The Philadelphia Inquirer
Sept. 1, 2005
NEW ORLEANS –Booker T. Harris, 91, died while sitting in a dirty green-and-white lawn chair, on the back of a truck as it drove him to an evacuation site. His wife, Allie, 93, was sitting in a chair next to him.
About an hour later, Booker Harris was at the city’s convention center, a gathering point for people to be evacuated from the city. He was still in his lawn chair, covered by a yellow quilt. His wife was sitting next to him. Hundreds of other evacuees milled around them. Few seemed to notice that Booker Harris was dead or that his wife was crying.
“How did they just leave her like this?” an outraged bystander, Monica Crockett, 47, wondered. “We are all going to start dying one by one, I guess.”
On Monday, Hurricane Katrina hammered New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Yesterday, the horrific effects of the storm’s beating became clearer in the city.
Tens of thousands of people are homeless. An unknown number of people are dead, some of the bodies floating in the streets or in flooded homes. The damage to the area’s economy – brought on by the storm and continued by hoodlums taking advantage of the chaos – is still unknown.
Yesterday, looters were pillaging sporting-goods stores and pawnshops to arm themselves with guns, witnesses said. Others reported drivers being carjacked by people with machetes.
Also, there were unconfirmed reports by city residents of rapes in the Superdome, which was being used as an emergency shelter.
People were angry – at the storm, at one another, and at the government officials and police who they said were doing nothing to help them.
“This is 2005. Nobody should have to live like this,” an angry John Murray, 52, said. “This ain’t got nothing to do with that hurricane. This has to do with mismanagement.”
Hundreds of people rescued from flooded parts of the city were left by their rescuers on the elevated interstate that runs through the city. They walked along aimlessly, some clutching bags of items they had saved from the flooding.
As floodwaters rose in traditionally dry neighborhoods, fleeing residents walked along the streetcar tracks in the middle of stately St. Charles Avenue. Families pushed their elderly in shopping carts; mothers tried to steer their children through an obstacle course of downed oak trees.
Faye Taplin, 65, took a rest on the stone steps of Christ Church Cathedral. Her feet were badly swollen, a marked contrast to her thin ankles.
“If I want to get out of New Orleans, I have to walk. But I didn’t think about this,” she said, extending one leg to reveal an ailing foot. “It’s the only way out. I don’t have a ride.”
Taplin left her city home, which had never flooded before, when the water was two feet deep in her living room.
A diabetic with high blood pressure, she grabbed her insulin and other medications, as well as a bedspread, soup, cookies and a can opener. She had heard on the radio that people were being evacuated to the central business district miles away, so she began her trek to it.
She soon needed a rest.
“That is as far as you got?” asked a barefoot woman in a housedress who was walking past.
“Yes,” Taplin said serenely, with a slight smile.
She was last seen walking back toward her house.
Even if Taplin had made it to a pickup point, there was no guarantee of an immediate evacuation from the city. Catherine Bernard, 49, was shaking with anger as she ranted against the city and its leaders.
“Nobody wants to stop and give us no help,” she said. “I never see no storm, no tornado, no hurricane uproot trees like this one.”
Bernard and her family had walked about three miles to an underpass in Lee Circle near the central business district.
The group included 14 adults – among them three diabetics, one blind woman, and one man in a wheelchair – and four children – including Bernard’s 2-year-old grandson, who danced in his diaper and T-shirt, oblivious to the distressed adults.
They and about 100 others had waited three hours for a promised evacuation truck that had not arrived.
“We don’t want to be separated,” she said, choking back tears. “We were all in the house together and we are going to stick together.”
When a caravan of trucks from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries slowly rolled past, the waiting evacuees shouted repeatedly for help.
One woman advised her teenage son to jump into the middle of the street if that’s what it would take to stop the trucks. The only response was from a man on the back of one of the trucks, who shouted, “Get to the convention center!”
That’s where the Billiot sisters – Kristy, 19, and Jamie, 18 – had spent the last five hours. Residents of neighboring St. Bernard’s Parish, they escaped their house by boat Monday, then were airlifted from atop a levee to a nearby military base, then finally bused to the convention center.
They had become separated from their parents and a brother, and did not know when they would be evacuated.
Kristy Billiot said they had brought nothing to eat or drink, and nothing had been provided. Their attempt to join the looting of a convenience store ended when police arrived and threatened to start shooting.
“I’m going to go crazy,” said Kristy Billiot, whose eyes were swollen from crying. “I hope I wake up and it’s a dream.”
But it seems to be a nightmare.
A block away from the Billiots, Allie Harris stared into space and munched on crackers, her dead husband in the chair next to her.