Anarchy in NOLA

Touchdown in New Orleans. After losing our whole load and camp to that damned Charlie Gray, we pieced together a diminished, ragged operation: a quarter ton of supplies, four semi-impoverished people, a couple of leaky tents and a raggedy-ass GMC van we had to put some serious N’awluns hoo-doo on to make sure we actually made it. Now we are in the 7th Ward, at Mama D’s formerly flooded house in a shuttered neighborhood. The sheetrock on the bottom floor has been ripped out, the slab hosed down and scrubbed. Through the warped studs, you can see tents set up in the basement. A three kilowatt generator chutters along somewhere in the backyard. Mama’s house is the only one alive; the rest sit abandoned, gray–empty.

From Mobile to NOLA, think of every movie with an end-of-the-world theme you’ve ever seen. Miles, furlongs, leagues of shattered houses, blocks after block of ghostly gray cars–a Hollywood set-dresser’s wet dream.

The only consistent aspect to that inconceivable arc of devastation is that no one has seen anyone. No one, and I mean no one, I spoke to had established an ongoing contact with any outside government, church organization or NGO while I was there earlier this month. Mobile, New Orleans, but especially Biloxi–no Red Cross, no FEMA, no Methodists. The survivors had seen a big bunch of nothing yet–besides convoys of Humvees, soldiers in full battle gear hurtling through the ruined neighborhoods. Whole cities have been left to fend for themselves.

I see activity in a back room. I walk into the room and encounter a young woman– tattooed, pierced, a belt-full of tools, hunched over a vault full of inverters, gauges and a dozen or so deep-cycle, 12-volt marine batteries pillaged from wrecked boats (“looted,” as she put it, from flooded gen-sets) after all the bodies had been taken away.

“I pulled five bodies,” she told me, a palpable sense of “oh well,” not so much of bravado; more a test to see how I would react.

That’s what it’s like–Road Warrior or something. A whole culture of necessity coming to life, true anarchy in the best sense of the word.

A couple days later, on our second run to Algiers from the Veterans for Peace ( camp–two worn-but-serviceable houses in a run-down section of Mobile–we’d stopped in Biloxi to carry one of S.O.S.’s (Saving Our Selves, generators to our new friend, Joe, who we’d met at the S.O.S.’s 12,000-square-foot warehouse. Joe led the way into the smashed city of Biloxi in a beat-down blue Nissan–the only operational vehicle left.

“The flood waters came so quickly,” says Joe, former owner of a successful, ruined computer business, “my uncle didn’t have time to get out of the house. He chopped his way out there.” Joe points to a hole in the room of a modest one-story house with a tree fallen against it, surrounded by flooded vehicles and destroyed houses. A small boat had floated by, and as the waters rose, the people had gotten aboard, tied the boat to a pipe and ridden the storm out for four hours. Then the boat came to rest on the AC unit. What was left was a nightmare–more than half the houses knocked off their foundations, roofs staved in, all flooded, and the bodies, hundreds of them in a miasma of greasy black mud and storm debris.

“I counted 200,” Joe says calmly, matter of factly, of his hunt for another uncle he never found. That was one neighborhood. “They got pretty banged up. It was mostly parts of bodies, torsos.”

“So who’s been here to help?”

“No one,” says Joe.

And that is the story over and over. Despite all the pretty pictures of Salvation Army and Red Cross tents and truckfuls of soldiers, until we arrived–we like something out of Apocalypse Now in our self-contained little van-world–no one had seen anyone from the outside world in that wrecked neighborhood. They have quite simply been written off, left to do the best they can amid the ruins, smelling of death, covered in the water-borne toxins–petroleum from the cars and the toxic black mold that infests everything, deposited in great thick mats of black spores covering the furniture, clothes, wall board, the cars, everything. As we stood there in the devastation, eyes wide, a white van came crawling along the destroyed street, appearing on cue.

It was a couple of white Red Cross kids, looking kinda goofy, so clean they were in their white smocks and ball caps.

“Y’all need water?” they ask, nearly bubbling. Joe stands there, casting sidelong glances at us. “Naw,” he says. “We just got in. We are supplied.”

The kids were on their off hours, their own time. “We got tired of sitting around the headquarters doing nothing. We just decided to go out on our own.”

