Transcript

296:

After the Flood
Transcript

Originally aired 09.09.2005

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/296

Prologue.

Ira Glass

In the coming weeks and months, we're 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 prize fight that's already in its third or fourth round. Already we've heard officials try to shrug off any attempts at accountability by saying that it's too soon, by saying they're not going to play the blame game. And before the million details and arguments and counterarguments 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's happening and end it definitively.

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, don't forget this thing. It has to do with the biggest argument out there right now, whether the federal government was, in fact, supposed to be in charge of rescuing people and getting food and water and all that into New Orleans, which 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 buses and trains and planes and trucks in there to evacuate? Chertoff said it wasn't his job.

Michael Chertoff

Tim, the way that emergency operations act under the law is the responsibility and the power, the authority, rests with state and local officials.

Ira Glass

This idea, that it was state and local officials who are the ones who 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 mayor's 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, 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. 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're into Homeland Security policy, you might want to check those out.

He says that once the governor asks for help, and the President declares a state of emergency, the feds basically have the broad powers to do what's 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 newfangled 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. 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 preposition 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. Well, from WBEZ 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 during this hour is give people who were in the storm more time than daily news shows could give, to tell their stories and talk about what happened, talk about what they're 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 she says is being widely misreported and misunderstood in the coverage of the convention center and what happened there. We also have somebody who police prevented from leaving the city. And we have a teenager who explains just what it actually feels like to go without water for two days, and more. Stay with us.

Act One. Middle Of Somewhere.

Ira Glass

Act one, Middle Of Somewhere. 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 never 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, and 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. So I went home. 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 is going to be moving around if there's high winds. And good thing I did. Somewhere around 5 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, so I was scared it was going to fall through. That even in the hallways, that the building was swaying so much that I'd fall through the floor and end up injured down there, and nobody would find me.

Next thing I know, the water is pouring through the ceiling. And people were calling on the phone, you should have stayed at the hospital. It was ridiculous. I was scared fearing for my life for eight full hours. My heart was in my throat. I was like, 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. 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. 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. 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 old time just waiting for a chance to go back home. Then the levees broke. And the next morning, I was able to go back to the house, because I wanted to pick up my degrees, I earned them. I 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 somewhere.

Ira Glass

And so did you find the cigarettes?

Denise Moore

I found the cigarettes.

Ira Glass

And were they dry?

Denise Moore

And I found my degrees. And I grabbed my vital papers, my social security card, my-- none of that was wet, because it was in a little purse. And I brought my vital papers back to the hospital, and my mom is saying, we're going to go back to the house to go get theirs. But the water started rising, so within a couple of hours, you weren't able to get back to the house. 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. So it finally covered the basement, so the generators went out. It covered the first floor.

Ira Glass

And when you say cover the first floor, was it actually coming inside the hospital building?

Denise Moore

Yeah. So the heartbreaking thing was watching them turn people away who had waded through that water to get to the hospital for safe haven. It was amazing. It was heartbreaking.

Ira Glass

How often do you see that?

Denise Moore

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-- his daughter was so dehydrated. The people were yelling at him, you can't come in here. We were on the 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 going to find my baby if I leave him with you? I don't know where you're going to take him. I've been in this water for two days. It was just devastating to just see that.

We knew that nobody was going to be able to come up in there. And so the people on the smoking balcony, we would throw them water, and we tried to throw them food.

Ira Glass

And where'd they send him to?

Denise Moore

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 snake bites, so it wasn't like they turned everybody away. It was just that, I guess they were thinking we got 3,000 people in this hospital we have to evacuate, we cannot take on any more responsibility. So I understood why they had to turn them away. It was just heartbreaking to see.

Ira Glass

So you are in hospital until-- and there's no power in the hospital, but there's water, and it sounds like there's food too.

Denise Moore

We didn't have water after that first night.

Ira Glass

Oh really?

Denise Moore

Yeah, we ran out of everything, because people were sharing with each other, and we just thought we'd be able to go home in a minute. That's the thing. It's like, you survived the hurricane. I was a happy camper, because I'd been more scared than I'd ever been in my life, and I walked out of there. So who knew?

Ira Glass

So how long were you in the hospital? How many days? When did you get out?

Denise Moore

Two days, and then we were transported to that corner. And what we heard is that we were going to be dropped off by boat to a corner, and the buses will pick us up, and we'll be heading to Texas. That's what we were told.

Ira Glass

And then the buses come in and they take you where?

Denise Moore

It wasn't buses. The police had to commandeer vehicles. They were asking people in the crowd if they knew how to drive trucks and buses. They were stealing them. The police had to steal vehicles. And so it was totally different than what we anticipated.

Ira Glass

So wait, they're just taking any random truck and hotwiring it?

Denise Moore

School buses. Yeah.

Ira Glass

And so what was the vehicle that you got to the next place in? What were you in?

