Note to the reader: I lived in New Orleans from 2001-2005. For the last six months of this period I held a position both on the security team and as an ER intake/administrator at the Oschner hospital, the largest medical facility in Orleans Parish and one of only two to remain open in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. As a member of the Disaster Relief Staff I remained within the city for the storm and the first few weeks of the aftermath. The following document is a collection of the emails I mass-sent to friends and family during that time. I have edited out some bits of personal information of no interest to the casual reader and have made some minor corrections to the spelling, but have otherwise left the text unchanged, grammatical warts and all, so as to preserve the immediacy in which these were originally written. Some of the second-hand information reported herein was later proven to be hearsay, and some of it turned out to be worse than originally thought. I was very torn as to whether I should publish this at all, and am doing so largely due to the encouragement of some friends and fellow TNBers.
The paragraph titles are taken from the subject lines of the original emails.
There’s a Category Five hurricane barreling down on New Orleans right now, the biggest in the history of the state according to some of the news anchors. The Mayor has issued a mandatory evacuation alert, coupled with Sheriff Harry Lee announcing, “If you stay, you’re a damn fool,” at a press conference this morning. My girlfriend is evacuating to her parents’ home in Mississippi. I’m a damn fool, and am going to remain in the city. The security department has been deemed “essential emergency staff” at the hospital, although in what capacity we can be helpful I do not really know. It’s a fairly new building and up to code as far as structure is concerned, so I should be safe enough, and if anything happens I’ll be able to get treatment right away. Just hope my apartment survives all right.
Approaching the Hour 8/29/2005
Half past midnight and a glance at the sky outside of the Emergency Room makes me feel like I’m in an H.P. Lovecraft story. The night overhead is an inky expanse ribbonned with gray streaks, and it moves and undulates in a seething mass, as though heralding the rise of something ancient from the depths of a brutal and uncaring sea. The whistling of the wind is painful on the ear. Out on the street I can see stop signs bending to forty-five degree angles, and I foresee them becoming deadly projectiles before this thing is done.
We have a skeleton staff on hand here. Everyone is nervy, on edge and afraid, and drinking more caffeine than is probably healthy.
It’s going to be a long night.
The Hammer Falls 8/29/2005
I don’t know what time it is. Hurricane Katrina is beating us senseless. The wind battering against the glass is choking with water. Unidentifiable pieces of debris can be glimpsed hurtling through the air. Parts of the hospital shake like we’re in an earthquake. Staff, patients and their families are huddling down in corridors, exam rooms and waiting rooms, away from any exposed windows. No matter where you wander, you can hear the desperate sobs riding just underneath the barbaric winds.
At some point in the last hour we lost main power, and are currently on the reserve generator. Enough to keep the critical care machinery functioning, provide some lighting and power to the computer terminals, but that’s it. We are currently without television, radio, or telephones. The plumbing has stopped working entirely, and the hallways near the restrooms are thick with the odor of human waste.
I’m off shift right now, and need to find a safe spot to take a nap—I’ve been awake since this time yesterday.
It’s about 3:30 PM right now. The worst of the storm seems to have passed, and by the looks of it beat the living daylights out of the hospital front—there’s broken glass, metal debris, and stripped siding from the buildings lying everywhere. Although we didn’t flood, places throughout the facility sprung leaks in the ceiling, and we had to seal off portions of the campus. We’re still without main power and running water. Without air conditioning the hospital is growing uncomfortably warm.
A few police officers have stopped by to check in. They report that downtown took it very hard; apparently the glass windows on the Hyatt-Regent blew out. My neighborhood is said to have fared better, so there’s a chance I might actually have a home to go back to tomorrow.
My cellular network is either damaged or overloaded; I get a busy signal every time I try to call someone.
In a very surreal turn of events, as Katrina raged outside, I found myself catching a few hour’s sleep in an OB/GYN exam room.
On the exam bed.
I won’t be going home anytime soon. The lake, pregnant with runoff from Katrina, has ruptured through the 17th Street levee, spilling water into the city. Levels are rising right now, and movement within the city is completely cut off. The hospital seems be staying dry, but that could change very soon.
