Democracy Now! producers John Hamilton and Sharif Abdel Kouddous join us from Baton Rouge. On Saturday they made it into New Orleans to witness what’s left of the devastated city. [includes rush transcript]
- John Hamilton, Democracy Now! Producer
- Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! Producer
AMY GOODMAN: They join us now from a studio in Lafayette Louisiana. We welcome both John and Sharif to the studios. Welcome.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Hi, amy.
JOHN HAMILTON: Hi Amy. We’re in Baton Rouge.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re in Baton Rouge right now. It’s very good to have you with us. Sharif, can you describe the trip you took this weekend? Take us through your trip to the New Orleans Airport and beyond.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well Amy, we arrived in Baton Rouge on a standby flight Friday night. Batron Rouge has doubled in size, has become a town of 600,000 people just from the amount of internally displaced people coming from New Orleans. We managed to rent a car Saturday morning. Again very difficult because of the number of people here and we drove into New Orleans. There are a couple of checkpoints on I-10 which is the main artery getting into New Orleans, and we got through with our press i.d.'s. The first place we arrived to was the airport, and that — it's one thing to see the images on TV, but when you actually see it in real life, the scope of the devastation really hits you, and what the crisis is down here. We turned in to the airport, got in. There are hundreds of people milling around, busloads being brought in every few minutes. They’re out in the sweltering heat, many of them under an overpass, left basically to their own devices. I mean, inside the airports, there are people lying on stretchers all over the ground. People lined up in wheelchairs. And who are these people left there? They are the neediest that have been abandoned. The eldest, the sick, the disabled, and the staff there, although they’re doing the best they can, a lot of people from DMAT, which is the — I forgot what DMAT stands for, but a lot people there are people from local hospitals and so forth are completely overwhelmed. There’s something like 80 patients to a doctor or something like that. So, you know, first it was the Superdome, then the convention center, and now it’s the airport that’s become to symbolize the plight of what’s happened to the people of New Orleans here. This is a full week after the hurricane hit when we arrived, and really the crisis really hits you hard when you get there. You talk to so many people and you realize the numbers that have lost loved ones. The number that have no idea what’s happening to them. This is after having lost everything they own in life. Most of them have lost their homes and their belongings. They have also lost their loved ones and now they don’t know what’s happening to them. They say, “I don’t know. Maybe I’m going to Indianapolis, maybe Houston.” I think that’s the story right now. We’re in Baton Rouge right now, and there’s about 300,000 people here who are internally displaced people and are not sure what they’re doing.
JUAN GONZALEZ: John, there’s been a lot made in the corporate media about the enormous amount of looting and violence. What’s your sense of the level of chaos or anarchy in terms of this whole issue of looting and violence from the people that you spoke to?
JOHN HAMILTON: I’ll tell you, Juan, I saw an awful lot of boots on the ground in terms of National Guard. I saw guns in the air. I’ll tell you what I didn’t see. I didn’t see looting. I didn’t see violence. I didn’t see rapes occurring. I’m not going to say that these acts and these events didn’t occur, but we certainly didn’t see any the entire time we were in New Orleans. We made it all the way downtown through all the flooded areas, all around the city. It’s my sense, Juan, that the news media reports about violence and looting, and sometimes couched in racist terms, has led to a situation where rescue operators are unwilling to go into areas of the city which are in dire need of rescuers. I’m thinking of areas like the Ninth Ward, the poorest and blackest area of New Orleans. Now, after Sharif and I went to the airport, we traveled as far east as we could. We made it as far as the 17th street canal, which separates Jefferson Parish from Orleans Parish, beyond which is completely flooded. We looked at the homes there, first story homes barely had rooftops above the water line. Second story homes were like first story homes. It was a bizarre version of Venice, Italy. I traveled on boat with four volunteers who were rescuing people. I expected to find a massive operation pulling people — this was Saturday. Pulling people still out of their homes, trapped in attics. What I saw from the federal government was a grand total of three boats, border patrol agents on three boats. Two air boats and one flat bottom boot. I saw far more of a response from citizens who had just taken it upon themselves to go and pluck people out of their homes. They plucked about a dozen out on Saturday. We heard report of 40 more people in their homes. And so When you hear Malik Rahim talking about the inadequacy of the city government, the state government, and the federal government, it’s impossible to deny that on the ground.
AMY GOODMAN: John, we’re going to be playing the trip that you took in the boat as you were rescuing people tomorrow on Democracynow!. I wanted to ask Sharif, you have spent time both in Iraq covering both the invasion and occupation and now you’re in Louisiana and New Orleans. Can you make any comparisons, what you have seen?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well Amy, Saturday and Sunday, there was a large number of troops here: Marines, U.S. Coast Guard, National Guard, there’s hummers everywhere, everyone is armed with assault rifles. And I think that what many people don’t realize is that New Orleans has really become a militarized zone. I think this is the fault and the major error that has occurred with many of the relief operations here is that they weren’t relief operations. They were militarized —- you know, there’s a curfew set at 6:00 p.m. in New Orleans and especially in the poorer neighborhoods. If you walked out after 6:00 p.m., you would get shot. The governor gave orders—- shoot to kill. If you became sick after 6:00 p.m., and you had to leave, or if for any reason there was an emergency and you couldn’t leave the area. While, there were thousands of troops who were willing to help, I’m sure, they were deployed, I believe, in the wrong way. They should have been deployed as relief operations. John and I, in the course of our work moving from one place to another, were picking people up. We had a flatbed truck that we rented and transporting them all over New Orleans and back and forth because people needed a lift. This is while there are National Guard troops in hummers just cruising by us, and not doing these things. We delivered ice with Malik Raheem while National Guard troops and so forth were milling around.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif —
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Not that they don’t want to help, but that those were their orders.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going have to leave it there, but we’ll continue to get your reports tomorrow on Democracy Now!. Sharif Abdel Kouddous and John Hamilton speaking to us from Baton Rouge, Louisiana.