Denise Moore

There was a key and lock van.

Ira Glass

Right, a locksmith?

Denise Moore

Yeah, that happened to be driving around, and the police made him start taking us.

Ira Glass

And then you go to where?

Denise Moore

We go to the convention center. And when we arrived, there were people all over the street, under the bridge. And we're 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.

Ira Glass

Did you go inside at all?

Denise Moore

Not until the next day.

Ira Glass

What did you see?

Denise Moore

Inside?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Denise Moore

A sewer. A sewer, literally, because I had to use the bathroom, and I was like, where's the bathroom? So I went inside, the whole place was a bathroom. I was stepping in feces, stepping in urine all over the carpets. I used to work as the convention center. That was hard to see. It was a beautiful building. It was a toilet, and people were sitting close as they could to the doors, but the smell was overwhelming.

Ira Glass

So then what do you do? What's the best you can do?

Denise Moore

I actually stopped eating the minute we got there. I wouldn't eat or drink anything, because I figured if you don't put nothing in, nothing's coming out. I was in the Army. But even after that, I still had to use the bathroom. It was ridiculous. So what I ended up doing was getting a cup, going behind a partition, having a guy guard me while I was relieving myself in a cup behind some partition at the convention center. 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.

Ira Glass

And where did you all sleep?

Denise Moore

We slept on the sidewalk. This place, there was trash all over the ground outside, and I was thinking, how are the girls going to even lay down with their babies? There's not a spot that's clean, nothing. There's nowhere to lay down. And then 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 buses that never came. It was like they were doing drills every four hours. You all have to line up for the bus. And if you bum rush the bus, they're just going to take off without you, and nobody is 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 lines, waiting for buses that you know God damn 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 buses aren't coming. And so I walked up to the so-called head guy in charge of our section, and I told him, I said, why do you have these people sitting out here in the sun, and you know these buses aren't coming? The buses are coming. I said, 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 the guy who can make the call for the buses. I said, well, why hasn't he called them? People are dying.

He said, I wish I could tell you what you wanted to hear. I said, I want to hear the truth. Are the buses coming or not? We need to get these old people and these babies out of this heat. And he just walked away, and we were left there, without help, without food, without water, without sanitary conditions, as if it's perfectly all right for these animals to reside in a fricking sewer like rats. Because there was nothing but black people back there. [BLEEP] disposable. And then, the story became they left us here to die, they're going to kill us.

Ira Glass

You mean that's what people were saying to each other?

Denise Moore

Yes.

Ira Glass

And is that what you believed?

Denise Moore

I was almost convinced, because I kept having a vision of them opening that floodgate on us, of my niece and her baby floating away from me screaming. And I just knew it. And then the next morning, I heard from somebody that they actually were going to open that floodgate. So by the time the rumor started that the National Guard was going to kill us, I almost halfway believed it.

Ira Glass

And so people were saying, basically they just brought us here, they're going to leave us here to die?

Denise Moore

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. When you see a truck full of water, and people have been crying for water for a day and a night, and the water truck passes you by, just keeps going, how are we supposed to believe that these people were here to help us? It was almost like they were taunting us. And then, don't forget they kept lining us up for buses that never showed up. We thought they were playing with us in a best case scenario. In a worst case scenario, they wanted us to either kill each other or die. Or they were going to kill us.

Ira Glass

So we keep hearing in the news 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?

Denise Moore

The convention center is section A through J, I believe. We were about at H, and we could hear kind of craziness going on on the further ends in either direction. But where we are was 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 didn't see anybody getting hurt.

Ira Glass

And talk about, there were men just kind of like roaming with guns, packs of men.

Denise Moore

They were securing the area. Criminals, these guys were criminals, they were. 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 get raped in the Superdome, and that nobody was hurting babies, and nobody was hurting these old people.

They were the ones getting juice for the babies. They were the ones getting clothes for people that 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 those old people sitting in them chairs, and not being able to get up and walk around or nothing.

Ira Glass

And so these were just guys from the neighborhood?

Denise Moore

Mm-hmm.

Ira Glass

What else were they doing?

Denise Moore

They started looting on Saint Charles and Napoleon. There was a Rite-Aid there. And you would think that they would be stealing stuff that, you know, fun stuff or whatever, because it's a free city, according to them. But they were taking juice for the baby, water, beer for the older people, food, raincoats so that they could all be seen by each other and stuff. And I thought it was pretty cool and very well organized.

Ira Glass

And did you see this yourself, these guys?

Denise Moore

Yeah, I was right there.

Ira Glass

And so basically, they went off to this Rite-Aid, they got the stuff, they brought it back and started distributing it?

Denise Moore

Mm-hmm.

Ira Glass

Like Robin Hood?

Denise Moore

Yeah, exactly like Robin Hood. And 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. You're calling these people animals? Come on. And I saw what they did, and I was really touched by it, and I liked the way that they were organized about it, and that they were thoughtful about it. Because they had families they couldn't find too, and that they would put themselves out like that on other people's behalf.

