Those remaining in city fending for themselves

`We've been abandoned,' police officer says

Katrina's Wake

September 02, 2005|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - A bitter rain fell as the big policeman in the blue T-shirt with an automatic rifle led his last patrol down flooded North Rampart Street yesterday, heading for the hotel where his wife and children were holed up.

Once he and four other colleagues fetched them, he said, he was getting them out of the battered swamp that is New Orleans.

The 35-year-old veteran officer and some of the men following him, who spoke only on condition that their names not be used, said that three days after Hurricane Katrina roared through the city, they felt abandoned and forgotten by municipal, state and federal officials.

They had no food, no water, no fuel, no rescue boats, no life preservers and no clear idea of what they were doing.

Several said they were planning to leave.

At a time when Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco said the city's police were being taken off rescue duty to fight looting, some officers at the Oscar L. Medrano precinct house, near the French Quarter, said they had heard rumors police were being evacuated from the city. Whether the rumors were true or not, they were ready to believe it.

One quiet 28-year-old policeman with a buzz cut packed his gear early yesterday and hitched a ride to a convenience store just west of the city, where his father promised to pick him up.

It wasn't clear whether he had authorization from his commanding officer to leave his post, at a time when National Guard or state police were still nowhere to be seen near his precinct house.

His fellow officers looked like battle-weary soldiers and said they were too busy protecting themselves, their families and the station house to do much else. A 25-year-old, three-year veteran of the force said he and his fellow officers had been shot at by looters and showered with bricks from an overpass on the nearby interstate highway.

No one was bothering to re-supply them, he said, or give them the equipment they needed to rescue stranded citizens. They were forced to siphon gasoline from abandon cars to fuel the precinct's generator and to commandeer boats and cars.

`We got no food'

"As policemen, we've been abandoned by everybody," he said bitterly, wearing a white T-shirt, badge, blue shorts and black boots and carrying a Kalashnikov Russian-design assault rifle, his personal weapon.

"We get no food. We have to get all our own food. See that Winn Dixie over there?" he said, referring to a supermarket ransacked by looters. "That's where we get what we need. All you can do is fend for yourself."

On a Baton Rouge, La., radio station Thursday, one caller claimed that two uniformed policemen were seen looting a grocery store. Several people called to complain about the report, with some suggesting that looters had stolen police uniforms and were posing as officers.

But a few of the police at the Medrano precinct confirmed that officers had commandeered food and fuel, and said it was a simple matter of survival.

It wasn't clear whether the disillusioned officers who went on the patrol to rescue the family of a brother officer, all from the Medrano precinct house, were representative of the mood among city police as a whole.

But state officials said yesterday that a program had been set up to "debrief and retrain" New Orleans officers who had failed to show up for work during the crisis, suggesting that the police officers abandoning their jobs might be more than just an isolated problem.

The patrol led by the 35-year-old officer from the Medrano precinct looked more like an armed gang than a group of police officers, although they wore badges on their casual clothes and wielded shotguns and automatic weapons.

They trudged through intersections filled with thigh-deep water, the color of weak coffee and stinking of the bayou, gasoline and sewage.

They disappeared heading down a broad avenue in the direction of the downtown hotels. A reporter trying to follow was warned away by police in a rowboat, who said the area was dangerous.

The policeman with the buzz cut said Katrina had hit the station hard Sunday night and Monday morning, but by the afternoon, as police emerged to start rescue operations, conditions seemed to be improving.

Hope fades fast

"I thought that it was going to get better," he said. "But the water still kept rising. And, it went downhill from there. We thought we would lose power for a day or two. But then the levee broke. We ran out of food and water."

The looting in the downtown precincts, he said, started on a small scale. But it quickly escalated. Most of the convenience stores were trashed for fresh water, food and beer. People began pushing trashcans filled with looted goods through the water. Every automobile from a downtown dealership was stolen.

Then the shooting incidents began. On Wednesday, he said, a SWAT team responding to a call in the Magnolia Projects in Uptown was ambushed by snipers. The team was pinned down for a time, before they were extracted.

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