Temperatures rose sharply, and everyone inside is miserable. The emergency generators are unable to power the AC without cutting out the support systems for the patients in the Intensive Care Unit, and the nurses and doctors are walking around in cutoff scrubs and tank tops. Those of us on the security detail have been instructed to remain in full uniform, and I am developing a heat rash in some very uncomfortable places. Bottled drinking water is in urgent demand.
The psychiatric ward on the seventh floor is having extreme problems. The doctors have been upping the patients’ levels of Thorazine since before the hurricane hit, but the rising temperatures aren’t helping. We’ve had three calls up there in the first half-hour of my shift. I’ve had four other cases of internal violence since then, largely do to a potent combination of heat and fear.
I still can’t make any calls on my cell phone, but I was able to swap text messages with my girlfriend. She and her family survived all right but the house, like my hospital, is without power or water, and they are leaving for her aunt’s house in Roanoke.
We have running water, although it’s unsafe to drink. The toilets work, at least, and we can take cold showers.
There are rumors that looting has begun downtown. Everyone on my team has been issued a sidearm.
I’m not sleeping well.
Camped Out 8/31/2005
My cellular network has completely crashed. Although the hospital is still running on emergency power, we’ve managed to safely restore AC to much of the building, and even have hot running water in a few places. My understanding is that we are the only functional medical facility within the metropolitan area.
The restoration of AC is crucial. It’s been so hot over the last three days that people’s tempers have been flaring up all over the place, and my crew and I have had a great deal of peacekeeping to do throughout the hospital. Stress and anxiety aren’t helping, either, and on the average most people are getting four hours of sleep out of every twenty-four. Last night one of my friends in the ER had to give me an IV of fluids to combat dehydration.
The Salvation Army is here, handing food and blankets. A local grocery store has a distribution warehouse across the street, and has given us permission to raid it as we need, which earlier today our Shipping and Receiving department did, accompanied by several police officers; their efforts have provided us with a stockpile of canned food and dry cereal.
People are kind of on the barter system at the moment, trading what they have for what they need: a can of peaches for a change of scrubs, a tube of toothpaste for a pair of clean underwear. I traded off my last extra razor to an ER nurse in exchange for showering privileges.
There have been several shootings in and around town. Two individuals assaulted a police station with AK-47s, and there are reports that medivac helicopters and ambulances are being fired upon. Looters are turning on each other, and some of the bodies floating around downtown aren’t drowning victims. Other hospitals have been raided, or are taking on water, and we’re doing what we can to get their patients here safely. The shock of moving has been more than some of them could handle.
Last word that reached my ears is that my neighborhood stayed fairly dry, even with the resultant flood from the levee breaking. Flooding has stabilized, not really increasing, not really draining. My car was left in a different area of town before the storm, and is now most likely underwater.
We have as yet received no aid outside of local law enforcement, and they are stretched thin enough as it is. Martial law and a strict curfew have been imposed.
I’m doing a little better. Last night I found an abandoned conference room to camp out in, and in my off hours hole up in there to read and write by flashlight. Given that I’m using my Swiss Army knife to open and consume all of my canned meals—Campbell’s Spaghetti, Del Monte Pears and SPAM—it’s a lot like Boy Scout camp.
Except without the fun.
I’m currently on my last set of clean clothes, but there’s talk that the hospital laundry may be functional again later today, so we might be able to get some stuff washed. The Mayor’s office is going to allow us to return to our homes on Monday, and if I can I’ll grab some more clothes. As far as civvies go I only have three tee shirts and a pair of jeans, and right now the pants can walk around without me.
Occasionally you can hear the pop-pop-pop of automatic weapons firing in the neighborhood around the hospital. There’s no way to judge the distance; there is absolutely no vehicular traffic and no noise pollution, so the shots could be carrying for miles.
Gradually, and then in increasing numbers, people are trying to get into the hospital. The day after the storm we sealed ourselves off to everyone but incoming emergency care patients, and everyone who is allowed in must be searched for weapons. Although no one has been armed, people are getting aggressive in their attempts for access, including faking ailments as severe as heart attacks right outside our door. Although I don’t feel good about turning them away, the sad truth is if we threw our doors open we’d be flooded with uncontrollable numbers of people, placing the staff and the patients that actually need care at risk.