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.

Ira Glass

Why didn't people just walk away? That's what I don't understand.

Denise Moore

We weren't allowed. People kept trying to go up the bridge, so they could go to Algiers, and they'd be turned away, and they'd be sent back down.

Ira Glass

And literally, they would just like go a couple streets away, and somebody would send them back?

Denise Moore

They'd go up the bridge to go across to the West Bank where it was dry and lights were on. And the National Guard was up there with guns. They turned them back with guns, and the Governor gave orders to shoot to kill. You couldn't get through them.

So people would go up the bridge. Every time they lined us up for the buses, and buses 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 can't even express it. The tears get close to my eyes, and I have this feeling in the pit in my stomach like if I start crying, the sobs will kill me. 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, I'd never stop.

Ira Glass

Denise Moore, she's now in Baton Rouge, she's OK, she's just found a new job there.

[MUSIC - "WHEN THE LEVEE BREAKS" BY MEMPHIS MINNIE]

Act Two. Forgotten, But Not Lost.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Forgotten, But Not Lost. Let's return to that bridge. You know that bridge that Denise talked about in act one, that people got to the bridge and they were turned back by armed police officers? What exactly happened on that bridge? We wondered about that, and so in this act, we return to that bridge. People in this story were in New Orleans for a paramedics convention. They're out of towners. They were staying at a hotel in the French Quarter. And as the storm approached, there were no flights out of the city, there were no rental cars available. And so they stayed in their hotel, luckily their hotel let them stay. No electricity, eating boxed cereal, canned soup, whatever they had there in the hotel.

And then three days after Katrina hit, one of the hotel managers actually decided to take matters into his own hands, and took up a collection from his guests to raise $25,000 to charter a bunch of private buses to get these people out. And so all that day, guests are getting reports that buses are coming, and all these reports. And they were told to line up and wait for the buses. And then five or six hours after they were told to line up and wait, around midnight they heard word that no, the buses had been commandeered by the military as they entered the city.

OK, so the next morning, the hotel is out of food, they're out of water. They basically said, everybody, you got to go now. Lorrie Beth Slonsky and her husband Larry Bradshaw, they're both paramedics from San Francisco, they set off with about 200 other hotel guests that morning for the command center that the police had set up down the street at Harrah's Casino. They go there and they asked the police, what should they do now? Lorrie Beth talked to producer Alex Blumberg.

Lorrie Beth Slonsky

They said you can't go to the Superdome. You cannot go to the convention center. We said, where can we go? They said, we don't know. You are on your own. And that's when we decide, let's camp in front of the police command center in front of Harrah's. There'd be protection, we'd have each other until the next day. Then the police command center realized they had an issue on their hand. They have 200 tourists in front of their command center, so he said, wait, I just heard word. If you cross the bridge, there are buses.

And a big cheer went up, but Larry, being the realist that he is, said wait a minute, wait a minute. We have been lied to. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, today is Thursday. We really would like some guarantee that this is true. And he looked us in the eye and said, I swear to you. There are buses on the bridge. I just got word.

Alex Blumberg

Now where is the bridge at this point from where you're standing?

Lorrie Beth Slonsky

It's two miles through town. It's called the Pontchartrain Expressway. So the 200 of us little tourist types, with our pull along baggage, made our way through the rainy weather.

Alex Blumberg

And you're all carrying your pull along baggage?

Lorrie Beth Slonsky

I'm still carrying my pull along baggage, with our laptop, and our little Palm Pilot, and our little extra food, and everything. So we are going through town, and people saw us and thought, hmm, here comes some folks. They must know something, so our numbers doubled from probably 200, and then it doubled again, so we were probably about 800 to 1,000 people marching up to the bridge.

When we got to the bridge, there was the armed Gretna sheriffs, and they had formed a line at the foot of the bridge. So even before we could even explain what we wanted, or what we had heard, that's when they began firing the weapons. Gretna police shot at us and said, get away, get away. You cannot come on the bridge.

Alex Blumberg

This bridge goes across the Mississippi River to a town called Gretna in neighboring Jefferson Parish. The entire region across the river is called the West Bank. Debbie Zelinsky, a 24 year old sales agent from Boston, was another guest at the Monteleone. She'd been on vacation in New Orleans with a group of five, her friend Sharon and Rashida, Rashida's mother and 13 year old brother, and Rashida's brother's 15 year old friend.

Debbie Zelinsky

The cops were just firing into the air to get people back. They had guns pointed in people's faces, telling them to get back down, or they will shoot you.

Alex Blumberg

And what was your thinking at that moment? What did you make of that? What were you thinking?

Debbie Zelinsky

At that point, it was pouring rain. We were soaked through. I thought, I'm never getting out of here. If I am getting out of here, it's not going to be alive. Tears started rolling down my face at that point.

