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Trapped in New Orleans: Emergency Medical Worker Describes How Police Prevented Evacuation

StorySeptember 16, 2005
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We speak with emergency medical worker Lorrie Beth Slonsky who was in New Orleans attending a conference when hurricane Katrina hit. She describes how she spent most of the next week in New Orleans trapped by the flooding–and the police. [includes rush transcript]

We speak with Lorrie Beth Slonsky of San Francisco, a retired paramedic from the San Francisco Fire Department and was in New Orleans attending a conference when Hurricane Katrina hit. She was fortunate enough to be staying in hotel in the French Quarter for the first few days but she and her partner Larry Bradshaw were forced to leave when conditions worsened.

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

AMY GOODMAN: She was fortunate enough to be staying in a he hotel in the French Quarter for the first few days. But then she and Larry Bradshaw, her partner, were forced to leave when conditions worsened. She tells the story from there.

LORRIE BETH SLONSKY: Now it’s day four and the hotels had completely run out of fuel for the generator and food and water. And sanitation, even in this very fancy hotel had become dangerously abysmal. And it seemed like our only choice was to go to the Convention Center. As we left the hotel, we came across the National Guard, and this is where they told us that we couldn’t go to the Superdome nor the Convention Center, and they didn’t have any suggestions where we should go, and they also said we should have gotten out there sooner. And no, they didn’t have any food, and no, they didn’t have any water to spare. And then the next thing we came across was the Police Command Center and this is at Harrods on Canal Street and we were told the same thing: that we are on our own, and they had no place to suggest where we should go, and they didn’t have any food, but they did give us four small bottles of water to share among the probably 200 folks that had left the hotel and the downtown tourist type folks. That’s what they had to give us was four small bottles of water to spare.

So, right across the street from this Police Command Center was this amphitheater type place and we thought the best thing to do is to go ahead and camp across the street from the Police Command Center. Because we thought, well, we would be visual to the media and we have some sort of a protection, and before we got too comfy, the Police Commander came up to us and said we needed to go to the bridge because they were going to be buses waiting there to take us out of the city. You know, this crowd of 200 that had left the hotel in the downtown area, we just let out a big old cheer, but Larry called everyone back and said to the police officer and to the folks that, you know, we have been given so much misinformation and was he sure there were buses? And I have to tell you, Amy, that he looked at us directly and he said, I swear to you that the buses are there.

So, we group of about 200 people, set off to the bridge, and I have to say, we must have looked like quite determined tourists with our little roll-top suitcases following behind us, and we passed near the Convention Center, and locals asked us where we were going. And we told them the great news, how the police commander said that there was going to be buses at the bridge, so you know, families grabbed their few belongs and we all started marching up towards the bridge. And our numbers doubled and probably doubled again. We were probably about 600, 700, 800 people. Just it seemed like a lot of people. So, it started to rain, and even though it started to pour down rain, we — our — it didn’t dampen our spirits at all. We felt like, God, we have a way out of here on day four. And as we approached, there were armed Gretna deputies. And they had formed a line at foot of the bridge. And before we were even close enough to cross, they shot guns, they shot guns over our heads. They fired guns over our heads. And this group of families and, may I say, disabled people, children, tourists, I mean, just everyone, we just all scattered in all sorts of directions. And then everyone was in their own small little groups and milling around and what to do next.

And this is when Larry approached the Gretna deputies, and you know, he had his badge, his San Francisco Fire Department badge and had his hands up and asked if he could approach. And he was able to engage the deputies in some conversation. And Larry told them that we were told by the Police Command Post that we needed to come here to the bridge, because we we’re going to get on buses. And the deputy said that the Police Commander had apparently lied to us, and there were in fact no buses that were going to take us out of New Orleans. So, we asked the deputies, well, why couldn’t we just cross the bridge anyway? And this is — this is what we heard for the first time that the deputies had said to us, they said, this is not New Orleans, and there wasn’t — they were not going to have a Superdome over here, meaning, I guess in Gretna or Algiers or across the bridge. And I — if you looked at the group that was remaining in our little group, I mean, you could only look at us and see that — predominantly everyone was African-American or a person of color except for Larry, me, and the other gal we were with that it could only mean that if you are poor, or if you are black, you are not going to get out of New Orleans.

AMY GOODMAN: They set up an encampment with a group of people, thought they were protected near a bridge, but the police came again and forced them to disperse. Then Lorrie Beth Slonsky talked about this whole discussion of looting during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I asked Lorrie Beth what she saw take place at the Walgreens near her hotel.

LORRIE BETH SLONSKY: Our Hotel Monteleone had a little — you could look over and you could see the Walgreens because it was across the street from each other. And what you would see were people going in and they would take food, and they would take water, and you could see people coming out with pampers. And then the police would arrive with their sirens blaring and they would chase everybody away. And we just watched this go on for hours, this sort of cat and mouse game of people going in and getting necessities and getting out. And the other thing that kind of amazed me is I did have — I met someone who did go into the Walgreen’s and I said, you know, what was it like — what did it look like inside? She said it was so surreal and bizarre because on one hand you could see all the make-up still on the shelf. But all the — were the milk and the dairy products that Walgreens does carry in their little cold containers was all gone and it just looked like people were going after what they needed for basic necessities and they were sharing it with people that walked by. The police would show up. They would drive up really fast with their sirens blaring, and then everybody would scatter and run away, and then the police would leave and go on to wherever else they were going, and then apparently must have gotten reports again and they would screech back up and do the same thing, and we saw that a couple of times.

AMY GOODMAN: Lorrie Beth Slonsky, an emergency worker from San Francisco, caught in the storm of Hurricane, Military, and Police of New Orleans.

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