New Orleans Residents Rescue Their Neighbors in Absence of Government Response

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Democracy Now! producer John Hamilton spent the past several days in Louisiana. He filed a report from the flooded streets of New Orleans as he rode in a boat with locals searching for survivors in their community. [includes rush transcript]

  • Report from Democracy Now! producer John Hamilton.

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

AMY GOODMAN: We go to the center of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Democracy Now! producer John Hamilton spent the last several days in Louisiana. He filed this report.

JOHN HAMILTON: It’s Saturday afternoon in Orleans Parish, six days after Hurricane Katrina hit. It’s here that the waters of Lake Pontchartrain have flooded the Crescent City. What were once the streets of New Orleans are now a series of canals marked only by street signs scarcely breaking the surface of the water. We’ve come on a small motorboat with Dr. Tuti Sheiban and Floyd Simeon. At the helm are two volunteers who rode in from Louisville, Kentucky. We’ve come to look for survivors.

LENNY CAMERON: My name is Lenny Cameron, that is my partner back there Chad Jones. We came down on Wednesday. We got here in New Orleans. We brought down a boat and went out, got a couple people on the other side of town. We got a couple people on the other side of town. Then we hooked up with Floyd and Tuti here. They’re from New Orleans. And we got this boat running. We went out again yesterday. There are still a lot of people out here on the roofs. We got about probably 10 people out yesterday. We got a few of them to the hospital. But this is going on day six, Saturday here in New Orleans. And there are still — it’s a disaster. There are still a lot of people on the rooftops, from what we hear, running out of food and water. So we’re just trying to get out here and do what we can do. Edgar, here, we just hooked up with him at the boat ramp and we’re trying to find his family. They’ve been in here since Monday. He talked to them yesterday. They’re on the rooftop. And they’re running out of food and water as we speak right now. So we’re trying to hook up with them and see if we can get them out of here. People out here dying, basically.

JOHN HAMILTON: Scattered throughout the canals are bands of citizen volunteers in small motorboats, while helicopters buzz high overhead. There is not single government vessel to be seen. Scouting for survivors at the front of the boat is Dr. Tuti Sheiban.

TUTI SHEIBAN: I live in New Orleans. We live in this parish. This is our neighborhood, Jefferson Parish. And we left for the hurricane and came back Monday night hoping that we could help some people because, I don’t know, looking at the response to this storm, particularly initially, there wasn’t a lot of outside help. So we decided that really it was up to the people of Jefferson Parish to take the parish back and help. And that’s basically what Aaron Brussard has been saying on the radio that we’re going to all come together and rebuild. It’s going to be up to the people that are from here. So we came down to our neighborhood to see what we could do. We brought some food in from FEMA to the East Jefferson Hospital. I did volunteer some of my medical services on the other side of the lake at Covington Hospital. But it seemed like they had enough physicians over there. East Jefferson Hospital is the only hospital that’s up is and running right now. So yesterday we came in with a convoy and brought some food and water. Just on our vehicle. And we came down here to see what we thought was going to be the lakefront and it was our neighborhood underwater. So we commandeered a boat and we went out. And that’s when we met Lenny and Chad who came in from Louisville just to help people. And they had been out yesterday and said that they had heard some people screaming from the rooftops out here. So yesterday we came out in this boat and we didn’t find anybody. But we’re hoping that today it will be different. We have Edgar here with us who knows where some people are so we’re hoping we’re going to be able to find them. I was in a hospital in Covington on Tuesday where I was the only physician. There weren’t any flushing toilet facility. It was really really bad news. Patients kept coming and coming and coming. East Jefferson up is and running like normal. The doctors are there, the nurses are there. I think they have limited supplies, but they do have supplies. They have fresh food and fresh water. And it looks like they’re very well guarded by the National Guard.

JOHN HAMILTON: Tell me more about the Covington Hospital. Talk about that.