Alex Blumberg

It just sounds so crazy to me that there's like a bunch of tired people trying to walk out of a city, and people are shooting. Did it just seem insane to you?

Debbie Zelinsky

It did. I mean, here you have a six lane highway bridge, and there's barely any traffic going out, and you won't let pedestrians cross it? Why?

Lorrie Beth Slonsky

What did I really think? Or do you want--?

Alex Blumberg

Yeah, what did you really think?

Lorrie Beth Slonsky

What I thought was are they serious? They must be mistaken. They could not be shooting at a group of desperate ass people. But apparently they were serious. But we were so desperate. We got to get out of here. This is our only way out. We can't go to the Superdome, we can't go to the convention center. We're scared to death for our lives, and for the people around us lives, that we had to approach them. So my partner Larry had his badge with him, his fire department badge. So he would raise it up, lay it on the ground, put our hands up, and walk backwards and say, may we approach?

And when we approached and had them in conversation, the sheriff informed us that there were no buses, that the police commander had lied to us. And when Larry questioned, it's like, can we just ask you why we can't cross the bridge? Because there was no traffic. There was very little traffic on this six lane highway. And they said that you are not crossing this bridge. We are not turning the West Bank into another Superdome.

And to us, when they said that was absolutely these are code words for, if you're poor and you're black, you are not getting out of New Orleans. You are not coming to our territory.

Alex Blumberg

It does seem hard to avoid sort of talking about race here.

Lorrie Beth Slonsky

Yes. We're white, and everybody else that might-- most every other person was African American. And that is what they saw, and that is what they were responding to, that this group of people of color were not going to come into their neighborhoods.

Debbie Zelinsky

Lorrie Beth is kind of a take charge person from what we saw. And we were like, well, we need to stick with someone. We don't know our way, what we're going to do, so we decided, hey, we're sticking with you. We're not leaving you. And glad we didn't.

Lorrie Beth Slonsky

Our small group of eight, and then other folks as well, we retreated back down Highway 90, and we were trying to find some shelter in the overpass. And then we had these discussions, God, what are we going to do? And what we decided to do was, there was this concrete embankment. If you go onto the middle of Pontchartrain Expressway, there's a center divide. But with the center divide, there was two hunks of concrete that sort of make a nice enclave, and we thought, this will be perfect. It's safe, and we'll be visible to everyone. And certainly, someone's going to come rescue us, and that we'll have security by being on this elevated freeway. And then we can wait for these buses that were certainly going to come get us.

This group turned into about, I'd say about 60 or 70 people. And we cleaned up the area so it was safe for the children. And someone had a bag, and we cleaned that up. And I said I had water, and someone else had water, and we kind of made this community. And this is when somebody-- blessed are the people who loot-- got a huge water truck they had stolen. And he had a man and his wife and child, and they were African American, and they unloaded all the water that they had.

Alex Blumberg

So wait. So a guy came up? A guy just came up to you?

Lorrie Beth Slonsky

A guy was escaping New Orleans. And that's what it felt like, people were escaping New Orleans. And he drove up to the middle of this Pontchartrain Expressway, drove right up to our encampment, because he saw like 70, 80, 90 people. And he just took all the water out and gave it to us, and then filled the truck up back with human beings, as many older and children that we could get on with their parents on to this, and they drove away. And that is how we got water.

Alex Blumberg

What did he say to you? That's incredible. What did he say?

Lorrie Beth Slonsky

Good luck, brothers and sisters. Good luck. We wish you the best. We can only take what we can take. And we thanked him, and off they go with the families. And then up the street quite a way, there is a National Guard truck that apparently took too sharp of a turn. And you can just see the food fall out of the-- c-rations fall out of this truck. So I mean, it just felt like it was phenomenal. We commandeered a couple of the strong young guys and gals to run up there in the shopping carts that people had and gather up the boxes of food and bring it back.

Alex Blumberg

So you're set.

Lorrie Beth Slonsky

We were set.

Alex Blumberg

You have food. You have water.

Lorrie Beth Slonsky

We were set. We had food, we had water. We had some sort of shelter. We had a safe place for the kids. And then the kids took the plastic that the water was in, those big plastic containers that hold five gallon drums of water, and brought it over to like a storm drain, and set it up to make bathroom with privacy. And we took one of the five gallon containers of water, and the kids made a sign-- because we still had luggage at this point, in crayons and things-- and made a sign, please keep the bathroom clean. And we had toilet paper and handy wipes.

Alex Blumberg

So you started with a group of eight, and then it grew to 70. Who were some of the stories of the people who are in this little encampment with you?

Lorrie Beth Slonsky

Well, there was this older woman who was diabetic, and had soiled herself. But people came forward with a makeshift Depends diaper type thing. And then there was just the cutest ding dang kids that would call me Auntie. They would be, Auntie wants the coffee. And they were very strict about the garbage, because we hung garbage bags on the rebar. So we were set up brilliantly, until just as it started to turn dark.