“See what I mean?” says Joe after they drove on.

Malevolent neglect. There are other terms for what is happening, but the ones like “genocide” make people squirm, so I have to find some other expression. But there are few words that fit; like how at the FEMA camp someone decided to give the excess water from their purification system to the people outside the perimeter, only to be told by some man-in-black that since FEMA “couldn’t provide security for the water shipments” it was to be dumped out on the ground, thousands and thousands of gallons of desperately needed water dumped in the gutter to be pumped into the lake.

A plan developed to stay at the FEMA camp. That was it. I told my friends I didn’t care if FEMA had hot food, showers, air conditioning and wash and fold service, I wasn’t spending my night behind razor ribbon and machine guns; I didn’t even want to smell the place, didn’t want their food. I would take my chances with the anarchists at Common Ground, one of the ad-hoc organizations, in the vacuum, who are actually doing something (

After a night at Common Ground, we go to their new clinic in Algiers. There we find an oasis amid the ruins and chaos–a true miracle brought by the storm, maybe the only good thing. For the first time, many people in Algiers have access to a neighborhood clinic. The fact is that Common Grounds Clinic is the only medical infrastructure in the city.

“There was nothing before,” says Jefferson Sa, a Brazilian M.D. whose organization, AIDSAIL, partnered with Common Ground.

“So this is actually an improvement in some sense,” I say.

Sa nods his head, smiling slightly with a weary professionalism.

You wouldn’t think that in North America, in the 35th biggest city in the nation, that the poorest residents had never had access to reliable medical care, but that is one of the blinding realities exposed by the winds and floods brought by Katrina. And here, amid the wreckage, a sign of hope–babes in arms, old yellow-eyed men, shy about the new experience of being poked and examined by an actual doctor, injected and talked to like humans, about their worries and the scrapes and infections–the thin line of the clinic made even more important by the fact that the two hospitals serving the indigent are now so contaminated that they will have to be demolished. This old guy, Q, is doing this mad Michael Jackson moonwalk shtick. “I been treated with love,” Q hollers, acupuncture needles sticking out of his ears.

So, despite what you have seen in the media, I’ll say it again so you understand what I am saying: Outside of the pretty pictures of the French Quarter, bristling with troops, sketchy contractors and various police agencies, things along the Gulf Coast are not getting better. If anything they are getting worse as time goes on–more infection, more respiratory ailments, more despair. And now that the cold, rainy months are on the way, the situation is taking on a more desperate air–with Veterans for Peace and the other groups still on the forefront of the relief duties. “We showed up the third day,” says Gordon Soderberg, a Veterans for Peace activist. “We set up in a public park in Covington, Louisiana, next to the Red Cross facility, which was locked.” VFP soon moved up to a school, powered up the facility with generators and served Red Cross Volunteers their first meals in 48 hours. From five guys in a park, the effort has had 400 volunteers go through the camp and distributed “300 tons of stores,” worth millions. These unpaid activists have been a lifeline, the only one for thousands of storm survivors.

What should you do? If you really want to help, do not send another dime to FEMA, the Red Cross or the other big charities. While the papers are full of self-congratulatory crowing about how much money has been raised, how many tons of supplies have been gathered, the needs of the people are, quite simply, for one reason or another, not being met. Period. You are wasting your money and generosity. The only relief meals I saw being served were tourists filling up at Salvation Army meal wagons in the French Quarter (where I had a reasonable brisket sandwich and a bracing Heineken). It has gotten so bad that Red Cross people are showing up in Baton Rouge, tendering their resignations and hooking up with VFP, S.O.S. and Common Ground.

So, if you really want to help, the organizations mentioned in this piece are the ones to give to, the ones that are actually doing something. One can argue till the moon falls about why the big charities are so useless; I don’t have the time. Algiers community activist Malik Rahim is going to Biloxi to check out our report. There is talk of another clinic opening in that town.

So now, the next plan is another trip, this one much more selective and precise. This is going to be a long, painful recovery, and anyone with a shred of humanity had better get shed of the idea that a hundred bucks to the Red Cross is going to make it better. It is going to take years of sweat, tears and cash to make this better, and if your concern is more than words, you’d best hitch up your britches and get to it.