TUTI SHEIBAN: Well, we came in to Mandeville initially. At first we went to Lake View Hospital and I presented myself to the emergency room staff and said I was a physician and was there to help. They said they were fine and they didn’t need any help. So we left from there and we went to Covington to the Emergency Operation Center to ask where we could be of any value, because Floyd has a lot of survival skills and he’s trained the Marines before in survival techniques at the Marine Survival Training Institute. And so we presented ourselves and our skills to the Emergency Operations Center in Covington and they sent us over to the Covington High School where they set up what they thought was going to be a special needs hospital. So the intended thing for this hospital, it was to have people in hospital beds at home brought by their family members with their caregivers. However, as the night wore on, obviously, people came in floating in from the water in Slidell and various other places. So it turned into a slightly more acute care facility than it had begun. When I got there, there was one physician that had been there from Saturday until Tuesday. I asked him if he wanted rest and he walked right out the door. So for the next little while it was just me and Floyd. We had absolutely no supplies so I sent Floyd out pirating supplies. He went to all the different hospitals and emergency rooms and collected what he could. And brought it back to me. And we did very well, I think. We had over 200 patients there. We had only two die in the whole day.

JOHN HAMILTON: When you said pirate supplies, what do you mean?

TUTI SHEIBAN: I mean he went and begged. But we always call him The Pirate because he has a big black truck and carries a parrot and all that. He was out asking for help from the other hospitals. And they were giving up everything that they could. Nobody wanted to give up anything at that particular point in time. We had no idea when any supplies were coming. At that point in time, it was the day after the storm and we didn’t see any outside help coming in. We didn’t know when it was coming or why it wasn’t coming. We had no communication on the north shore. We had no telephones, no radio frequencies, no cell phones. So even five miles away we didn’t know what was happening. We kept hearing things were very bad in Slidell but we didn’t know how bad until I got some patients, who had been swimming in this exact water in Slidell. And then we found out how bad it was.

JOHN HAMILTON: How bad is the water here? Is it a serious health hazard?

TUTI SHEIBAN: I think it is. In my medical opinion, yes. We have corpses here. We have corpses that have been here for a few days. We have human corpses, animal corpses. We have sewage. It is just sitting here. This is a different climate than what people know. It’s been over 100 degrees here every single day with this stagnant water. There are some fish in it. But it’s some dirty water. I think it’s going to be a serious health risk. Particularly West Nile. We have West Nile already in Louisiana before this happened. We haven’t had a whole lot of deaths, but we have had incidents of West Nile killing people and I think that this still water is where those mosquitoes breed. And now we have all these mosquitoes and all these people and all this dirty water. I think it is pestilence waiting to happen. I’m very concerned about this water and these conditions, for the people that we do save.

JOHN HAMILTON: With thousands of New Orleans residents dying of exposure, dehydration, illness, and even starvation, New Orleans survivors fear yet another danger. Reports of free-roaming gangs and vigilante violence have circulated widely on the radio and by word of mouth. Lenny Cameron has come armed, a .9 mm pistol in his pocket. In the distance is a railroad tie which spans across the flooder street, forming a small island and severing the canal. Lenny peers through binoculars at a pair of figures standing on the track.

LENNY CAMERON: They got guns. They’re sheriffs. They’re sheriffs.

CHAD JONES: You sure?

LENNY CAMERON: I don’t know yet. Wait. Let me check. Yeah, he’s a sheriff.

JOHN HAMILTON: We meet New Orleans volunteer firefighters who have commandeered a boat on the far side of the barrier formed by the railroad tracks. Across the tracks, volunteer firefighters have brought in three hurricane survivors. A stepladder and life vests serve as a make shift backboard for the most severely injured of the bunch, who survived six days in his home despite a crippling back injury.

WARREN SCHOTT: I’m Warren Schott, and they carried me out on a ladder with a board on it to keep my back from being wrenched. And we’re going to get out of here, and I don’t know where I’m going and it’s going to be fun, I guess.

JOHN HAMILTON: Warren is loaded onto our boat along with survivors Christa Clark and Joseph Brussard. Floyd and Tooty press east to search for survivors. Across the tracks, Chad Jones hotwires the ignition and we’re off.

CHAD JONES: We’re just trying to get people to this make-shift medical center up here. Hopefully there is a doctor that can take these people somewhere. He’s got a bad back. We want to take him and get some help.

JOHN HAMILTON: In the back of the boat, shell-shocked survivors Christa Clark and Joseph Broussard reflected on their six-day ordeal, trapped in the flood zone.

