Survivor stories: NOPD officer who worked Convention Center describes the days after Katrina
"The people at the Convention Center were left high and fucking dry": a Blotter/CP web exclusive
Dumas Carter, 30, is an eight-year veteran New Orleans police officer who wound up being one of just six NOPD cops on duty at the Convention Center complex after Katrina struck. A couple of days ago his brother, Frank Carter, placed a call to him for City Pages and taped his recollections of the scene in New Orleans and at the Convention Center in the days before help finally started arriving. Here is an excerpt; click below for the full story.
"Lots of people on the street were asking me where to go. I'm telling them the truth, which is I don't know, they haven't told us anything. They're telling us that somebody told them that they were told by another person who was somebody in charge of something that the Convention Center was being set up as a secondary evacuation point with food and water. Those people went to the Convention Center, and there was no food or water there for them. So now there's no water, there's no police. And now there's 20,000 people with no extra security down there.
"We just told people that the National Guard was handling the evacuation effort, and they're not talking to us. So we've got all these people at the Convention Center, and now the captain is saying, okay, you all got to get out of the hotel. They're going to riot and they're going to burn the fucking hotel down. They're going to start this big massive thing, they're going to start killing people on Convention Center Boulevard, it's going to be a big massacre."
Dumas Carter, 30, eight-year veteran NOPD officer, one of six local cops who stayed on duty at the Convention Center complex in the days after Katrina:
The day before, we all go in for roll call and we're basically told that we're reporting for work and we pretty much won't be able to leave until this is over. Some of [the officers] were whining, but all week long we had been told, you're a police officer, and once you go active we're going to be on active duty for the remainder. Make sure that your families are out and your houses are taken care of, because we can't have you worrying about your family, your house, your dog, and be a police officer. That made sense to me. But a lot of people were like, fuck this, I've got to go with my family. So they left. My district wasn't like any other district. Ninety-eight percent of the people stayed. The Sixth District. The real district. Fort Apache. You've seen that on the news.
We do our shift, and we find out that our captain has arranged for us to stay at the Pontchartrain Hotel through this, on St. Charles. They've given us two floors to house all of our people. The hurricane starts trickling in, we find out that the Pontchartrain Hotel has locked the doors and evacuated the city. They've locked us out and we have no place to stay. My lieutenant works a detail at the Hampton Inn on Convention Center Boulevard and has access to that. He said if push came to shove, we could house people at the hotel.
So we all go to the hotel and hunker down to ride out the storm. Once the winds get over 35-40 miles an hour in the city, they pull us off the streets. Park the car somewhere secure, get the fuck off the streets. Because at anything over 20 miles an hour, tree branches become bullets that can shatter windows and decapitate people. Not to mention flying street signs and bending poles. When you see people impaled on two-by-fours that were airborne in the storm, it gives you an appreciation of the power of wind.
So now we're at the Hampton riding the storm out. It's battering the building. The winds are hitting the building so hard that water is forcing itself in through the window seals and the brick. It's chiseling the mortar out between the wood and the brick on windows. On the north side of the building, it is now raining in all of those rooms, horizontally, a good seven inches from the window. Most of the beds are soaked, the sofas are soaked, the carpet's soaked, the power's flickering. Then we lose power. I'm on the fifth floor, at the top of this building, and in the corner that's getting hardest hit. The building is rocking.
When the hurricane's gone, or so we think--after the eye passed--we sneak out to do a couple of patrols, and check on some houses and areas. Then we go back to the hotel for the next wave. Once the storm passes, the power is out and we relocate to the Sixth District station and try to figure out what we're doing next. A number of our police cars are destroyed. There's some flooding in the city, but we're looking around thinking, this isn't going to be as bad as we thought.
Oh, and by the way, the 17th Street canal just broke. We found out from people on the street who were listening to the news. At this point we weren't listening to our radios very much because they weren't working. Our radios would only broadcast a mile or two miles. The communication tower went down--the one communication tower that the city has. So now we go back to the hotel, and we're waiting around. This is where the franticness begins. We're getting information from people who don't know any better, people who don't have any background with sewage or water, no basis for claiming any kind of knowledge about this, coming in screaming, we've got to get out of our hotel! We've got to get out of the city! There's a 10-foot wall of water coming at us! We've got to go! We've got to go!
Instead of getting a representative from the Army Corps of Engineers on the radio and saying what the facts are, they tell somebody who tells somebody else who's doing a press conference, who whispers it to the mayor, and now it's changed 10 times and gone from "we've got a flow over the levee where it's breached" to "there's a tidal wave coming and the tsunami has hit." So these people are freaking out, and we're in a five-story building with access to an eight-story building next door. And they're screaming at us, "We're all gonna be under water. We've got to go!" And we're at the highest point in the city. We're less than a hundred feet from the river. I'm trying to tell these people, from my knowledge of how the city's laid out, and nobody wants to hear it. So whatever. My lieutenant believes me. My lieutenant asks the captain, "Are you commanding us out of the hotel?" The captain refuses to command us.
