Survivor stories: Those armed "looters" kept many alive at convention center

This is one of the most remarkable and detailed New Orleans survivor stories I've read so far. Composed on Saturday by a cousin of the woman whose experience it describes, it was forwarded to me yesterday; I'm trying to contact the writer. Meanwhile I'll omit her name for privacy's sake, but stories like this have to be circulated. Now.

I heard from my aunt last night that my cousin Denise made it out of New Orleans; she's at her brother's in Baton Rouge. From what she told me: her mother, a licensed practical nurse, was called in to work on Sunday night at Memorial Hospital (historically known as Baptist Hospital to those of us from N.O.). Denise decided to stay with her mother, her niece and grandniece (who is 2 years old); she figured they'd be safe at the hospital. They went to Baptist, and had to wait hours to be assigned a room to sleep in; after they were finally assigned a room, two white nurses suddenly arrived after the cut-off time (time to be assigned a room), and Denise and her family were booted out; their room was given up to the new nurses. Denise was furious, and rather than stay at Baptist, decided to walk home (several blocks away) to ride out the storm at her mother's apartment. Her mother stayed at the hospital.


She described it as the scariest time in her life. 3 of the rooms in the apartment (there are only 4) caved in. Ceilings caved in, walls caved in. She huddled under a mattress in the hall. She thought she would die from either the storm or a heart attack. After the storm passed, she went back to Baptist to seek shelter (this was Monday). It was also scary at Baptist; the electricity was out, they were running on generators, there was no air conditioning. Tuesday the levees broke, and water began rising. They moved patients upstairs, saw boats pass by on what used to be streets. They were told that they would be evacuated, that buses were coming. Then they were told they would have to walk to the nearest intersection, Napoleon and S. Claiborne, to await the buses. They waded out in hip-deep water, only to stand at the intersection, on the neutral ground (what y'all call the median) for 3 1/2 hours. The buses came and took them to the Ernest Morial Convention Center. (Yes, the convention center you've all seen on TV.)

Denise said she thought she was in hell. They were there for 2 days, with no water, no food. no shelter. Denise, her mother (63 years old), her niece (21 years old), and 2-year-old grandniece. When they arrived, there were already thousands of people there. They were told that buses were coming. Police drove by, windows rolled up, thumbs up signs. national guard trucks rolled by, completely empty, soldiers with guns cocked and aimed at them. nobody stopped to drop off water. A helicopter dropped a load of water, but all the bottles exploded on impact due to the height of the helicopter.

The first day (Wednesday) 4 people died next to her. The second day (Thursday) 6 people died next to her. Denise told me the people around her all thought they had been sent there to die. Again, nobody stopped. The only buses that came were full; they dropped off more and more people, but nobody was being picked up and taken away. They found out that those being dropped off had been rescued from rooftops and attics; they got off the buses delirious from lack of water and food. Completely dehydrated. The crowd tried to keep them all in one area; Denise said the new arrivals had mostly lost their minds. They had gone crazy.

Inside the convention center, the place was one huge bathroom. In order to shit, you had to stand in other people's shit. The floors were black and slick with shit. Most people stayed outside because the smell was so bad. But outside wasn't much better: between the heat, the humidity, the lack of water, the old and very young dying from dehydration... and there was no place to lay down, not even room on the sidewalk. They slept outside Wednesday night, under an overpass.

Denise said yes, there were young men with guns there. But they organized the crowd. They went to Canal Street and "looted," and brought back food and water for the old people and the babies, because nobody had eaten in days. When the police rolled down windows and yelled out "the buses are coming," the young men with guns organized the crowd in order: old people in front, women and children next, men in the back. Just so that when the buses came, there would be priorities of who got out first.

Denise said the fights she saw between the young men with guns were fist fights. She saw them put their guns down and fight rather than shoot up the crowd. But she said that there were a handful of people shot in the convention center; their bodies were left inside, along with other dead babies and old people.

Denise said the people thought there were being sent there to die. Lots of people being dropped off, nobody being picked up. Cops passing by, speeding off. National Guard rolling by with guns aimed at them. And yes, a few men shot at the police, because at a certain point all the people thought the cops were coming to hurt them, to kill them all. She saw a young man who had stolen a car speed past, cops in pursuit; he crashed the car, got out and ran, and the cops shot him in the back. In front of the whole crowd. She saw many groups of people decide that they were going to walk across the bridge to the west bank, and those same groups would return, saying that they were met at the top of the bridge by armed police ordering them to turn around, that they weren't allowed to leave.

So they all believed they were sent there to die.

Denise's niece found a pay phone, and kept trying to call her mother's boyfriend in Baton Rouge, and finally got through and told him where they were. The boyfriend, and Denise's brother, drove down from Baton Rouge and came and got them. They had to bribe a few cops, and talk a few into letting them into the city ("come on, man, my 2-year-old niece is at the Convention Center!"), then they took back roads to get to them.

After arriving at my other cousin's apartment in Baton Rouge, they saw the images on TV, and couldn't believe how the media was portraying the people of New Orleans. She kept repeating to me on the phone last night: Make sure you tell everybody that they left us there to die. Nobody came. Those young men with guns were protecting us. If it wasn't for them, we wouldn't have had the little water and food they had found.



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