A Gretna sheriff came up and just had that crazy look that, as a paramedic, when I see that crazy look, you just find a way to not come in front of that energy. Because he had a gun, and he was pointing and screaming at us, get the [BLEEP] off this freeway. Get the [BLEEP] off this freeway. Like the most insane, crazed, frightened person ever. And we had to leave this place of safety, and went into the dark. And it was martial law by this point, and we had heard it was a shoot to kill policy.

Debbie Zelinsky

So everyone grabbed what they could, and we didn't know where we were going. As we were walking, we turned back and looked, and then you saw a helicopter come very close, and everything that we had had in there actually went flying, as the helicopter's wind took off.

Alex Blumberg

So like a police helicopter literally came down to where your camp had been and blew everything away?

Debbie Zelinsky

Right.

Alex Blumberg

And you think that was on purpose?

Debbie Zelinsky

Oh yeah. So we walked down the bridge, off the highway, and we actually found a bus, an abandoned bus. We had to actually boost someone into a window, because the door was locked. And he unlocked the door from the inside. We all got in. It was right at dark. It was becoming dark outside. We all were told to lay down on the seats and do not lift your head for anything.

Alex Blumberg

Who told you that?

Debbie Zelinsky

My friend's mom. She's like, don't sit up, don't lift your head. I don't care what you hear.

Alex Blumberg

What was the fear?

Debbie Zelinsky

The fear was you could hear gunshots getting closer. You could hear people walking. It was a fear of the gunshots. It was also a fear of the police. We were afraid they'd come. They would probably kick us out, and we didn't want to be out when it was dark out. You could hear the-- I don't know if they were rats or what they were, but they were outside. You could hear them. I think I maybe slept 5 or 10 minutes.

The minute the sun came up, we were out of there. We left the bus. We left a note in the bus saying thank you, we're sorry. And we left. We went up to the bridge to see if they'd let us cross.

Lorrie Beth Slonsky

Larry had contacted the president of our union and said, OK, we are at the fire department, John Meade and said, OK John, honest to God, it is now dire. We need to get out. And somehow John, through the other union, through a guy who works at Menlo Park, who was working for FEMA, somehow one of those connections happened that the FEMA person got to tell the Gretna police or sheriff to yes, let us eight people go through. It was so early in the morning, but we could see the people starting to come up, because people are trying to still get out.

And as people were coming up, one of the sheriffs walked down the ramp a bit and shot up past some people and said, do not approach. We got past that. We got the permission. We walked across the bridge.

Alex Blumberg

That must have been a very-- I mean, on the one hand, you must have been thrilled to be getting out, but was it a little hard?

Lorrie Beth Slonsky

Very demoralized. Very sad. Very unfair. It's really wrong. This makes no sense. All of us should be walking across that bridge. And it's only by this connection, that connection that we were able to get across. How did I feel? I felt really incensed and anger that other people weren't allowed to pass. And at the same time, I felt so fortunate and like I won the lottery that us eight were able to cross.

Alex Blumberg

There's one more hurdle actually. In their group of eight, three were white, four were black, Sharon, Rashida, and her mother and brother, and her brother's friend was Puerto Rican. But the authorities had told Larry that only his immediate family was allowed to cross the bridge. So Larry said, this is my immediate family.

Debbie Zelinsky

I was his daughter. My friend's mom was his sister in law with her three kids, and my friend's brother's friend was his foster child. And that's how we had to play it off, in order for us to cross the bridge all together.

Ira Glass

Debbie Zelinsky and Lorrie Beth are now back home in San Francisco and Boston, respectively. They talked to Alex Blumberg.

[MUSIC - "WALKING TO NEW ORLEANS" BY FATS DOMINO]

Coming up, Fox TV versus a New Orleans 18 year old. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. Social Studies Lesson.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, After The Flood, New Orleans stories in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We've arrived at act three of our show. Act Three, Social Studies Lesson.

TV talk show host Bill O'Reilly stated rather directly this week the lessons that he thought conservatives and everybody else should take from the devastation. First he said you can't rely on government. And second he said, the problems that we saw in New Orleans weren't about race, they were about class.

Bill O'reilly

If you're poor, you're powerless, not only in America, but everywhere on Earth. You don't have enough money to protect yourself from danger, danger is going to find you. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina should be taught in every American school. If you don't get educated, if you don't develop a skill and force yourself to work hard, you'll most likely be poor. And sooner or later, you'll be standing on a symbolic rooftop waiting for help. Chances are that help will not be quick in coming.

Ira Glass

Well, our producer Alex Blumberg decided to run this by somebody who is actually in an American high school, 18 year old Ashley Nelson, who is our act, and who lives in the Lafitte housing projects in New Orleans, in one of the neighborhoods that got flooded.