Still no TV or radio, although the cell phones are sporadically working again, and the Internet remains functional. The news websites claim that federal aid is coming, and we’re supposed to get some National Guardsmen here later.
The news also reports that people trapped downtown are beginning to die. I don’t know if it’s accurate or not, but I don’t really doubt it.
A strange quiet has descended tonight. After all the chaos of the last few days the lull is surreal. I can’t help thinking it’s the stillness of the sheathed knife, of violence and danger waiting to be. Between the anarchy in the streets and the ever-growing cabin fever of the people trapped in here, it’s only a matter of time before something brutal and nasty happens. I hope desperately that it won’t, as there are enough injured and suffering people, and such behavior will only make it worse, but all of my training and experience tells me it will. Still, I’ll try and enjoy it while it lasts.
Curfew is lifted during the day. I’m going to try and make it back to my apartment when this shift is over.
The Knife in Motion 9/2/2005
A huge explosion just erupted downtown, powerful enough to be seen and heard from my post outside the ER, ten miles away. It lit up the night like a flashbulb, and the afterglow is still visible against the sky. Preliminary reports from the police stationed with us place it somewhere in the vicinity of the French Quarter, possibly at a chemical storage facility. Could be arson or just some idiot breaking into the wrong place and lighting a cigarette. I can’t tell yet if it started a fire. Although without functional water in the city, how would the fire crews fight it? Is the Fire Department still functional?
I realized a few minutes before the explosion that I can’t remember what it feels like to sleep in my own bed. Or any other.
Fun With Herpetology 9/4/2005
It’s been a long and weary twenty-four hours. I have successfully conducted a commando raid of my own home, bypassing looters, wreckage and miscreant reptiles. My will is a thing unto iron and my kung fu strong.
After the night of the explosion (Friday morning I think, it’s been getting hard to tell) one of my coworkers volunteered the use of his car so I could conduct an inspection of my apartment. What is normally a ten-minute drive took the better part of an hour. I was initially stopped at a sheriff’s checkpoint by six deputies wearing flak jackets and armed with AK-47s and riot shotguns; they kept their weapons trained on my vehicle until I identified myself as a member of the hospital stafff, at which point they let me pass.
Katrina turned my neighborhood into a Mesozoic wasteland, the uprooted and shattered oak and cypress trees forming a dense maze; in some places the rubble was so thick I couldn’t see the houses beyond. Coupled with the downed power lines, it was difficult terrain to navigate in the car. I passed a looted Rite-Aid on Oak Street. Someone had found a forklift and used it to smash open the rolldown security gate.
Worse, the earlier reports weren’t accurate. There was flooding in much of the neighborhood. From Oak south to St. Charles was dry, but north towards South Claiborne was a different story. I had to park the car and slog through five blocks of thigh-high nasty water the rest of the trip. I had a PR24 riot baton ready in case of itinerant looters (I am by law not allowed to take a firearm off hospital property). Stray cats roamed everywhere around, some of them following me at a discreet distance with expectant looks on their faces, and I had the creepy thought they were waiting for something tragic and fatal to happen to me so they’d have something to eat. The water was brown and shockingly cold, and covered in a slick oily sheen.
Here’s where the narrative gets strange. This may be the most truly surreal thing that has ever happened to me, and I wish to all hell I was making it up.
About halfway there, around the intersection of Plum and Burdette streets, I was attacked by an alligator.
Yes, that’s right. Go ahead and read it again. A fucking alligator.
I didn’t believe it either.
I was walking down the center of the street, as it was the highest point, although by no means easy going; the street underwater was littered with branches and God only knows what else, not to mention the ever-present New Orleans potholes. I kept having to go over or around fallen logs or power lines, and while doing so my foot went down in one of those unseen holes. I stumbled, reflexively reaching out for something to steady myself with, and that’s when the little bastard bit me. I guess he was lying in the water around the branches or something, and I spooked him. I didn’t even know what it was, just that something latched onto my forearm. I pulled free and finally saw him—pretty small, really, about two feet long or so, the size of a well-loved iguana. Looking at the wound, I’d guess his mouth was just big enough to fit around my arm but not bite down, which is why he didn’t do much other than scratch me.
