This is a transcription of the first act of This American Life episode 296, provided for people who can’t access audio files. This espisode is titled After The Flood, and provides excellent coverage of Hurricane Katrina.
The audio stream and description of this show is available at http://www.thislife.org/pages/descriptions/05/296.html
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There are five acts in this episode. Only the Prologue and Act 1 are transcribed below.
IRA GLASS: “Ok, in the coming weeks and months we are all going to be hearing so much about Hurricane Katrina, and why the government’s response was so abysmal. And already the blame-shifting is like this prizefight that is already in its third or fourth round. Already we have heard officials try to shrug off any attempts at accountability by saying that it too soon, by saying that they are not going to play the blame game.
And before the million details and arguments and counter-arguments start to make all of our heads woozy, I would just like to repeat here something that was talked about very briefly this week. One of those things that seems so fundamental, that seems to cut through a lot of the supposed debate that is happening and end it definitively.
It’s so much so. that when I would see people on TV posturing and trotting out their talking points I kept wanting to go back and say no no no no no no don’t forget this thing.
It has to do with the biggest argument out there right now. Whether the federal government was supposed to be in charge of rescuing people and getting food and water and all that into New Orleans. It has come up a lot. Like when the head of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff was asked by Tim Russert on Meet The Press, “Since you knew the storm was coming, why didn’t you get busses and trains and planes and trucks in there to evacuate?” Chertoff said it wasn’t his job.
CHERTOFF: “Tim, the way that emergency operations act under the law is the responsibility and the.. the power, the authority rests with state and local officials.”
IRA GLASS: “This idea that is was state and local officials who were the ones that blew it, not the feds, this idea is all over the place. From the talking heads on TV, to Rush Limbaugh…
RUSH LIMBAUGH: “What we had down there was an eminent(?) failure of state and local government. We had incompetence in the mayors office, incompetence in the governor’s office.”
IRA GLASS: And sure, it is clear, even this early, that there are plenty of things that state and local government did to screw things up. But here’s this thing that I read this week, this thing that I kept thinking about all week. It really comes down to a couple of basic facts.
The governor of Louisiana declares a state of emergency the Friday before the storm hits, right? Calls on the federal government to step in. Then President Bush officially declares a state of emergency in Louisiana the next day, Saturday before the storm, and authorizes the Federal Emergency Management Agency to act. You can read the paper where he does this on the White House website. Basically, that should have settled who was in charge.
WILLIAM NICHOLSON: “After that happened, there was plenty of authority. There was all the authority in the world.”
IRA GLASS: “We checked out this idea that from that point the Federal government was, in fact, in charge. We checked that out with several different experts and consultants on these issues this week, and they all agreed that the law is unambiguous.
But this particular guy is William Nicholson, author of the books “Emergency Response” and “Emergency Management Law and Homeland Security Law and Policy”. And if you are into Homeland Security policy you might want to check those out.
He says that once the governor asked for help and the President declares a state of emergency, the Feds basically have the broad powers to do what is necessary. And he says, even if the president hadn’t declared a state of emergency, the head of the Department of Homeland Security, Chertoff, could have acted. There’s this whole new-fangled way for him to take emergency powers under something called the National Response Plan.
WILLIAM NICHOLSON: “Well, basically the way it works is the Secretary of Homeland Security designates this as a catastrophic incident and federal resources deploy to preset federal locations or staging areas and, so they don’t even have to have a local or state declaration in order to move forward with this.”
IRA GLASS: “In other words, it doesn’t matter what the governor says, it doesn’t matter what the local people say. Basically once that happens they can just go ahead and do what needs to be done to fix the problem.”
WILLIAM NICHOLSON: “That’s correct. It’s utterly clear that they had the authority to pre-position assets and to significantly accelerate the federal response.
IRA GLASS: And they didn’t need to wait for the state?”
WILLIAM NICHOLSON: “They did not need to wait for the state.”
IRA GLASS: Remember, you heard it here first. Remember you heard it at all.
From WBEZ in Chicago, it’s This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I’m Ira Glass. Today on our program we have stories in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. One of the things that all of us who work on the radio show thought we could do today in this hour is give people who were in the storm more time than daily news shows can give to tell their stories and talk about what happened.. Talk about what they are thinking now.
We have somebody who was at the convention center who tells, among other things, the story that her mom wants you to hear. Plus, one thing that she says is being widely mis-reported and misunderstood in the coverage of the convention center.. what happened there.
We also have somebody who police prevented from leaving the city.
And we have a teenager who explains what it actually feels like to go without water for two days. And more. Stay with us.
Act 1: Middle of Somewhere
IRA GLASS: Well, when Denise Moore finally made her way out of New Orleans – she had been at the convention center – she was surprised to see the coverage.
