Pride, fear, relief, sorrow

Katrina's Wake

September 04, 2005|By Robert Little, Abigail Tucker, Douglas Birch and Stacey Hirsh | Robert Little, Abigail Tucker, Douglas Birch and Stacey Hirsh,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW ORLEANS - Surely it can't get any worse.

You heard that over and over, on the bridges where people tried to sleep, in the broken-down cars where mothers fed their babies, in the shelters slowly filling with the smell of human filth.

The waters can't get any higher, they said. Food and water will arrive. Police will stop the looting. The Army will come to the rescue. Someone will clear the bodies off the streets.

Almost no one was easily able to accept the scope of the catastrophe that Hurricane Katrina delivered to the Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coasts, even as its citizens went from fearful to desperate. Almost no one had experience with total ruin.

People first enjoyed an optimism born from misleading experience: People knew hurricanes were never as bad as they seemed once the trees were cleared and the power was restored. Then came a denial born of disbelief. Psychologists treating evacuees hauled out of New Orleans described them as suffering from "numbness," an early sign of post-traumatic stress disorder.

After the wind- and water-borne destruction in Mississippi came the broken levees in New Orleans, the rooftop rescues and the belated escape of thousands of families trudging down the highways out of the swamp that used to be their hometown. Then came the gangs with assault rifles.

Hurricane Katrina became both a natural and a man-made disaster, accentuated by near-riots in the Superdome, near starvation in the Convention Center, and certain death in the streets, the attics and the hospitals.

One of the nation's great cities is now lake bottom. People are huddled in parking lots and on roadsides or crowded into gymnasiums with little food and a questionable future.

Last week, wind, water, fear and frustration evoked every human emotion and produced stories of searing anguish and glimmering hope.

`I can't let them go'

New Orleans was deserted in haste, looted at will. The wreckage and debris testified to the city's strengths and its faults. In the once-elegant Garden District, the limbs and trunks of felled oaks littered deep, still pools of water. Power lines drooped across the streets like Mardi Gras beads.

A pregnant woman - a palm reader, she said - sat on her doorstep there. Like the city, she was tolerant and broadminded and eccentric and an idler. She wasn't sure whether or when she would leave. Tomorrow, she said. Or the next day. Seven people lived in her bungalow, she said, then looked back at the shuttered door. No, closer to 15.

At the Superdome, Rose Jordan sat waiting for a bus to take her to Houston or San Antonio or Florida. Authorities were unsure of the destination. Gray-haired and as dignified as the circumstances allowed, she carried a 3-foot-tall bird cage containing two parakeets, named Fric and Frak. They belonged to a friend of the family, a soldier stationed at Fort Polk and now in Iraq.

The waters around her were a gumbo of gasoline, shingles, supermarket shopping carts, floating shotgun shells. And ink from ruined diaries, the contents of medicine cabinets, children's toys. Katrina twisted sheets of aluminum siding into voluptuous Henry Moore sculptures, stacked plastic jugs like Lego blocks, uprooted trees like weeds. It docked a 100-foot fishing vessel between two trees alongside Interstate 10.

After spending five days with Fric and Frak in the fetid Superdome, Jordan wasn't going to surrender them to the gumbo. She was just a few steps from a bus. "I can't let them go."

On the road

Alicia Stewart pulled away from yet another gas station that lacked electricity to operate its pumps, she and her family traveling closer to the moment when the tank would run dry.For a moment, she wondered whether she had made the right choice.

That moment quickly passed. She had, in fact, chosen wisely.

Staying at her house in New Orleans East was never an option. She and her family members and friends had left before the storm, just as the mayor asked. But then their hotel grew hot and squalid, the sewage backed up and the gangs started closing in.

As she sat in the front seat of a minivan filled with 11 people - children riding on laps in the back - she kept reminding herself of the awfulness of the city, and of her fear. Her family would try to endure camping along the Louisiana roadside. Anything but returning to the city.

"If we make it to Baton Rouge, everything will be fine," she said. "If we don't, we'll thank God we're not in New Orleans fearing for our lives."

A rooftop voyage

In Biloxi, on the Mississippi coast, all Paulette Laffoon can do is sit and stare at her hands, cut deep from gripping tin. Her long gray hair is still held back by the metal barrette that she wore through the storm almost a week ago. It has rusted through.

She and her husband, Benny Gray, now live in a tent on top of their house, which Katrina stomped flat. She has nowhere to go, so all day she remembers drowned puppies and all night she dreams of the storm.

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