He came at me again, and that’s when I hit him; the PR24 was caught in my belt on my left-had side, so I used my fist, landing an underhand strike that knocked him back in the direction I came. Normally the environmentalist in me would shriek at the thought of treating an endangered species that way, but it’s a different matter when said endangered species is treating you like so much beef jerky. He plopped in the water and didn’t come back up.
Several of my coworkers have chastised me for not finishing the job and bringing the carcass back so they could eat him in turn.
I made it to my apartment without further incident. The house had lost its rain gutter and there were shingles lying all over the place, but aside from one broken window where someone had tried to break in it appeared unmolested. Nothing inside was missing, but the house stank of rotten food. The basement in the building’s lower half was filled with water. I cleaned the fridge out as best I could and gathered the personal items I’d come for.
Items rescued included: all relevant computer disks containing my own writing projects; birth certificate; the entire contents of my sock-and-underwear drawer; changes of clothing, including clean uniforms; all remaining canned food in the pantry. All of this weighed about seventy pounds, strapped onto my body in a backpack and two duffle bags. Walking back took twice as long as getting there did, and by the time I finally made it back to the hospital (unmolested this time by either man or animal) I smelled like a bilge rat. I stashed my bags in my campsite and went to the ER for treatment of the bite. They cleaned it and gave me several antibiotic injections. I fell asleep with four hours to rest before my next shift started.
Since then it’s been nonstop. New Orleans is burning along the Riverfront and French Quarter, and the police are actively exchanging gunshots with looters on the street. The wounded are coming here, as well as the evacuees that are too ill to make it to Texas without treatment. We’re doing our best to keep them safe and get everything staged for their departure. Last night a medivac chopper rescued a pregnant woman who had gone into labor while trapped in a water-filled attic; she was actively giving birth as we sped her stretcher through the hospital up to Labor and Delivery.
I volunteered to spend the first part of today helping the rescue teams crate up the bodies of the deceased. In my first two months on this job I saw more dead bodies than ever before in my life; in one day I saw more than triple that number. My body right now feels like a wad of Silly Putty slapped hard up against a wall and left there.
Spirits are starting to lag all around, including mine. We now have main power back online, but stir craziness is getting bad, especially after the 11:00 PM curfew, when the dyed-in-the-wool smokers get profoundly hostile about not being allowed out for their fix. I need rest, mostly, a little time to read a book or write a bit—free time seems to be trickling away faster and faster. I miss my girlfriend terribly.
Two NOPD officers shot themselves today.
I’m going to shower and go to bed now. My brain has the shape, texture, and cognitive ability of day-old oatmeal.
I need a cold beer. Someone out there drink one for me.
Funny. As of today it’s been only a week since this whole business began, and it feels like a lifetime. Strange how acclimated I’ve gotten to this routine. Everything else in the world seems like so much distant history. The hospital is an island, floating in a stream of chaos. We have main power; the rest of the city is using candles. While our running water is by no means clean, it comes from a well instead of the contaminated reservoir, and is as good for flushing a toilet as anything else. We have bottled drinking water and have canned food, hot showers and clean clothes. Everyone still left in the city has none of those things. They have violence, despair, illness and misery.
My department had a meeting last night, voicing complaints and concerns to our immediate supervisors. It was largely a bitch session, and some tempers erupted, but the end result is that this evening my bosses rolled a big cart loaded with fresh apples, oranges and bananas into our operations center. After a week of canned meat, powdered milk and over-boiled pasta, I can honestly say that nothing on Earth tastes so splendid as a ripe fist-sized navel orange, rivulets of juice running helter-skelter like children on a playground.
Tomorrow is the day that the city government is supposed to allow us to return to our homes. I am utterly tempted to take the evacuation shuttle to Baton Rouge and hop a plane for California.
