Exodus From New Orleans
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ELIZABETH BRACKETT: They came in groups, carrying babies, pushing shopping carts, enduring the searing heat– a steady stream of refugees flowing across the greater New Orleans Bridge. They left the city the only way they could: They walked.
THERESA SMITH: We’ve been walking since yesterday. We have people that have been walking for three days. Everybody’s out on the bridge. Nobody gave us nothing. We haven’t eaten in three days.
THELMA HENDERSON: We was on the bridge from the 28th until this morning. And we just walked. We came walking trying to find some dry land.
VENESSA WILLIAMS: Everything just started going under. So we’ve been about three days now, trying to find shelter, something to eat, trying to find somewhere to go.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Many said they had wanted to get out of the city earlier, but didn’t have the resources to comply with the evacuation orders.
JENNIFER MOYE: I don’t have a car. I have cars, but they don’t have brakes. I don’t have no money. We was supposed to get paid this Friday. This is the Friday when the state get paid. So I didn’t have any money, me or – nobody in my family had money to leave.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Trapped by the constantly rising floodwaters from a breach in the levee, the conditions in the city grew steadily more horrific.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: What did you see when you’re walking?
VENESSA WILLIAMS: Oh, all kinds of stuff. We went through debris, you know, they had people fighting trying to find places to go, you know, they had bodies, you know, it’s just so… it’s oh…
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Have you ever seen anything like that?
VENESSA WILLIAMS: (shaking head no)
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: As thousands of people who had taken refuge in the Superdome waited to be evacuated, those who had made the long journey across the bridge from New Orleans to the west bank of the Mississippi River hoped they too would be helped. But once on the other side they found nothing.
THERESA SMITH: They told us to come this way, there was buses waiting. They said they had buses waiting on the bridge. When we got the on the bridge, all the buses were going the opposite way.
JENNIFER MOYE: They told us that we have to evacuate and leave home. We leave home and come to nothing.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And what are you going to do now?
JENNIFER MOYE: I don’t know.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: What those fleeing the city did find was a compassionate preacher whose church sits at the foot of the greater New Orleans Bridge in Jefferson Parish.
PASTOR PATRICK LEONARD: Off the bridge they stopped in here first.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: He offered what he could: Water and a bathroom.
PASTOR PATRICK LEONARD: They are tired, thirsty bewildered; they’re confused. Okay? They don’t know where they’re going or don’t know what they’re doing. All they are looking for is help, any type of help that they can get. That is what they’re searching for.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: What many who made it across the bridge were searching for were family members left behind.
WOMAN: All I’m worried about is that everybody be safe and sound and that I can find the rest of my family — my daughter and my three grandchildren. I have brothers, nephews, you know, I don’t know where they at. They don’t know where I’m at.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Local emergency officials in Jefferson Parish said they were aware of the hundreds of people walking across the bridge but had few local resources to deal with them.
CHRIS ROBERTS, Jefferson Parish Council: We have to rely on assistance from the American Red Cross. We have to rely on assistance from FEMA. And quite frankly, we’re not impressed at how quickly they’ve been able to respond to our requests.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: At the only shelter in Jefferson Parish the scene was chaotic. Filled to capacity with those forced out of their homes, the shelter also took in people who had made it out of New Orleans. There were few medical resources to deal with the seriously ill.
HEALTH WORKER: Look right here. You can see -
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: A colostomy bag -
HEALTH WORKER: — and she’s been this way for all the days that we’ve been here, since Saturday on the floor soiled. We had to take all her clothes off. We had to wash her down — hose her down. The ladies did all that. She hasn’t eaten properly. She hasn’t gotten her medicine properly. I don’t know where her kin people are.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The local police department in charge admitted they were not set up to handle the overwhelming needs of a shelter.
LT. TERRY SEARCY, Westwego Police Department: This was not supposed to be a shelter. This was a last-minute thing. We don’t have anybody from the Red Cross – this is the Westwego Police Department running this whole operation.
LAQUICHA DOMINICK: When we got here they started treating us like inmates, you know what I’m saying? They got rifle guns, passing out food with guns on the side of them. We are trying to go to the phone. They’re telling us we can’t use the pay phone. You can go one by one. You got about 50 million people in here and you’re telling us one by one we got to go to the pay phone.
LT. TERRY SEARCY: It’s kind of difficult. What people don’t understand – that there is no place to go. They want to go home, but there is no home for some of these people.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Plans had been under way Wednesday morning to open an emergency food distribution center in Jefferson Parish, serving those in the shelter as well as the thousands of residents in the parish whose homes had been severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina.
The storm made no distinction between the many modest homes in the area and the fabled plantations that line the river road from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. All remained without power, and few had water.
ED ROBICHAUX: I’m going to go ahead, and I told Andy I’m going to go ahead and go and work my way on through there –
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Ed Robichaux, with the Louisiana Department of agriculture, was making last-minute arrangements with his team to head out to begin the food distribution. But getting to Jefferson Parish from Baton Rouge proved difficult.
