Three days before Katrina hit, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco declared a state of emergency. A day later Mississippi followed suit.
Soon the mayor of New Orleans ordered a mandatory evacuation, with no steps taken beyond the proclamation. More than 100,000 people stayed behind: the poor, the sick, the old and children, all predominantly African-American.
By Sunday, Aug. 28, the horrifying scope of the storm became clear. The National Weather Service warned, “Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks … perhaps longer.” A second warning read, “Preparations to protect life and property should be completed this evening… some levees in the greater New Orleans could be overtopped.”
Unfortunately, President Bush missed the warning. He told ABC after the flooding: “I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees.”
When the storm made landfall Monday morning, New Orleans was hit hard, but the Mississippi cities of Gulfport and Biloxi were devastated. However, the trouble for New Orleans was just beginning, as the levees began to give way. By Tuesday, two levees had collapsed. Within hours 80 percent of the city was under water.
According to Time, on the day the storm hit, Governor Blanco called the White House and demanded to speak to the President, but he could not be located. She then asked for Chief of Staff Andrew Card, who was on vacation. Hours later, she got Bush on the phone and he vowed, “Help is on the way.”
But most of the help was days away.
After the storm hit, Michael Brown, then head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), requested that the Department of Homeland Security dispatch 1,000 employees over the next 48 hours to the region.
The National Guard was understaffed and slow to respond: 40 percent of Mississippi’s force and 35 percent of Louisiana’s was in Iraq.
Lt. Gen. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, told CNN that “arguably” a day or so of response time was lost due to the absence of the troops in Iraq.
There was little sense of urgency in the federal government’s response. Offers of help were initially ignored or rejected. The hospital facilities aboard the USS Bataan went unused, even though it was in the Gulf of Mexico and had doctors, hospital beds, food and water.
One thousand firefighters volunteered to help, but FEMA sent them to Atlanta for classes in sexual harassment. Cuba had 1,100 doctors who were ready to be deployed the day after the levees broke. The Bush administration refused Cuba’s offer of assistance.
The Florida Airboat Association offered to send in 500 trained volunteer pilots to help rescue hurricane victims.
The Red Cross was barred from even entering New Orleans.
Meanwhile, the residents were wondering if they had been forgotten.
Thousands remained trapped in attics on rooftops. Hospitals were losing power and running out of medical supplies, food and water.
Tens of thousands filled the Superdome and were living in subhuman conditions. Food and water quickly ran out. The toilets stopped working. Corpses lay unattended.
“We were treated like this was a concentration camp,” Audrey Jordan told Agence France Presse.
Outside, corpses were floating in the floodwater and lying on the city streets. And the images were being broadcast around the world.
On CNN, Anderson Cooper reported he had seen a body being eaten by rats.
On NBC, photojournalist Tony Zumbada reported from the Convention Center: “There’s nothing offered to them, no water, no ice, no C-rations. Nothing for the last four days.”
In the corridors of power, the focus shifted from saving the victims to targeting them. On the state level, Governor Blanco issued an order to “shoot to kill” looters, even though many of the so-called looters were starving residents seeking food and water.
Brig. Gen. Gary Jones, commander of the Louisiana National Guard’s Joint Task Force, told the Army Times, “This will be a combat operation to get this city under control.” He compared New Orleans to a “little Somalia.” Mercenaries from Blackwater eventually took to the street.
In Washington, the New York Times reported that President Bush’s chief advisor Karl Rove began plotting a PR campaign to shift blame to local and state officials. Soon “the blame game” became the GOP catchword of choice.
Meanwhile, the people kept dying.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin sent a “desperate SOS” for more aid. “Help Us, Please,” read a banner headline in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. A mandatory evacuation of the city was ordered.
Plans were hatched to bus everyone in the Superdome to other locales. But even those plans went awry. Thousands were left stranded outside the stadium – or in some cases on the highway – waiting for buses.
Many hurricane survivors tried leaving on their own and were blocked by police.
Two emergency medical services workers, Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky, reported that armed sheriffs barred scores of people from crossing a bridge out of the city.
The sheriffs said they didn’t want the West Bank suburbs to become New Orleans, and that there would be no Superdomes in their city. The sheriffs fired shots to reinforce their point.
“These were code words for: if you are poor and Black, you are not crossing the Mississippi River, and you are not getting out of New Orleans,” the medics wrote.
The future of New Orleans and the region is now in doubt. More than one million people from the Gulf Coast have been displaced.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the city’s white elite has already begun plotting how to redevelop the city. One Republican congressman was overheard telling lobbyists, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”
Halliburton and Bechtel are scoring reconstruction contracts.
Environmentalists warn that the long-term ecological toll could be devastating. Hugh Kaufmann, a longtime official at the Environmental Protection Agency says toxic chemicals in the New Orleans floodwaters could make the city unsafe for full human habitation for a decade.
The number of deaths may never be known. Initially, officials predicted that as many as 10,000 had died (FEMA had 25,000 body bags on hand), but, in one of the few glimmers of hope, the official death toll as we went to press was far lower.