DENISE MOORE: I kept hearing the word ‘animal’. And I didn’t see animals. We were trapped like animals, but I saw the greatest humanity I’ve ever seen from the most unlikely places.
IRA GLASS: Denise Moore eventually ended up at the convention center with her mom, her niece, and her niece’s two-year-old daughter, but the day before the storm, because Denise’s mom worked at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans, because hospital employees are allowed to stay there during hurricanes, all of them went to the hospital.
They were given a room to stay in but later they were kicked out of the room for two white nurses.
DENISE MOORE: Yeah, so I got really mad.
IRA GLASS: mm-hmm.
DENISE MOORE: You know, so I went home. And, um, so I went to the house. I set up my twin bed in the hallway. The hallway supposedly structurally is the best place to be if the building’s gonna be moving around, if there’s high winds.
IRA GLASS: mm-hmm.
DENISE MOORE: And, uh, and good thing I did. Somewhere around five o’clock in the morning, I jumped up out of bed. The ceiling started crashing down around me. I was riding that bed like a horse. I was so scared. I had never been that scared for that long. We lived on the second floor, and so I was scared that it was going to fall through. That, even in the hallway, that the building was swaying so much that I would fall through the floor and then end up injured down there, and nobody would find me.
And, um, next thing I know the water is pouring through the ceiling. I was like, well.. And people were calling on the phone. “You should have stayed at the hospital.” It was ridiculous. I was just scared, fearing for my life. For the next four hours, my heart was in my throat. I was like, “Oh, no, when this is over I’m going back to the hospital.” And so I went back to the hospital.
IRA GLASS: Can I ask you before you tell what happens next, why not just evacuate?
DENISE MOORE: Well, first of all, my mom is essential personnel, so she couldn’t leave. I don’t have a car, so I couldn’t leave. Um, my niece was going to go with her mother, but we didn’t want them to get trapped on the highway in the storm with the baby.
IRA GLASS: mm-hmm.
DENISE MOORE: So we thought it would be safer to just stay at the hospital, because we rode out the last hurricane at home but we sent my niece to the hospital with her baby.
IRA GLASS: mm-hmm.
DENISE MOORE: You know, that’s just been the way it goes. The hospital was the safest place to be if you were going to stay in the city.
IRA GLASS: So you walk back to the hospital, and what do you find there?
DENISE MOORE: Well, there’s a lot of people roaming around with their kids, and we’re sharing food and we’re having a good ol’ time just waiting for it… a chance to go back home.
IRA GLASS: mm-hmm.
DENISE MOORE: Then, uh.. Then, um, the levees broke. And the next morning I was able to go back to the house ‘cause I wanted to pick up my degrees. I earned ‘em. [laughs]. Wanted to make sure they weren’t wet and frankly I was looking for a carton of cigarettes that I knew was in that house, so I went.
IRA GLASS: And so did you find the cigarettes?
DENISE MOORE: I found the cigarettes. [laughs]
IRA GLASS: And were they dry?
DENISE MOORE: And I found my degrees.
IRA GLASS: mm-hmm.
DENISE MOORE: And I grabbed my vital papers.. my social security card.. none of that was wet because it was in a little purse. And, um, I brought my vital papers back to the hospital and my mom and Sydney were going to go back to the house to go get theirs. But the water started rising. So, within a couple of hours, we weren’t able to get back to the house. You know, it just kept rising. We thought, OK, now we’re trapped in here and we don’t know how high this water is going to get.
IRA GLASS: mm-hmm.
DENISE MOORE: So, it finally covered the basement, so the generators went out. It covered the first floor…
IRA GLASS: Now, when you said “covered the first floor”, was it actually coming inside the hospital building?
D: So, the heartbreaking thing was watching them turn people away, who had waded through the water to get to that hospital for safe haven. It was amazing. It was heartbreaking.
I: How often did you see that?
D: You know, that happened over and over again. The person who sticks out most in my mind is a man who had his wife and his two children, and his baby.. and his daughter was so dehydrated.. that people were yelling at him, “You can’t come in here!” And, um, and so the people.. we were on the, um, smoking patio, which is on the second floor. So we saw them. And we were yelling at them, “Man, leave the baby! Man, leave the baby!”
And he was like, “I can’t leave my baby! We don’t have a house.. how am I gonna find my baby if I leave him with you? I don’t know where you’re gonna take him, and I’ve been in this water for two days..” And, um, it was devastating to just see that, and, uh, we knew that nobody was going to be able to come up in there, so we, the people on the smoking, um, balcony, we would like throw him water and we would.. we would try to throw him food, and…
I: And where’d they send him to?
