases of everything, and began selling them to starving and thirsty people before we could get there.
After their day of drinking and smashing, the “bruthas” got bored and turned their attention to the women. I did not personally witness a rape, but I certainly witnessed the aftermath. The accused man was cornered by the crowd outside on the plaza near me. All I saw was a screaming, punching, kicking mob, and then a dead body carted off an hour later by the guard. I remember thinking “Thank God it wasn’t a white guy who did it!”
That crowd was already furious at the white man, and we felt like lit matches in a dynamite factory. Through the night, gang fights broke out around and through and over us. Whenever things got hot, we moved. To stand and fight would have been suicide. When the people next to us got too rowdy and started cursing us “white boys,” we packed up our hard-won cardboard mats, milk-crate chairs, military cots, and our plastic beer advertisement banner-cum-sun-shades, and moved on around the plaza to some place less racially restless. One wannabe black leader confronted our group about how the flood was all our fault. We asked why, if it was our fault, we were trapped in there too. He went off on a crazy Farrakhan-type rant, and we moved once again.
It was at some point during this night that some “homies” sneaked out past the National Guard and went back through that nasty water to the projects to get crack and guns. The crack was soon all over the dome and made the previous two days seem peaceful by comparison. We heard gunfire throughout the night, but could not tell who was doing the shooting.
The only bright spot in this day was seeing squads of nine soldiers each making the rounds wearing red berets. I believe it was the 82nd Airborne that had arrived to help out. There were also soldiers in black berets with Air Force Special Forces insignia. These were not the green farm boys of the National Guard. They were combat veterans, and everybody knew just from looking at them they would take no nonsense! Even the ghetto thugs noticed they carried sub-machine guns instead of M-16s, and the guys with shotguns weren’t carrying bean-bag rounds like the guardsmen. Several of these soldiers said they had felt safer patrolling Baghdad. We had high hopes that things would get better, but they didn’t. The Special Forces guys were sent to deal with snipers shooting at rescue helicopters and boats.
That day, there was an elderly, blind black man wandering around lost by himself. He seemed to be in pretty bad shape. We tried to escort him to a guard station, but he wouldn’t go. We gave him water and left him alone. I saw a little black baby — maybe about three years old — in nothing but a filthy diaper, wandering around in trash and broken glass looking for his momma. That was the first. The last two I saw like that didn’t even have a dirty diaper on. I tried not to cry, and to get some sleep. It was an awful day.
Saturday, September 3
This day started badly but got a little better. As the sun was about to rise, I saw a series of bright red fireworks-like flashes followed by very loud explosions near the river behind the high-rises next to the dome. Someone heard on the radio that a chemical warehouse had blown up and that the toxic smoke was drifting towards us. The warehouse turned out not to have chemicals in it after all.
The heat index was 115 degrees, and the mentally ill, homeless, sick and elderly were dropping dead all around us. There was no hospital for them, and the plaza got so crowded — I took the photograph on page 1 on Wednesday; there were many more people by Saturday — that it was impossible to move away from the bodies. The best we could do was pass them along through the mob to the nearest Guard medic. I helped haul two bodies, and I saw about a dozen bodies bundled along, all but two of them on this day.
The “bruthas” camped next to us were selling and smoking crack, and getting wasted on stolen booze. We were not comforted by this. One apparently senile old white man who had crapped in his pants stumbled into a group of young blacks. They pushed him away and he fell down. They then kicked him and beat him with poles. Yes, I saw an old man beaten to death. Another old guy whom we had given food and water the night before turned up dead that day, but we didn’t know how he died.
One “brutha” was selling stolen leather New Orleans Saints jackets from the sports store. Another “brutha” was selling 25-year-old Saints memorabilia from the office of Saints owner Tom Benson. Somebody else figured out how to fire up the portable propane grills in one of the kitchens and started selling burgers made of three-day-old unrefrigerated meat. The place caught fire and filled with smoke. The Guard soon put the fire out, and the happy chef was hauled away in cuffs and leg irons screaming “I ain’t did nuthin’ wrong. These crackers gonna shoot me an I ain’t did nuthin’.”
Until today, the Guard had thrown down supplies and run for it. This day, there was an orderly delivery. The soldiers made a perimeter around the food/water drop and rationed the stuff out: one mouth, one MRE and two bottles of water. No exceptions.