CHRISTA CLARK: It happened just like that. All of a sudden, Hurricane Five. And that’ when I started freaking out. I’ve never been through anything like this before. I’m from California. I’m used to earthquakes. Those didn’t scare us. But this is different. It’s a big catastrophe.

JOSEPH BRUSSARD: I would like to thank these rescue people. You know, like I said, I wouldn’t know what to do. I never experienced this. And it is freaking me out, you know? So thank God for them. You know? And that’s about it.

JOHN HAMILTON: Do you have any family here?

JOSEPH BRUSSARD: No, sir. I have a stepbrother and stuff like that but they’re probably gone already. You know? And the phones are out. So we ain’t had no way to contact them.

JOHN HAMILTON: We reach a highway overpass stretching above the floodwaters. Christa, Warren and Joseph are unloaded by a ragtag group of E.M.T.s, firefighters and border patrol agents. We watch as another boat of citizen volunteers unloads survivors. As we head back to the train track, Lenny Cameron worries that police are hindering the rescue effort.

LENNY CAMERON: There’s a couple police told some volunteers on the other side of the city they need to quit doing it and get out of there or they’ll be arrested.

JOHN HAMILTON: Back at the track, Floyd and Tooty meet us from the other side of the flood zone. They have found Edgar’s parents, rattled but mostly unharmed. Edgar is overjoyed to see them.

EDGAR: Thank God to the New Orleans fire department. Thank God I found them.

JOHN HAMILTON: After ferrying Edgar’s family to medical authorities, we see the first sign of boats operated by a U.S. government agency. A pair of airboats operated by the U.S. Border Patrol have joined the rescue effort. Lenny and Chad have heard there are yet more residents trapped on other side of the railroad line, and the border patrol decides to follow. Once again, at the railroad track, more evacuees have arrived, angry over the pace of the rescue effort. Floyd Simeon advises border patrol officers on how to better coordinate the search.

FLOYD SIMEON: There needs to be an organized search pattern. They need to work a grid. Because without that, it’s just chaos. People just wandering. I mean even the search teams just going up and down streets looking around. This is fire department we’re working with here. We’re waiting on them to come up. But the whole problem is there is no grid set up. So everybody is just — you don’t know if this house has been checked yet. You know? And you don’t know if these people are still in there or not. There are people in there who are confused as to the situation. They actually approached two people a minute ago and asked them if they were ready to leave yet and they said, no, we’re waiting for the water to go down. And when you asked them how long you thought it would be before the water went down, he thought maybe a couple days, a week. We explained to them a month, two months. And they don’t seem to grasp the idea. And some are very reluctant to leave.

JOHN HAMILTON: Floyd, what do you think about the government’s response to this crisis?

FLOYD SIMEON: What government? We don’t have any government response here. Everything that’s taken place has taken place by volunteers and citizens in the area. You know, I don’t want to be critical of my government and not supportive. It’s just taken so long and it’s so slow. I mean you would think in this situation when you look around me and behind me at all this, why aren’t there 50 inflatable boats in the water working a grid making sure all these people are out of here? Why is it just volunteers? That’s the only people you see around. And on top of that they’re trying to stop volunteers from coming in. It seems like everyone has taken this approach that this has to be handled by the professionals and there’s no professionals handling it. And when you look at it and they keep saying people need to stay out, you can’t come home, they’re telling people in Slidell that, they’re telling people in Jefferson Parish that. What really needs to happen is everybody needs to come home and help. That’s the only way this is going to get fixed. Everybody has to come back and fix their city. Obviously this area is not ready for people to come back into. But there’s places where we can come in. You clear the trees, you clear your roads. Let them hook up to utilities and let’s get things going again. It’s not just going to happen by everybody sitting and waiting. And that’s why we’re here. We got tired of waiting.


FLOYD SIMEON: See you tomorrow.


JOHN HAMILTON: The setting sun means curfew will soon go into effect and with it the martial law that now grips New Orleans. We get word there are as many as 40 survivors left in a single neighborhood. But they’ll have to wait one more day, many without food or water as the disaster that grips New Orleans enters its seventh day. For Democracy Now! I’m John Hamilton in Orleans Parish, Louisiana.

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