Ashley Nelson

That's what he said?

Alex Blumberg

Yeah. On TV. To you, what's the thing that stands out most about that?

Ashley Nelson

Basically, he said if you're rich, you live, if you're poor, you die. I had no idea that it was a crime to be poor, and the punishment was death.

Alex Blumberg

What was the first that you heard about the hurricane, and what preparations did you make?

Ashley Nelson

When I heard about the hurricane, it was Saturday, and you know what's supposed to come next, Sunday night. So when I heard about it, I went over to my grandmother's house. My whole family was over there. And I'm like, y'all come on. I'm just so amped up. I'm like, y'all come on. Let's go rent a car. We got to evacuate. There's a hurricane coming. Then everybody looked at me stupid. They're like, all right, you're going to go rent a car, because we have that kind of money to go out of town and we got that kind of money to do that kind of stuff, like being sarcastic about it. And I'm like, man, I forgot we poor. I promise you, that's what I thought in my head. I forgot we were poor.

Alex Blumberg

And were there people who were able to get out, who had a car?

Ashley Nelson

Yeah, because I remember that day I was standing outside, and it was a lot of people running from their house to their car, from the house to their car, just throwing stuff in there, throwing stuff in there, trying to hurry up and get out before the traffic gets too hectic. There was a handful of people, and everybody else is just sitting there watching how people leave, and they got to stay. I know that's what I was thinking, when I seen people leaving. I'm like, they leaving and I got to stay. And there's not even an option, I have to stay.

Alex Blumberg

Ashley rode out the storm at her father's house in Jefferson Parish, across the river from New Orleans, where the rest of her family was. There wasn't too much flooding there, so the next morning, they went out and found all the scrap wood they could, blown down branches, old fences, and started a fire to cook the little bit of meat they'd been able to buy at the store before the storm came. They figured that would hold them until rescuers got there. But one day past and no one came, then two days. They had no TV. They didn't know what was going on.

Ashley Nelson

I thought just like my daddy. I thought like my daddy, somebody was coming to help us. Nobody came to help us. No Red Cross trucks, no nothing. I mean, at least they could have dropped us some water. Do you know what it's like to not have water? You get a taste in your mouth that's just horrible. Your mouth is all dry, and you can't even think right. You start getting delusional and hallucinating about things.

Alex Blumberg

Did you actually have hallucinations?

Ashley Nelson

Yeah.

Alex Blumberg

What did you hallucinate?

Ashley Nelson

Water bottles, four water bottles, big Kentwood gallon jugs. I'm serious, I went crazy. I mean, I would just sit down and rock and think about is the world going to turn to hell and we're all going to burn? I mean, I just started going crazy, really crazy.

Alex Blumberg

Did it make you realize, like so this is what it feels like? This is what it feels like to be starving?

Ashley Nelson

I thought that when I was in Jefferson Parish, I thought, man, I'm starving. That's what I said to myself, I'm like man, I'm starving. Like you know how your stomach growls?

Alex Blumberg

Uh-huh.

Ashley Nelson

When you're starving, you get cramps in your stomach, and you feel like your stomach just bit into your back. I mean, the best bet is for you to lean forward.

Alex Blumberg

How scared were you?

Ashley Nelson

I thought I was going to die. I look at it like this now. 9/11 was bad because it was terrorists. It's no surprise people hate the United States, it's no big surprise. But New Orleans was worse, because it was our own government who betrayed us. They betrayed us. They betrayed us. They left us there to die. And then you hear George Bush telling the FEMA man, you're doing a good job. What do you mean by that? What do you mean by that? Because I mean, people are dying there. So you're telling him he's doing a good job, what are you saying? That's good that people are dying? I never understood that, and I really wish I can meet him to ask him, what do you mean by that he doing a good job?

Ira Glass

18 year old Ashley Nelson talking with Alex Blumberg. Two days after that interview, the head of FEMA, the FEMA man, Michael Brown, whom President Bush said was doing such a good job, was removed from all duties relating to Hurricane Katrina.

[MUSIC - "THEM THAT GOT" BY RAY CHARLES]

Act Four. Diaspora.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Diaspora. While hundreds of thousands of Gulf residents evacuated after the storm and followed the whole thing from afar, Cheryl Wagner left for Gainesville, Florida. From satellite photos, she could tell her house is flooded. She hears it's seven feet of water. Over this past week, we've gotten dozens of emails at our radio program from people in this situation, and they all pretty much say the same thing, how bizarre it is to be indefinitely exiled from their homes and normal lives, and now to be an evacuee in the larger world.

Cheryl Wagner

We've been advised that when we go back to New Orleans, my boyfriend and I need to get guns, mean dogs, or both. Which seems ludicrous to me. But people where we evacuated to over here in North Central Florida have offered us a shotgun. We got offered a shotgun before we got offered a generator. One of the people calling to tell us to get a shotgun is a normally laid back musician friend who used to have a weekly gig in the Quarter, singing Cuban love songs in falsetto. A few days ago, he bought a shotgun in Baton Rouge, where he evacuated to, and is now calling my boyfriend and advising us to do the same.