D: I don’t know. We don’t know where he went. But I did find out later that they were letting in people with gunshot wounds and snakebites, so it wasn’t like they turned everybody away. It was just that, I guess they where thinking, “We got three thousand people in this hospital we have to evacuate. We cannot take on any more responsibility.” You know.
D: I understood why they had to turn ‘em away. It was just.. it was just heartbreaking to see.
I: Yeah. So.. so you were in the hospital until… and there’s no power in the hospital, but there’s water and it sounds like there’s food, too.
D: We didn’t have water, um, after that first night.
I: Oh, really?
D: Yeah, we ran out of everything. Um, you know, because people were sharing with each other, we just thought we’d be able to go home in a minute.
D: That’s the thing. It’s like, you survived the hurricane. I was a happy camper, because I had been more scared than I had ever been in my life, and I walked outta there. You know, so who knew?
I: So, how long were you at the hospital? How many days? When did you get out?
D: Two days, and then we were transported to that corner. And what we heard was that we were going to be dropped off, by boat, to a corner, and the busses would pick us up, and we would be heading to Chessie(?)
D: That’s what we were told.
I: And the busses come, and they take you where?
D: It wasn’t busses, it was.. the police had to commandeer vehicles. They were asking people in the crowd if they knew how to drive trucks and busses. They were stealing them.
The police had to steal vehicles. And so it was totally different than what we anticipated.
I: So, wait.. wait. They’re just taking like, any random truck and, and, and hot-wiring it?
D: And busses. Yeah.
I: And so what was the vehicle that you got to the next place in? Like, what were you in?
D: There was a Key and Lock van..
I: Right, locksmith.
D: ..That happened to be driving around, and the police made him start taking us.
I: And then.. and then you go to, uh, to where?
D: We go to the convention center. And when we arrive, there were people all over the street, under the bridge, and we were like, “Why are these people on the street, why aren’t they in the convention center?” And when we got there people were saying, “You don’t want to go in there.”
I: Did you go inside at all?
D: Not until the next day.
I: What did you see?
D: A sewer. A sewer. Literally. Because I had to use the bathroom and I was like, “Where’s the bathroom?” So, I went inside and the whole place was a bathroom. Steppin’ in feces, steppin’ in urine, all over the carpets. I mean, I used to work at the convention center. It was just.. that was hard to see.
D: It was a beautiful building. And.. it was a toilet. And people were sitting as close as they could to the doors but the smell was overwhelming.
I: So, then, like what’s… what do you do? Like, what’s the best you can do?
D: I actually stopped eating the minute we got there. I wouldn’t eat or drink anything. ‘Cause I figured if you don’t put nothing in, nothing’s coming out. I was in the army… shhh.. But even that bad I still had to use the bathroom, it was ridiculous.
So what I ended up doing was getting a cup, going behind the partition, having a guy guard me while I was, um, relieving myself in a cup behind some partition in the convention center.
D: And, I got all kinds of stuff on my feet. Thank God it started raining, because I have a really sensitive nose. I was sitting down and I could smell the crap on my feet.
I: And where’d you all sleep?
D: We slept on the sidewalk. This place.. there was trash all over the ground outside, and I was thinking, “How were the girls even going to lay down with their babies? There’s not a spot that’s clean. Nothing. There’s nowhere to lay down.”
D: You know. And then, what my mom wanted me to make sure I tell you, what they kept doing, the whole time, was tell us to line up for the busses that never came.
It was like they were doing drills every four hours. “Y’all have to line up for the bus, and if you bum rush the bus, they are just going to take off without you, and nobody’s going to get to go anywhere. You have to line up, you have to be in a straight line.”
We’re talking about old people in wheelchairs and women with babies. In line. Waiting for busses that you know goddamn well aren’t coming. Like they were playing with us. I figured it out early in the morning, but what am I supposed to do? Make an announcement? “The busses aren’t coming!”
And so I walked up to the so-called head guy in charge of our section and I told him that, “Why do have these people sitting out here in the sun? And you know the busses aren’t coming.”
“The busses are coming.”
I says, “You’re just playing with us. Who gives you the authority to keep lining us up like this? To stand in this heat?”
He was like, “Well, I know they guy who can make the call for the buses!”
I say, “Well, why hasn’t he called them? People are dying!”
He says, “I wish I could tell you what you wanted to hear.”
I says, “I wanna hear the truth. Are the buses coming or not? We need to get these old people and these babies out of this heat!”
And then he just walked away. And we were left there. Without help. Without food. Without water. Without sanitary conditions. As is it’s perfectly all right for these ‘animals’ to reside in a freakin’ sewer like rats.
Because there were nothing but black people back there.