I’m not going to, though.
I got off easy; about half my team lost their homes and only has the clothes on their backs, and they need this time to start getting their lives back in order. My apartment might be inaccessible, but it’s still there, most of my things undamaged. Any time I take off robs them of what they need. I want to be with my girlfriend, but I’m okay and she’s okay, and so many of my crew aren’t. With luck I’ll have a week or so later on in the month to start putting my ducks in a row, but right now it’s imperative that others do so first.
Shift change, so I must go.
So after being diagnosed with Exhaustion, not to mention the head cold that’s making the rounds in here, I was prescribed sleeping pills and given a night off. At best I’ve been sleeping about five hours a night since this thing started, and that’s usually been broken, as I wake up every forty-five minutes or so. If I dream, I don’t remember, which is probably a good thing.
I took my pill, laid down in my little campsite, and proceeded to sleep for about twelve hours. The fatigue headache I’ve been carrying around seems to have disappeared, or at least taken a break, and my hands have lost the tremble that started sometime on Sunday. Still, I can’t wait to sleep in an actual bed and eat something that doesn’t come out of a can.
Apparently I got lucky in my exposure to the floodwater. People who have been stuck down in the 9th Ward and other flooded areas are being treated here for lesions and massive skin rashes due to the contamination in the water. We continue to be a staging area for the dead to be shipped off elsewhere for identification and inspection. The effect being in the water has had on some of the dead I won’t try and put into words right now—suffice to say it’s one of the worst things I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. And there have been a lot of those in the last nine days, so it’ll be a while before I figure out what tops that list.
Spirits are dropping hard around here. People are tired, worried about their homes and loved ones. New Orleans proper is still officially sealed off for entrance, so a lot of employees haven’t even seen how their homes fared through Katrina. Even with the arrival of relief from Baton Rouge and FEMA (who showed up here last night—finally) there hasn’t been much of an upswell in mood. Someone pointed out to me yesterday that we’ve endured a massive traumatic experience, which I hadn’t considered before. I’m no psychiatrist but I guess it’s fair to say that we’re seeing some signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome; it explains why those cops swallowed bullets a few days ago. It also explains why some yahoos are refusing to leave their flooded homes even as the rescue boats come by. The last time we talked, Tristyn asked why I’m keeping it together when she’s going to pieces.
I don’t know. I’m so damned weary, even beyond what sleep and medication can cure. There are people here that have the skills and training to save lives, but in the meantime they need protection and safety, both from the looters and elements and their own collapsing morale. I can do that, or at least try. I wish I had more medical training, gotten certification as an EMT or something. I wish I’d fled, even though I know I’d stay if it happened again.
But when all is said and done, I’m going to have a nice big cathartic freak-out.
Swamp Thing 9/12/2005
So in the wake of Katrina the city of New Orleans has effectively turned into a toxic waste dump. The Garden District periodically bursts into flames that can’t be put out, as there is no functioning fire brigade. The U.S. Army controls the streets now (and I never thought I’d be happy for the day when the military forcibly seizes control of an American city) but really, what is left to control? The broken, ruined shell of a city, saturated with water carrying disease, the week-old bodies of the dead and gallon after gallon of raw sewage. The water is now so toxic that even touching it has been deemed highly hazardous. Plus, there’s so much oil coating it, and so many exposed gas mains and downed power lines that every single fire that starts could cause what’s left of the city to go up like a Roman candle.
It’s starting to go back to the animals, too. The police officers coming in for treatment over the last couple of days have been reporting some strange things. Water moccasins slither on their merry way down the streets; several of the search-and-rescue boats have had to abandon bodies because displaced alligators are snacking on them, and the teams can’t drive off the reptiles without endangering themselves. And when the levees broke, the floodwaters washed several bull sharks into the waterlogged streets. A Jefferson Parish Levee Board officer used his cell phone to snap a picture of a four-foot shark happily cruising the I-10 service road.
(Bull sharks, for those who don’t know, are one of the most dangerous breeds of shark. They attack quickly, ferociously, and indiscriminately, and there are records of them bashing through canoes. They’re all the more dangerous because they can survive in both salt and fresh water, and have been documented as far up the Mississippi River as Indiana. Large numbers have lived in Lake Pontchartrain for some time.)