I have five dogs, and I'm bringing the meanest looking one back, he says. I just bought a shotgun with a sweet pistol grip. Last week he also called to report rumors that people from New Orleans were raping and looting in the mall in Baton Rouge. You're a person from New Orleans, I thought, but didn't say.

Right after it became clear we were not getting home, I predicted the totally predictable. That people in Baton Rouge would immediately start cringing in the face of what they considered to be the black mongrel hordes and loose people of New Orleans. I say this knowing the people of Baton Rouge and the rest of Louisiana have been breaking their backs with generosity and hospitality and kindness. I know many white and Cajun people and fishermen with air boats helped rescue their black and white New Orleans neighbors from attics. People from Baton Rouge are showing up at hotels and sweetly paying strangers from New Orleans' bills. My mother in Hammond was asked to open up her washing machine to state troopers' underwear.

Still, some folks are giving with one hand and holding a gun with the other. Seems nobody wants a bunch of poor people, black, white, Cajun, whatever, moving to their neck of the woods. Seems it is fear of the have-nots and poor, as much as racism, which of course it also is.

So now we're here in Gainesville, listening to New Orleans ex pat news radio and webcasts through tinny computer speakers, squinting to see my watery house on satellite photos, getting crappy emails from friends crying because they killed their cats, and watching TV. Someone desperate called us and said, can you please text message Stan and make him get off his roof? He's up there with Luna and another dog, and won't come down unless they'll take the dogs too.

It's strange to think of all my New Orleans people spit out by the storm, all over the South in country, in Diaspora, getting terrible phone calls and cable TV migraine too. Before the flood, New Orleans was a place where Southerners sent their laid back people who can't, or won't get with the program. Artists, gay relatives, eternal optimists, funny hat wearers, and intellectuals. I'm one of the above, and we're in New Orleans for a reason, to get away from the baptists, but still get to live in the South, where we're from.

But where are Southern outsiders supposed to go who are exiled from their place of exile? I didn't want to arm myself with a gun or a leaf blower to face the future. People ask what it's like to lose your house and your friends and your life and your town, and begin to look scared when you answer. They want to care, but they can't. They look at you, and worry for themselves.

Drenched in the compulsory cheer of the college town of Gainesville, I feel like a leper from Carville, or the bereaved at a Southern funeral. Family friends slide you white envelopes with money in them, then everyone around you puts on an ugly orange and blue outfit, straps on their foam fingers, and heads out to the Florida Gators football game.

Ira Glass

Cheryl Wagener normally lives in New Orleans in Mid-City on South Cortez Street. She asks, if someone there has a canoe, please go and check out her house.

Act Five. Displaced Persons Camp.

Ira Glass

Act Five, Displaced Persons Camp. Last August, a category four storm, Hurricane Charley, devastated parts of Florida. And FEMA built a big trailer park for people whose homes were destroyed. It was near an airport outside Punta Gorda. At one point, over 550 trailers were there. And when our staff looked into it this week, we were surprised to find out that a full year later, over 500 trailers are still there, with more than 1,000 people. And also just this week, we read that in the New York Times, a FEMA official was saying that these kinds of mobile homes, like in Punta Gorda, outside Punta Gorda, may be the standard for people displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Our producer Lisa Pollack called down there to see what it's like.

Lisa Pollack

Like almost everybody I asked to describe the FEMA mobile home park, Bob Heibert starts with the disclaimer.

Bob Heibert

It is better than no housing. But for some folks, it's very unsettling, it's depressing, it's deplorable.

Lisa Pollack

Heibert is the director of hurricane recovery for Charlotte County, Florida. Like everyone else I talked to, he described a dreary mini-city, nothing but endless rows of identical white trailers in a vacant lot by the county airport.

Bob Heibert

But it very much is just like a trailer park, a storage place. It's like a manufacturer where they're just all lined up waiting to go, except these are actually occupied and hooked up, and it's a village by itself.

Jennifer

It looks kind of like some military camp in the desert.

Lisa Pollack

This is Jennifer. She didn't want to give her last name. She, along with her husband, three kids and a dog, have lived in a FEMA park since just before last Thanksgiving.

Jennifer

There's no grass, there's no trees. It's all white, gritty sand. And the wind will whip through the trailers, and you'll just get pelted with sand.

Lisa Pollack

The FEMA park wasn't supposed to be homey. It was functional. After hurricane Charley destroyed 11,000 residences in the county, lots of people needed places to live, and fast. For that, the trailers were perfect, says Heibert.