D: [bleep] disposable.. And then the story became, “They left us here to die. They’re gonna kill us.”
I: You mean, that’s what people were saying to each other?
I: And is that what you believed?
D: I was almost convinced.
I: That.. that basically
D: ‘Cause I kept having a vision of them opening that flood gate on us.
D: Of my niece and her baby floating away from me, screaming.
D: And I just knew it. And then the next morning, um, I heard from somebody that they actually were gonna open that flood gate. So, by the time the rumor started that the National Guard was going to kill us, and.. I almost half-way believed it.
I: And.. and so people were saying, basically, they brought us here, they’re going to leave us here to die?
D: Yeah. That’s what we thought. The police kept passing us by. And the National Guard kept passing us by with their guns pointed at us. And.. Because they.. they wouldn’t… When you see a truck full of water and people have been crying for water for a day and a night, and a water truck passes you by.. Just keeps going.. How are we supposed to believe these people are here to help us?
It was almost like they were taunting us. And then.. Don’t forget they kept lining us up for busses that never showed up.
D: We thought they were playing with us. And that’s the best-case scenario. And in the worst-case scenario they wanted us to either kill each other, or die. Or they were going to kill us.
I: So we.. we keep hearing in the news about.. about violence inside the convention center, and people getting killed, and women being raped. Did you know about any of that when you were there?
D: The convention center is sections A through J, I believe. We were about at H. And we could hear.. kinda craziness goin on on the further ends in either direction.
But where we are is mostly old people and women with children, and I didn’t see anybody get raped. I did see people die.
I saw one man die and I saw a girl and her baby die.
But I.. I didn’t see anybody getting… hurt.
I: And talk about it.. there were men, uh, just kinda roaming with guns.. Uh.. Packs of men.. and just..
D: They were securing the area. Criminals. These guys were criminals. They were. You know?
D: But somehow these guys got together, figured out who had guns and decided they were going to make sure that no women were getting raped. Because we did hear about the women getting raped in the Superdome.
D: That nobody was hurting babies. That nobody was hurting these old people.
They were the ones getting juice for the babies. They were the ones who were getting clothes for people who had walked through that water. They were the ones fanning the old people, because that’s what moved the guys, the gangster guys, the most.
The plight of the old people. That’s what haunted me the most. Seeing the old people sitting in them chairs, not being able to get up and walk around or nothing.
I: mm-hmm. And so these were just guys from the neighborhood.
I: What else were they doing?
D: They started looting on St. Charles and um, St. Charles and Napoleon(?) there was a Rite-Aid there. They, you know, you would think that they would be stealing stuff that, you know, fun stuff because its a free city according to them, right?
But they were taking juice for the baby, water, beer for the older people, food, raincoats, so they could all be seen, you know, by each other and stuff, and, you know I thought it was pretty cool that they were well-organized.
I: And wait, and did you see this yourself, these guys going off..
I: And so basically they went of to this Rite-Aid, they got this stuff, they brought it back and started distributing it?
I: Like Robin Hood.
D: Yeah, exactly like Robin Hood. That’s why I got so mad because, they’re calling these guys animals. These guys. That’s what got to me. Because I know what they did.
D: You callin’ these people animals? You know? Come on! I saw what they did and I was really touched by it, and I liked the way they were organized about it, and that they were thoughtful about it, because they had families that they couldn’t find, too.
D: You know, and they would put themselves out like that on other people’s behalf. You know, I never had a real high opinion of thugs myself, but, I tell you one thing, I’ll never look at them the same way again.
I: Why didn’t people just walk away? That’s.. That’s what I don’t understand. Couldn’t you just..
D: You weren’t allowed to. The police… People kept trying to go up the bridge so they could go to Algiers…
D: …and they’d be turned away. And they’d.. they’d be sent back down.
I: And would.. and literally they would just go a could streets away and somebody would send them back?
D: They’d go up the bridge..
D: ..to go across to the west bank, where it was dry..
D: ..and lights were on. You know? And the National Guard was up there with guns, and they turned them back with guns, and the government gave orders to shoot to kill. You couldn’t get through ‘em.
D: So, people would go up the bridge, everytime they lined us up for the busses, and the busses wouldn’t come.. People in groups would go up the bridge trying to get across the river.
People who had family across the river couldn’t get across the river. They were not letting us out of there. They wasn’t letting nobody in. So, we were trapped. I.. I can’t even express it.
D: The tears get close to my eyes, and I have this feeling in the pit of my stomach that if I start crying the sobs will kill me.
D: I guess someday it’ll calm down and I’ll be able to just cry like a normal person. But I feel like if I started crying now I’ll never stop.
I: Denise Moore, she’s now in Baton Rouge, she’s OK. She’s just found a new job there.