Four of us stayed at the hotel, two of us stayed at the station, and everybody else ran like I don't know what. They went to the parking lot of Breaux-Mart. They were like Battlestar Galactica. They were fleeing the Cylons, and they didn't even know what the Cylons were. And we were like, we've got a hotel, we've got high ground, why the fuck should we go? We're 50 feet from the bridge. The water's not going to rise so quick that we can't get out of here if we have to. We can just sit on the fucking bridge for the remainder if we need to. But it's not going to come to that. I'm watching the water rise through the city, and it's rising at a rate of six inches to a foot every hour and a half.
Lots of people on the street were asking me where to go. I'm telling them the truth, which is I don't know, they haven't told us anything. They're telling us that somebody told them that they were told by another person who was somebody in charge of something that the Convention Center was being set up as a secondary evacuation point with food and water. Those people went to the Convention Center, and there was no food or water there for them. So now there's no water, there's no police--everybody's left the city except for the six of us. And now there's 20,000 people with no extra security down there.
We just told people that the National Guard was handling the evacuation effort, and they're not talking to us. So we've got all these people at the Convention Center, and now the captain is saying, okay, you all got to get out of the hotel. They're going to riot and they're going to burn the fucking hotel down. They're going to start this big massive thing, they're going to start killing people on Convention Center Boulevard, it's going to be a big massacre.
At this point it's like four days into it, and we're trying to explain to the captain, these people are so tired and thirsty and hungry they couldn't flip over a lawn chair if they wanted to riot. I won't say anything bad about my captain. My captain was making good decisions based on bad information. And my captain had to realize that he had to run a district of a hundred [officers], not all of whom had the testicular fortitude to stick this all out. So to keep morale up, he moves them out of the line of fire so they can sleep in a car somewhere. Whatever. That's what he had to do. When he got the proper information, he said we didn't have to leave the hotel. He said, just do the right thing. I trust you all. Do what you need to do.
So we hunkered down again. Our hotel was at the corner of Gaiennie and Convention Center. If you walk into a door 40 feet over, there's 20,000 people. And they were not staying inside the Convention Center because of the murders and robberies going on inside there. They were all on the neutral ground staring at us. We don't have many supplies, so we're not passing shit out. We barely have enough for us to get by the next two days. Occasionally another police car would drive by and stop and ask if we were all right, then drive on. No patrol presence whatsoever.
The majority of the people were staying outside. We were hearing all kinds of horror stories from inside, murder to rape to robberies to shootings to beatings. There was no way to verify any of that stuff. Ninety-seven percent of these people were behind us. They wanted us to be the police and they loved that we were still there. We were the only police they saw for four or five days. The majority of the conversations were, "Baby, I know you're being left here just like we're being left here and you don't know anything, but if you find out something, could you tell us?" My response was, you've got the radio--you tell us what's going on. And these people would come over and give us bulletins as they heard it from the news.
I talked to lots and lots of those people there. Ninety-nine percent of the conversations were people coming up to us asking, Where's the food? Where's the water? When are the buses coming? Where are they taking us? People were coming up with dying children, with elderly people who were dying and needed medical attention. We need diabetes medication, we need heart medication. Where can I get medical assistance? We don't know, we don't know, we don't know.
Then came the military helicopters. They'd fly over the crowd, then fly seven or eight blocks away and drop food and water from about 40 or 50 feet--high enough to bust the boxes and send bottles of water all over the concrete. There was a group of people, Good Samaritans, who pilfered the Convention Center for handcarts and walked out to where the food and water was and brought it back to the people. And the people got together as a group and disseminated it amongst themselves, without any riots, any fights, anything. And then these people put together a box of food and water and brought it to us. We didn't take it. We told them, don't worry about us, give it to the kids and the old people. But these people were looking out for us at this point!
There were guys running through the crowd shooting at us and shooting at the crowd. And they would disappear back in the Convention Center. There wasn't much we could do. How about shooting into a crowd of 20,000 people to kill one person? At one point, there's a guy in a stolen Jeep Liberty who's shooting at us with an M16. It jammed on him--he didn't know what he was doing--and we were able to persuade him out of the vehicle the way I normally persuade people out of vehicles, and we were able to subdue him. We weren't technically the most polite in subduing him. We did this in front of 20,000 detainees. I call them detainees because the city sent them to a place where they could be detained, and that's all that happened, they were inconvenienced and detained. Anyway, we do this in front of the crowd and you hear this fucking roar from the crowd, this fucking standing ovation. We handed him over to the feds--who, by the way, are very good at making ID cards, and have really pretty uniforms.
Eventually we're going on seven days without word on what else is going on. Meanwhile, from midnight to noon, we're pooling out of the hotel and we're doing neighborhood patrols with guns, driving around with our machine weaponry. At this point I don't even have a uniform. I've got my gun, but somebody's walked off with my gear bag and they've got my duty rig and my NOPD uniform. So I'm wearing my shoulder holster, my raid dress with a camo bag on it, water in it, and anything from shorts to blue jeans with an NOPD t-shirt, my badge around my neck, and a bandana tied around my head. More times than not, I had to wade in water, and that's where the pneumonia came from. At one point I had seven days of 100-degree fever and full pneumonia that I had been patrolling with. I went to the hospital ship, and the Navy doctors were amazing. They took really good care of me. I went back to work, but I was still showering with the water that was making me sick and I was still dealing with all this pollution.