Bob Heibert

Because they got a lot of people in there in like 30 days, people that were just kind of living in cars because there were no other places for them to go. They were on the streets, or they were living with other people, or whatever. So I mean, it was a lifesaver when it happened.

Kim

Someone called me from FEMA and said, are you still interested in one of the mobile homes? I say, yes I am. And he said, well OK, you need to go down there to the site tomorrow to sign your paperwork. They have a house for you.

Lisa Pollack

That's Kim. Last December, when she got that phone call, she was desperate and out of options. She, her husband, and four kids rode out the hurricane, huddled in the shower stall at their rental house, the ceilings crumbling above them. After the house has condemned, the family spent two weeks in a crowded homeless shelter. Then came three months in an RV, the kind people tow on vacation, 30 feet long, all six of them living there.

So by the time they got the FEMA mobile home, 70 feet long with three bedrooms, it seemed like a mansion. They could live rent free, paying only utilities, while they look for a place of their own. The problem is, nine months later, Kim's family is still there. Every month a FEMA agent comes by to ask her what she's done to get out. To keep her lease, she has to prove she's been working on it, and every month she gives the same answer. She's called public housing. She's combed the ads. But in Charlotte County, there's not much that she and her husband, a Wal-Mart manager, can afford. So far, the government's let her stay, but the pressure's getting to her.

Kim

These people that come to our house, and they are on us about what are you doing to get a place? And what are you doing to do this? And what are you doing to do that? It really just irritates a lot of us, because we didn't ask for this, and we're stuck here, and there's nothing else that we can do. And the way they talk to you, it almost makes you feel like you did this to yourself.

Bob Heibert

The real problem we have is that most of the rental properties were lost in the storm.

Lisa Pollack

That includes almost all the low income units, says Bob Heibert of the county government.

Bob Heibert

The ones that survived suddenly became more expensive and unaffordable, because other people that had the means to pay for them rented those properties. So it's a very long term problem, because unless we can find a way to house those folks in some housing that they can afford, they're going to have to move somewhere else where they can get a house and they can get a job.

Jennifer

Some places don't want kids.

Lisa Pollack

Jennifer's had problems finding a place too.

Jennifer

We have a dog, and now finding a place that will let us have the dog-- I mean, I know some people don't understand, like, oh, just get rid of the dog and move into one of the apartments that accepts dogs. But after everything my children have been through, moving to two different schools, moving four times in the past year, with everything else that's lost, I couldn't imagine taking their dog away too.

Lisa Pollack

Crime and drugs have been a problem at the FEMA park, and there aren't many places for kids to play. Lots of people stay only because they have no choice, and others, everyone I talked to agreed, aren't really trying that hard. It's easy to imagine that this is what Louisiana could look like a year from now, thousands of people warehoused in trailers, stuck in makeshift camps on the edges of towns. I asked Bob Heibert if he worries about the idea of more FEMA trailer parks like this one, and he says he does.

Bob Heibert

I think what needs to happen is that if they're going to do that, which they will, and it's a good short term solution, they need to think about what happens next month or the month after, like have a phase two plan. They got to very quickly start working on a strategy to break that down and move people on, just for the sake of the people. I mean, what we're really talking about is humanity here. We're talking about human beings that need to get back to some normalcy before they can get over this.

Lisa Pollack

So how long is FEMA willing to keep housing hurricane victims? In Punta Gorda, they're giving residents until February, 18 months after the storm. Then, FEMA says, they'll stop funding the trailer park. After that, what happens is up to the county, which is still figuring out what to do. It might help people buy the trailers and relocate them, and it might keep the park open and let people rent. It's not clear exactly how it'll work, or where the money will come from. It's not going to be easy.

Ira Glass

Lisa Pollack.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Julie Snyder, Sarah Koenig, and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Jane Feltes, Amy O'Leary, and Lisa Pollak. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Todd Bachman, Chris Ladd, and Laura Bellows. It is Laura's last day on the program, which is a very, very bad for us, because she's done such good work here. Laura, we all wish you the best.

Guest DJing for our program today from Mr. Nick Spitzer, who's music show American Roots normally broadcasts out of New Orleans. He chose songs for us from his exile. Other musical help from Jessica Hopper. Special thanks today to so many people, Margie Rockland, Stephen Elliott, Alex Kotlowitz, Kristy Krueger, Lisa Moore, Richard Burkhurt, Harry Scheiber, Davy Rothbart, Eve Warmfeldt, Abram Himmelstein, Anya Borg, Justin Lundgering, Kirsta Kurtz Burke, Aaron Zimmerman, Anjali Rasperry, and Michelle [? Gibeaumot, ?] and really too many people to name, friends of the program, and strangers who emailed us with stories and suggestions this week, thank you to you all.

You can download today's program and our archives at audible.com/thisamericanlife. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who's had favorites here at the radio station who were not me.

Lorrie Beth Slonsky

Just the cutest ding dang kids that would call me Auntie

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of this American life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.