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2005-09-06

African American Residents Tell Story of Survival, Blast Racially-Skewed Government Response

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Democracy Now! producers get reports from African-American survivors of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. We hear from a woman at the convention center and a record store owner from the city’s Algiers neighborhood. [includes rush transcript]

One week after Hurricane Katrina smashed into the Gulf Coast, nearly the entire population of New Orleans has been evacuated. The streets are deserted and littered with fallen trees and twisted metal. Nearly 80 percent of the city remains submerged in water and the number of dead is unknown.

Most of the nearly 500,000 residents of New Orleans have been driven into what the New York Times calls a "modern-day Diaspora of biblical proportions."

But before the evacuation, tens of thousands of mostly poor African-American residents endured days of appalling conditions as they waited to be rescued. Survivors told horror stories from inside the SuperDome and the convention center. Others had stayed at home to avoid the mayhem.

Democracy Now! producers John Hamilton and Sharif Abdel Kouddous traveled to the convention center on Sunday afternoon. The site was completely evacuated–well almost. Three people remained at the site from the tens of thousands that had passed though over the previous week. They sat alone among the rows of empty chairs strewn outside. One of them told her story.

  • Olivia Johnson McQueen, speaking outside the New Orleans convention center on Sunday.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, tens of thousands of poor, overwhelmingly African American residents suffered the most as rescue operations faltered.

And as troops from the National Guard, marines and coast guard flooded the city, many black residents pointed to what they saw as a racially-skewed government policy.

  • Henry Alexander, record store owner speaking in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN:One of them told her story.

OLIVIA JOHNSON MCQUEEN: My name is Olivia Johnson McQueen. We live on the Bywater section of New Orleans which is a historical landmark. We didn’t have a whole lot of water. But the wind blew the rain. Our roof is off. Water is all in the house from the rain. And we have no water, no gas, no lights. Guys come around — the military came around and brought us some food and water and stuff like that but for the most part, it’s frightening. People are setting fires here and fires there. Things are blowing up. Matter of fact, the house was shaking like an earthquake. So that is what prompted us to get up and leave. Time to go. We’ll come back. Qhen you guys get everything straightened out.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS:So you’ve been in the house for a week. Is this the first time you’ve come to the Convention Center?

OLIVIA JOHNSON MCQUEEN:This is the first time.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS:And what were you hearing about what was happening here?

OLIVIA JOHNSON MCQUEEN: We heard about people being killed down here. Bodies lying out in the streets. They were shooting eachother, they said the military was shooting at— one of my neighbors said a military guy shot at him. So that’s what made me not want to come down here. I think we would be safer in our own house where there are no guns. So that’s the reason why we decided to come today. It seems rather calm, listening to it on the radio. But other than that, we just sat in the house as best we could.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS:What are your thoughts on the relief effort here, what is your judgment on it?

OLIVIA JOHNSON MCQUEEN: Well, from what I can see, there hasn’t been much relief. We picked up an old lady off the steps. She told me — I think it was a helicopter picked up her son, her son was ill and they left her. She was left there with no food and water for two days. And she was sitting outside. So we walked to the nearest school. And then the school didn’t want to keep her because she didn’t have her medicine and all that and we didn’t know what to do. Luckily enough an ambulance drove up. So I begged them to take her and they took her. She must have been a good 90 years old. She could barely stand. And far as I can see that is ridiculous that you have to have a criteria to go into a school at that age. You know, I don’t understand that. And the thing in general, the whole relief effort hasn’t seem to be much to me. And particularly when I see old people are walking along the streets, you know, I saw a lady today. I gave her water. She could barely walk. No family, she doesn’t know where everybody is or where to go, or what to do. We did the same thing. Walked to the nearest school. And I just had to leave her there. I had no place to bring her. So that’s — the relief effort, man, as far as older people are concerned, we can kind of make it. But those old people, they’re catching hell out there.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS:And there’s a much larger force of national guard and troops that came the last couple of days. How has that changed your situation?

OLIVIA JOHNSON MCQUEEN: It made me feel safer. Although, they made him take his shirt off and all that to see if he has any weapons. And we were at home. You know? But other than that I feel safer. At least i know now. That’s one of the reasons why we came. We knew the more guards they had, the less trouble we would have. And we — we less likely to be shot for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s about it.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS:Was is there a curfew here?

OLIVIA JOHNSON MCQUEEN: Yes, six o’clock.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS:And what would happen if you’re out after that?

OLIVIA JOHNSON MCQUEEN: They said shoot on sight. I don’t know what happens because I was never out after six o’clock.

AMY GOODMAN: Olivia Johnson McQueen speaking at the New Orleans Convention Center on Sunday. In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, tens of thousands of poor overwhelmingly African-American residence suffered the most as rescue operations faltered and as troops from the National Guard, Marines, and Coast Guard began to flood the city, many black residence pointed to what they saw as a racially skewed government policy. This is Henry Alexander speaking outside his small record store in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans.

HENRY ALEXANDER: Nobody here but us. And we just have to look out for one another. All your politicians, they want to get on TV and talking about feeding this person and feeding that person. We ain’t seen nothing over here yet.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: There is curfew after six, can you talk about that?

HENRY ALEXANDER: Well, after six— five o’clock, I’m running home. Because I don’t want to get shot by these crazy policemen. They’re breaking in everything. But they’re talking about looting. They’re doing the looting themself. You know? They’re breaking stuff themself. Taking care of their family. You know, the National Guard, they treat us nice. They give us water and stuff. Like said, you know, send the national guard, now they want to play policemen now. You know? Before it gets dark, I’m gone.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS:You have seen any looting?

HENRY ALEXANDER: I’ve seen plenty of looting around here, you know? They’re kids, family. You know, I mean, you stand three or four day without something to eat, you’re going to break into something. You know what I’m saying. I just hate people trying to take TVs and stuff. But the police is doing everything. You know, I’m going to take care of my family, too. You know what I’m saying? I’m a survive and stuff like that. So that’s all it is. Survival.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS:What you would like to say to people around the country?

HENRY ALEXANDER: Well, I would like to say one thing, we need help. We need help around the country. We need help because everybody playing politics now. Doing what they got for the big position in Louisiana. They’re playing politics. So we like the people from around the world to see that. You know, the type of politics we have in Louisiana, you know.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: What do you think of Mayor Nagin?

HENRY ALEXANDER: Ray Nagin, I don’t know what to say about that guy. You know what I’m saying. I know one thing— he ain’t doing his job. You know? He waits until the last minute to do something. Don’t wait until the last minute. Don’t wait until the last minute to turn black. You should have stayed black from day one. That’s all I’m saying about him, you know? He’s going to wait until the last minute to turn black. No, you should have stayed black from day one, you know. The whole thing. Throughout the whole thing. You got black folks laying on the grass out there on causeway, three, four days without nothing to eat, stuff like that. They’re urinating on the ground and there is waste. Letting — reliefing waste on the ground. You know what I’m saying? It’s not in South Africa. Know what I’m saying. This [is] America. You have people dying over here. But we ain’t seeing nothing started yet. You know? Nobody know how to get nothing started. Nobody knows what to do. It’s messed up, man. All these politicians ain’t nothing. Once this is overwith, I’m going to see what they’re going to do — if they’re going to get the black jobs and get the black contracts so that the whites, you know what i’m saying? They’re looking out for the whites, their own people.

AMY GOODMAN:Henry Alexander outside his record store in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans.

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