|Near the River is higher ground. Lakefront and New Orleans East are lower. |
N.O. East had no levee protection, but plenty of development.
Geography is Fate
New Orleans is a city surrounded by water. Land is at a premium. This is not something you readily understand if you are from Texas or Nebraska. There is not More, there is only Less. There is high ground and low ground. Every inch of elevation makes a huge difference.
New Orleans is a city where a car is necessary. Public transportation has always been unreliable for those going to work. But it has never been a city that really made room for car transportation. City streets are mostly two lane. They flood. They have cars parked on either side, and that makes a large number of them actually one-lane streets.
There are three bridges out. One goes East, where Katrina was also wrecking Alabama. One goes West, to Houston via Baton Rouge. That was the one people wanted. It goes over swamps and Lake Ponchatrain and Lake Maurepas, almost all the way to Baton Rouge. The road South of New Orleans is surrounded by ditches and then swamps. These flood regularly. Water runs over the road after a storm, traffic stops for awhile, then everybody goes home. But not for Katrina.
All of these bridges were mostly two lanes out, with lane separators, and a generous shoulder in most places. There are, or were, call boxes every 1/10th of a mile. The call boxes are there because once on a bridge, there is no getting off of one. You need gas or car repair? It is geographically impossible to pull your car onto the grass and walk to a station. You need a bungee cord and a rowboat.
Picture a mass evacuation, two lanes of cars. The cars are overloaded and in poor repair. Indeed, on every road trip, one can find people driving cars with no license plates. Each of those cars had a piece of shoddy cardboard in the back window: "Lisens Applid for". Now picture one, just one car, breaking down in the gridlock. Six people get out of it and look under the hood.
When Hurricane Francis hit, two or four years before? I-10 flooded at the city limits of New Orleans and Metairie, the closest suburb. It wasn't very far across. But that particular location, an underpass, is deep. You couldn't get through it. Traffic was backed up all along I-10. People just ran out of gas on the road, or their car overheated, or they stalled it out trying to pretend their car was an amphibious device.
Already Below Sea Level, Already Below Zero
New Orleans is fascinating, lovely, exotic. I still miss it. I'll never forget it.
In the years I knew New Orleans, no police car had all its fenders uncrunched. No NOPD car had hub caps. That's just what I could see.
There were at least four agencies in the city. The Levee Board police patrolled the levees where the rich people lived. The bridge police patrolled the bridges. Orleans Parish SO served papers and watched prisoners. The NOPD took everything else. The levees were made of land reclaimed from Lake Ponchatrain and were great places to live. Most of your yard was common easement and the Levee Board kept it mowed for you. The LB PD only had thin stretches of parkland and well-to-do people to take care of. They also had state retirement benefits. NOPD had parish retirement benefits.
The Levee Board was supposed to take those real estate earnings and invest them to keep up the levees. The original levees around the lake were earthworks. They were not augmented. Instead they were packed down and diminished by the weight of many jogger's shoes. The money disappeared, long before I ever arrived in Louisiana. And every single one of those homes was under water after Katrina. Not that they were the only ones, mind you.
When I moved there, New Orleans was the murder capital of the world. Maybe it was also the truant capital of America. High school kids drank beer on the street at 1 p.m. to the sound of the house alarms always clanging, clanging, clanging. It seemed that they all clanged for a year. The police couldn't get to them. That year, an alarm was a do not respond call. It just had no priority.
Its housing authority was so corrupt that the Feds would not release the funds slated to New Orleans until they fired some people and did some audits. In the meantime, the projects were crack-and-murder central. That was the NOPD's place to work. Not Lakefront. Oh no. The NOPD also watched over the city's moneymaking area, the Vieux Carre [Old Square] more commonly known as the French Quarter. That was the safest place in town, and it was not safe unless you stayed with the crowds. I remember watching a hooker nearly rob a blind man in broad daylight. Only my saying, "Watch it," made the blind man stop and put his hand on his wallet. The witch cursed me and kept walking. Fast. Just a little of the everyday.
The School Board held their meetings at Ruth's Chris Steak House while thousands of school children ate in pest-infested cafeterias. Through two different school board administrations. The same problems. The superintendent had a million dollar contract, but nothing changed for the kids during his tenure.
City Hall was full of people whose job was to carry files from one office or another, or, to sell hot dogs for those whose job was to carry files from one office to another. The City Government was bloated. The NOPD was not. They were over-run.
I also know that New Orleans is a port town, and the drug money did cause NOPD scandals every once in awhile. There was a Federal sting once thatcaught some drug-dealing officers, stupid, full of chutzpah. There was an NOPD officer who was a serial killer, who used to take prostitutes and then dump them in the forlorn swamps east of the city. But most of them were just flat busy with crime--recording it, stopping it, arresting those who did it. Dealing with bad equipment and corruption elsewhere. Gearing up for the insane crowds at Mardi Gras, the Jazz Fest, the you-name-it. Plenty of times the city was a free-for-all.
And never more so than when everyone who had the means to get out, got out. All those who had a reason to believe in stability and property to protect: mostly out of town. Or completely inundated and overwhelmed.
|Houses, abandoned, or filled with the dead or starving or mentally ill, or those too stubborn to leave.|
Cars couldn't get around. Phones didn't work. No groceries were entering the city.
But we also need to remember that during Katrina, police officers were attacked in their precincts, completely surrounded by anarchy as soon as the sun went down. That they stayed, with no supplies, to protect and serve. That they were targeted, in at least one instance, at least one night, for hours. It was on CNN.
We need to remember that the good officers got no sleep, no chance to check their own property or even use a phone, because the communications towers were down. There was also no parish jail. It had flooded, with prisoners still in it. There was no hospital. It had flooded, with patients still in it. The doctors had mostly evacuated, leaving people to die in the hospitals with very little care. There was no transport.The NOPD were on their own and on their lone. They mostly had their families out, I think, but not all of them.
The geographical landscape changed. The landscape of competency, available tools, changed. The atmosphere, the tenor of the city, also changed. Unattended deaths. People desperate for food. People living on the roof or looting, shooting, coming off their junk. And who knows what else.
They were scared and without support. If they banded together, it is not to be wondered at. There was little or no obedience to law. Under such conditions, we need to decide how we will judge. I already know where I stand.
Eleven cops have been indicted. Many, many civilians have not been caught or indicted for what they did in that time--or what responsibilities they fled. I wasn't there. I don't know. And if I had been there, I could not have been everywhere and seen everything. If these police officers robbed people, looted houses and businesses, that's one thing. If they took a sandwich, that's different under those conditions than taking a diamond necklace. If they shot someone, a looter, that needs to be considered, very carefully, under the circumstances. Very carefully.
Corruption: there's no excuse for disloyalty, for agreeing to break your sworn promise without leaving your office first. I believe that. Do I want to hit the NOPD first? Not by a hell of a sight.
What would you do under anarchy, when no expectation of infrastructure is met? So far, most of us do not know the answer. And most of all--
It is never easy for the NOPD in the Big Easy. And it was never harder than during Katrina. Let's remember those who kept the faith, before, during, after. Let's don't be too sure we know the score.