We're patrolling from midnight to noon, and noon to midnight we're standing guard at the hotel because we don't have any relief help. We get a couple of wannabe SWAT teams from outside agencies coming in and saying they need a place to stay. We said we'd put them up at the hotel, but they had to give us a hand securing the hotel and patrolling this area. They looked at the area, and we never heard back from them. Then came the guys from Detroit. Five agencies from around the Detroit area came down. They looked at the area and they went, all right, looks like home. We're in. They moved in to the hotel and helped us secure it. They helped us patrol at night. They fucking were the real police. They had our backs. Then the Burnett County guys came down, from Austin [Texas]. I know other agencies showed up to help, but I didn't see them. They weren't in my area.
I took pictures. I knew that there'd be enough photos of flood water and enough photos of refugees, so that's not what I focused on. I focused on police officers and how we were living. How anarchist our set-up was. Sleeping on sofas in a hotel lobby, machine guns laying around. It was just outrageous, you know? It kept on going like that, and blurring and blurring, and sometime around day 12 the hotel people got to town with a crew to rip up the carpet and clean out the hotel, set the place up for us.
Food and water started trickling in five or six days in. We started seeing buses lining up on the outskirts of town. They were getting the Superdome cleared first. The Convention Center had no security presence from the get-go except for us, so they couldn't just bring in three buses and leave and then come back in with three more buses. They needed to have enough buses to move everybody out in one sweep. And they did it. The military sure knows how to line things up. They can line it up in twos, threes, backwards, forward, alphabetically. You name it, they can line shit up. They lined up those goddamn buses and filled them up, and the next thing you knew there was no one. In less than 30 hours.
The city had no idea--the mayor couldn't do a mandatory evacuation from the get-go, because to do a mandatory evacuation you have to provide transportation for people who don't have it. For whatever reason, the city wasn't going to use RTA buses to get people out of town. So most of the RTA buses wound up stolen and wrecked around the city.
How many died there? I couldn't begin to put a number on it. I know there were a number of people who died in front of the Convention Center on the neutral ground. But as to inside, and as to how many died on Convention Center Boulevard, I don't have a tally. I don't know that there will be a tally. I think there might just be one big number for the entire incident. I don't know how accurate that number is going to be, either. They're going to be finding bodies for weeks. All I know is that when you drive into certain neighborhoods, you'll hit a corner and you can smell something. And it smells worse than an animal that's dead. You can only assume that it's a body, but I'm not trained to deal with it, so I'm not looking for it.
Day to day, anything I could get my hands on that might be useful, I'd go get it. By any means necessary. The number of vehicles I've procured, commandeered, is just phenomenal. The gas issue was another whole story. We figured we'd go get some of the old fleet trucks that have air conditioning, and we'll keep the trucks running so we can store cold goods in them. So we got five of those. Through all this, you can imagine all the flat tires we were getting from nails and debris and everything. If you've got six inches of water on the road, you can't see what's under the water. The department made no provision for spare tires. Thankfully, through some connections I've got, we got access to spare tires and we're getting that done. Through this, I've been to southern Plaquemines parish, to the water line, wherever I've got to go to get what we need. We don't care.
The department had no provisions for any of this. It'd be easy for us to say, well, we're out of gas. Oops, we got a flat tire, we're done. Some of the task force guys got a blowout, and instead of driving the car to a safe spot on the rim, they left it there and the car got vandalized. These are not the smartest people we're dealing with.
Just know this. Before the hurricane hit, there was a bulletin sent out to all districts from headquarters, saying please come to headquarters to pick up your hurricane provisions: 72 cases of water per district. Big whoop.
The people randomly shooting at us, and the things that we had to do to people that we caught--that's something I have to deal with, and I will deal with. That's not the story here. The importance needs to be shined on the fact the city was unprepared for a tropical storm, let alone a category 5 hurricane. And the people at the Convention Center were left high and fucking dry. They survived, they pulled together, they sang songs all night. I mean, they would come and ask us: You're looking tired, are you feeling okay? Those were the people I swore to protect. Five times we were told to leave: Leave 'em. Leave 'em. Leave 'em. When the oil storage facility in the Ninth Ward blew up, [people outside the Convention Center] thought they were blowing the levee and they were going to flood everybody, and they thought that's why there were no police around there. I said, well, look, if they're doing that, they're doing it to us too. We're here with y'all, regardless.
They were afraid given what the city did to the community in the '60s when the hurricane hit and they blew the levee and flooded them and killed them. And [given] no information and no security presence and no food and water. They'd been lied to by everybody except us. I want somebody to find out who said "Go to the Convention Center, there'll be food and water there," and I want that person held accountable for the fact there was no food and water or security presence there. I want them to be held liable for every death and injury there. I want someone to find out why the city didn't get their hands on 10 tankers full of gasoline and park them somewhere outside the city and drive them in. I want to know why a city that floods if it rains for more than five minutes doesn't have high-water vehicles. I want to know why they didn't use the RTA buses to get some of these evacuees out. Those are the people I swore to protect.