ED ROBICHAUX: Some of these cables may well be carrying juice and the insulated wires definitely are.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Finally arriving at the site, Robichaux learned that the Federal Emergency Management Agency – or FEMA — had not yet dropped off the food and water his teams were set to distribute.
ED ROBICHAUX: The communications is not good. We can’t get the phone service back to Baton Rouge, so we’re having trouble finding out why they’re not here and when they are going to be here.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Officials were trying to pin down the reason for the delay, while more people made their way over the bridge, and tensions at the crowded shelter continued to escalate.
By 3:30 on Wednesday the emergency food distribution center still had not opened, though there were plenty of National Guard troops here on standby waiting to protect the center when it did.
RELIEF WORKER : Come on – we’ve got to fill this bus up! No babies!
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Today the food distribution center still had not opened, but the hundreds more who walked over the bridge were met by a bus. Jefferson Parish supplied buses to take the evacuees on to Houston’s Superdome and into an uncertain future.
JIM LEHRER: And Saul Gonzalez of station KCET-Los Angeles was in Houston today as refugees arrived from New Orleans.
SAUL GONZALEZ: Motor coaches carrying people fleeing the destruction left by Hurricane Katrina continued arriving throughout the day at Houston’s Astrodome. The aging sports arena has been pressed into service as a mammoth refugee center, offering food, shelter and assistance to thousands of hurricane victims.
While most arrive at this safe haven by bus, many are showing up on foot. These are refugees, both adults and children, who have hitchhiked from New Orleans, 350 miles to the east.
How did you decide to come west?
IRVING DOYLE: That’s first place we heard to go. They told us, basically, “Go to Houston, go to Texas.”
SAUL GONZALEZ: Irving Doyle, who is with his two sons, hitched a ride to Houston from a long-haul trucker. He hopes the Astrodome will be a safe haven for his kids.
IRVING DOYLE: Hopefully we can get the help that we need. You know, just try to get our children settled. I mean, that’s all we’re worried about, is our kids. That’s the only reason we left.
SAUL GONZALEZ: As more refugees arrive, Judge Robert Ekels, director of the Office of Emergency Management for Houston, knows the Astrodome will soon be overtaxed.
JUDGE ROBERT EKELS: We think we can comfortably… as comfortable as you can be in this environment, about twenty, twenty-five thousand people – then – it’s not a hard number but you start running into plumbing, and there’s problems… this is designed for a crowd to come in and go, not to stay for a long time.
SAUL GONZALEZ: Along with the Astrodome, many other refugee centers have been established in Houston and surrounding communities. One of them is St. Peter Claver Church, in a poor, largely African-American neighborhood in the city. Here, refugees can receive three hot meals a day, essentials like soap and shampoo and extra clothing.
The church’s pastor, Rawlin Enette, says he’s trying to help everyone who arrives at St. Peters, but he acknowledges offering shelter to disaster victims has become a challenge.
PASTOR RAWLIN ENETTE: I was given the call at 2:00 this morning. I didn’t sleep. 5 o’clock this morning people were begging for…
SAUL GONZALEZ: A roof over their head?
PASTOR RAWLIN ENETTE: That’s right. One lady started crying. She was alone, so I told her to come. You see, 300 is our capacity. We had, I think, 309 last night. But people are being put out of the motels because they’ve run out of money. They have nowhere to go.
SAUL GONZALEZ: The parking lot at St. Peter’s continues to fill up with the families like the Santiagos. They traveled here in a family convoy.
CINDY SANTIAGO: I came with three loads of family. We’re in three different vehicles. It’s more than 20 of us.
SAUL GONZALEZ: Cindy Santiago is coming to grips with the fact that her life has changed for good.
CINDY SANTIAGO: From what I can understand, we have nothing to go home to– nothing, nothing at all– so it’s real rough for us. Right now it’s kind of like you really have to start all over here, you know. And that’s hard. That is real hard.
SAUL GONZALEZ: Yet, even as they try to piece their lives back together, many hurricane evacuees in Houston feel fortunate.
CLARENCE SANTIAGO: It’s bad for us. But I’m going to tell you, we shouldn’t be complaining because the people in New Orleans who haven’t drunk water for days, them people are really hurting right now.
SAUL GONZALEZ: You’re the lucky ones here.
CLARENCE SANTIAGO: Right now we can consider ourselves lucky.
SANTIAGO FAMILY MEMBER: Yes.
CLARENCE SANTIAGO: I’ve got my grandmother and people. Chances are, I hate to say it, but a lot of them are not going to make it. I’ve already heard word that my stepsister, she drowned. You know what I mean? It’s… it’s… it’s overwhelming.
SAUL GONZALEZ: Even as they grapple with the multitudes who have already arrived, Texas authorities are preparing for more refugees– another 25,000 will be directed to San Antonio.