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'This crisis is a crime of the highest magnitude'

ajrapko@yahoo.com

NEW ORLEANS (6 September 2005) -- ON Saturday September 3, award-winning filmmaker Gloria La Riva, internationally-acclaimed photographer Bill Hackwell and A.N.S.W.E.R. Youth & Student Coordinator Caneisha Mills arrived in New Orleans as an A.N.S.W.E.R. delegation to document an accurate account of the situation and provide solidarity and support to those in need

The following is an eyewitness report of the crisis in the area written on Sunday, September 4....
-- -- -- -- --

Media reports on September 2 describe anarchy and general chaos as the climate in all of New Orleans. The national media reports that hope, supplies and food were now being distributed in the area. However, once we arrived in the Algiers district of New Orleans after seven checkpoints, the reality shows otherwise.

Algiers


While 80 per cent of New Orleans was submerged in water, Algiers is one of the few districts that has been spared as it sits higher than most of the city. An historic district established in 1719, Algiers is on the west bank of the Mississippi river, across from the French Quarter. Probably 15 per cent of the residents still remain behind, most of them determined to stay in their homes. The majority of homes are still intact, although many have suffered damage. While their houses survived, the peoples' chance of survival seemed very bleak since there was no electricity or disbursement of food, water or other supplies.

"Imagine being in a city, poor, without any money and all of a sudden you are told to leave and you don't even have a bicycle," stated Malik Rahim, a community activist in the Algiers section of New Orleans. "90 per cent of the people don't even have cars."

One woman told us it was not possible for her to evacuate. She said, "I can't leave. I don't have a car and I have nine children." She and her husband are getting by with the help of several men in the community who are joining resources to provide for their neighbours.

The government claims that people can get water, but residents have to travel at least 17 miles to the nearest water and ice distribution center. Only one case of water is available per family. Countless people have no way to drive.

There is a huge military and police presence but none of it to provide services. All of them, north and south of the river, are stationed in front of private buildings and abandoned stores, protecting private property.

The goods they are driving in are for their own forces.

Not one of them has delivered water to Algiers or gone to the houses to see if sick or elderly people need help. There is no door-to-door survey to see who was injured. The overwhelming majority of people who have stayed in Algiers are Black but some are white. One white man in his late 50s in Algiers pointed across the street to a 10-acre grassy lot. It looks like a beautiful park. He said, "I had my daughter call FEMA. I told them I want to donate this land to the people in need. They could set up 100 tractor trailers with aid, they could set up tents. No one has ever called me back." He is clearly angry.

Although some of the residents do express fear of burglaries into houses, acts of heroism, sacrifice and solidarity are evident everywhere.

Steve, a white man in his 40s, knocks on Malik's front door. He tells us, "Malik has kept this neighbourhood together. We don't know what we'd do without his help." He has come in because he needs to use the phone. Malik's street is the only one with phones still working.

Malik and three of his friends have been delivering food, water and ice to those in need three times a day, searching everywhere for goods.

There is a strong suspicion among the residents that this is a deliberately-forced removal. Algiers is full of quaint, historic French-style houses, with a high real estate value, and signs of gentrification are evident.

Downtown New Orleans


Although entry is prohibited into downtown New Orleans north and east of the Mississippi, because of extensive flooding and the almost total evacuation, we were able to get in on Sunday.

The Superdome is still surrounded by water and all types of military -- helicopters, army trucks, etc -- are coming in and out of the area; however, most of the people have already left. On US-90, the only road out of New Orleans, convoys of National Guard troops are pouring into the city, too late for many. According to an emergency issue of The Times-Picayune, 16,000 National Guard troops now occupy the city.

Water is premium and not available. One African American couple approached our car. The woman asked us, "Do you have water you could give us? We have four kids. When they told us to leave before the hurricane we couldn't. We have no car and no money."

Undoubtedly it is similar in the other states that got the direct hit of Katrina, Mississippi and Alabama. On the radio we hear reports of completely demolished towns. What differentiates the rest of the Gulf coast from New Orleans is that the many thousands of deaths in New Orleans were absolutely preventable and occurred after the hurricane. On everyone's lips is the cutting in federal funds to strengthen the levees of Lake Pontchartrain.

Two reporters from New York tell us they just came from the New Orleans airport emergency hospital that was set up.

New Orleans International Airport


The New Orleans International Airport was converted into an emergency hospital center. Thousands of people were evacuated there to getsupplies and food, and for transportation that would take them out of the city. Many people arrived with only one or two bags, their entire lives minimized to a few belongings.

Some people did not want to leave their homes, but say they were forced to do so. For example, one white woman and her husband, Pauline Noble and Jerome Hill, were forced to evacuate. Pauline said, "The military told us that we had one minute to evacuate. We said that we weren't ready and he said they can't force us to leave but if we don't leave anybody left would be arrested . but it was the end of the month. The two of us have been living for a couple of months on $600 a month and rent is $550. At the end of the month, we only had $20 and 1/8 of a tank of gas. There was no way we could leave."

When it became apparent that nobody was coming back to pick them up, the couple walked five miles to the airport to see if they could get help.

Disaster Medical Assistance Teams, doctors, nurses and community organizations came from as far as San Diego, California and Kentucky to provide support during the crisis. None of them were dispersed into the community. When we arrived at the airport on Sunday, September 4, there were approximately 20 medical people for every one patient while people in regions such as Algiers and the 9th ward were left to fend for themselves.

The majority of people in New Orleans blame the local and national government for the catastrophe. One young Black man said, "The government abandoned us . [it's] pre-meditated murder." Another said, "Why would you [the government] protect a building instead of rescuing people that have been without food or water for three or four days? It seems like that was the plan ... We couldn't starve them out, the hurricane didn't kill them, it seems planned."

Baton Rouge


As we drive to Baton Rouge tonight to visit evacuated people, we hear on local radio that possibly 10,000 people have died in the flooded areas of New Orleans. Tonight in one announcement, we hear the names of some of the missing people still being searched for, a 90-year-old woman named Lisa, a man 102-years-old, two women 82- and 85-years-old. The elderly, the most vulnerable, left to their own devices.

Bodies are lying everywhere, and hidden in attics and apartments. The announcer describes how one body, rotting after days in the sun, was surrounded by a wall fashioned from fallen bricks by survivors, and given a provisional burial to give her some dignity. The sign placed next to her body said, "Here lies Vera, God Help Us."

At a Red Cross shelter outside of Baton Rouge, we meet Emmanuel, who can't find his wife and three sons after the floods. His story is shocking. His home is near the 17th Street Canal, where the Pontchartrain levee broke through.

"I stayed behind to rescue my neighbours while I sent my wife and kids to dry land," he says. It is difficult for him to relate what happened. He had a small boat so he went from house to house picking up neighbours. While doing so, he encountered many bodies in the water.

"My best friend's body was floating by in the water. One mother whose baby drowned tied her baby to a fence so she could bury him after she returned." Because troops kept driving by him and others without helping them, he had to walk 30 miles north until he was picked up.

This crisis is a crime of the highest magnitude. The Bush Administration is always able to find money to fund wars that will benefit the rich of this country; however, when it comes to providing aid to respond to a disaster of this magnitude, funds, supplies and resources are lacking. From Bush on down, they should be indicted.


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