Several months ago at least forty manatees were spotted in the lake. They’re delicate, slow moving and slow to reproduce species, which is also highly endangered. In what you could call a tragic caveat to the misery Katrina has caused, the pumping of all this toxic sludge back into the lake is almost certainly going to endanger their lives—and there isn’t much the EPA or WWF can do about it. Like a rapist, Katrina continues to leave scars long after the deed is done.
Getting slowly ready to depart. I’d like to remain down here for another week or so, just to get one last complete pay period done, especially since FEMA is dragging its feet on actually getting financial assistance to those of us still stuck down here. I lost my car, I no longer have a home I can live in, I am displaced—where’s my $2000 debit card? I still have to get a plane ticket to Roanoke and enough gas to drive from there to my family in San Diego, not to mention food and lodging along the way.
Seriously, every single FEMA employee I’ve talked to in the last twenty-four hours gives me the dull-eyed look of a freshly milked cow when I ask them where I can obtain pocket money for travel and shelter expenses.
Does anyone else think the federal government’s handling of this mess has effectively guaranteed we’re going to have a Democratic president in the next election?
I sat on top of the hospital’s raised parking garage last night and watched some of the fires that continue to flare up downtown, although less severely than they did before. Sadly, this may be because there isn’t much dry material left to burn. Occasionally something ignited a patch of leaking gas, leaving a bright orange flower against the horizon. It looked like nothing so much as the opening of Blade Runner.
This morning brought the restoration of cable to the facility, so we could all turn on the TV monitors and see footage of what we’ve been dealing with the last couple of weeks. The political sturm and drang is just going to get worse, I fear. As a final example of FEMA ineptitude, I submit the following piece of information: they have yet to get a single representative down here to deal with aid and recovery matters for the citizens who could not flee or be evacuated. All we have are FEMA medical personnel giving out free inoculations. Which means that we are forced to rely on what money we have in our pockets to get around on. There are currently no functional banks or ATMs anywhere in the area. As an added surprise, the hospital screwed up payroll, so those of us who worked will have to wait an additional two weeks for any sort of compensation.
With the cheerful assistance of a nursing student I made it back to my apartment today. The water had receded from my neighborhood, leaving the earth, houses and concrete a dead gray color. In Jefferson Parish you can smell the sewage, rot, gas, garbage and other effluvium that make up the floodwaters. The smell turned into a stench as we got into my neighborhood, despite the lack of water, and I can only guess how awful it is downtown. I was able to put some more of Tristyn’s and my things in our only suitcase, but everything else will have to remain for the time being. A horrible mildew smell came from the basement when I opened the door, and fear of toxic mold kept me from going down there. We’ve already had a few cases of spore inhalation in the ER in the last two days. Phone and power were still out, and when I tried the tap something that looked and smelled like raw sewage came out.
The EPA has advised that the water contains high levels of lead and E.coli, which means that the city will be infectious and toxic even after the water is finally pumped out. Buildings will have to be razed or decontaminated before anyone can live in them, and it’ll be months before there is water or electricity available. Underground sewage mains have ruptured, many in places where crews will have to cut through large blocks of the street to get at them.
The hospital has brought in a large portion of its staff, and many closed areas of the facility that needed repairs are getting ready to reopen. We are crawling with the National Guard, many of them from Puerto Rico, a place that is not even granted the privilege of statehood yet we can recruit them into our armed forces—someone explain that to me. The facility is safe, secure, and nearly fully staffed.
My small part seems to be over. Tomorrow I take the evacuation shuttle to Baton Rouge where, thanks to an old friend, I have a plane ticket waiting to take me to Tristyn in Roanoke. After a week or so to recover and plan our next steps we’ll be driving cross-country to California to start rebuilding our life, a trip that I pray will be less eventful than these last two weeks. If there’s a word to describe the marrow-deep fatigue I feel right now, I don’t know what it is.
This will be the last dispatch.
I’m getting out.