We noticed that “bruthas” would eat the entree and dessert out of two or three MREs and throw the rest away unopened. We picked up and saved what they tossed (cheese and crackers, rice, pasta, fruit salad packs, etc.). They threw away the instant coffee packs, too. We discovered that if we ate our food cold, we could combine the MRE heater packs to boil water and have coffee in the morning.
Plenty of people offered to sell us booze. No one needed a good belt more than we did, but we knew it would be dumb to drink alcohol in that kind of heat with limited water, and dumber still to dull our senses in that environment.
By now, many of us were on our third day of little or no sleep, constant threats, noise, chaos, and vicious heat and humidity. Evacuations had begun on Thursday, but the line to get to the line to get in line for a bus was a mob of pushing, shoving, trampling angry black people. The younger and stronger were pushing aside the old and weak. We decided it would be saner and safer to wait until the crowds thinned in the wee hours of the morning. We planned on spending another day in hell.
Sunday, September 4
About midnight we were surprised to see that the line had shrunk from 100 people wide and several blocks long to just a straggle of people. We then realized that all the people still left around us didn’t want to leave. This was one big party for them. They were used to living hand-to-mouth, and now they had a supply of drugs and booze, and the Army was handing out food and water every day. We packed up our stuff and made a break for it.
To get to the loading area we worked our way through a zigzag of crowd-control barricades like a cattle pen. We were astounded by the mountains of rubbish people had brought with them to the dome. Going out, we were allowed only one bag per person. People had brought grocery carts and suitcases, and were forced to leave them all behind. As we waited in our cattle pen, we watched as “brutha” after “brutha” was arrested trying to sneak piles of stuff stolen onto the buses. People were stupid enough to try to push a shopping cart right in front of soldiers and police, with such things as a Fender concert-sized speaker cabinet with the words “Property of Superdome” painted right on the side. Someone tried to get out with a brand new mountain bike from the Saints sport shop with the price tag still on it. Yet another man tried to get on the bus with a large box fan still in the carton with the Wal-Mart price tag on it. That wasn’t so strange until his wife and 4 small kids followed him, each carrying identical fans in identical boxes. We cheered when they were arrested.
We finally got on our school bus about 4:00 a.m. Governor Blanco had ordered all school bus drivers in the state to report for evacuation duty, and our driver was a very cute, very sweet volunteer driver from rural Madisonville, Louisiana. She could drive a bus as if it were a race car. I don’t know why we had to go so fast, except maybe to dodge snipers or because our military escort set the pace.
We raced through twisting half-flooded streets, past blazing buildings. We felt like we were in an old war movie, making a daring escape. We passed a great many cattle and horses that had drowned and ended up in ditches to rot. Our first reaction to the smell was “This is gross; it smells like the dome all over again.” It got very quiet when we realized why the dome smelled like dead animals. It wasn’t animals back there in the dome.
Our bus stopped in the middle of nowhere on the West Bank across from the city and up-river. It was pitch black and hard to see. We were told we were meeting a train and were not to get off the bus until it arrived. We looked around and saw there were two squads of soldiers, one on each side of the road, lying down prone in the ditches with M-16s aimed at us. They must have heard stories about what happened in the dome, and were taking no chances.
Our “Amtrak” train arrived and it was staffed by very serious-looking men with sidearms, whose jackets only said “Federal Agent.” They ended up being very gracious, professional, and genuinely concerned for our comfort, but they also never took their eyes off of us. We rode the train to Lafayette, Louisiana, where we switched to Greyhound buses for the last leg to Houston.
It was on the bus that it really sunk in — all we had been through and overcome. We had worked together and comforted each other, friend and stranger alike, and we had made it out of there. We did what you would expect any decent human being to do. But it was the white people who took care of their own and of as many other people as we could, no matter what color they were. The “bruthas” were perfectly content to let their own old and sick be pushed aside in the food and water lines or roast in the sun. We were a small band of white brothers in a sea of angry, uncooperative blacks.
If the few of us who were together in the Superdome can survive that onslaught of black hostility, there is still hope for America and Western Civilization. In the end, it was our civility, our teamwork and our willingness to sacrifice personal comfort for the needs of the group that got us through. That and lots of prayer.
I have since been repatriated to my hometown of Minneapolis, back with my family, marveling at the concept of snow. I am working for Wolfgang Puck. Every storm has a silver lining.
[Editor’s Note: This is just one of thirteen essays in our gripping collection of first-hand reports about the reality of race, Face to Face with Race.]