We Survived Katrina! Thank you for your prayers and kindness
These are a series of communiqués that Brenda Quant sent to worried family and friends around the country in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; one of her closet friends is Bioneers board member, Belvie Rooks. Belvie has taken the liberty—at Kenny Ausubel’s request and with Brenda’s permission—of sharing Brenda and her family’s ordeal with the extended Bioneers family and community.
Brenda Quant is a writer and long-time community and civil rights activist who was born and raised in the New Orleans 9th Ward. Her husband Ted Quant—until last week’s hurricane—was Director of the Twomey Center for Peace Through Justice at Loyola University. They are currently in the process of trying to resettle in Selma, Alabama.
Saturday, September 3, 2005
We are OK, safe in Opelousas, Louisiana. Jackie and her son and his friend are with us. Ursula and her guys are at my brothers in Canton, MS. Ted is in Meridian tonight, trying to take some friends to Selma, but ran out of gas – which is in short supply statewide -- and will have to wait till morning to go on. He'll be coming back here as soon as he can and then we'll both be going to Selma. Some friends there have a place for us to stay and are trying to hustle work for Ted.
We got out with some of our possessions on Saturday evening before the highways gridlocked. Jackie's friends have wired her some money via Walmart and yesterday we signed up for food stamps. We're doing OK but also horrified by what we've seen on TV and worried about people we haven't heard from. We've encountered a lot of very generous people here and in Lafayette where Jackie and I went yesterday to get relief info.
I'll write more later.
Sunday, September 4, 2005
Ted and I are fine. We thank everyone for their prayers and kindnesses. Ted is on his way back from Selma where he transported some people who were evacuated from the superdome. We will never be able to capture all of the stories of hurricane Katrina, but here are a few.
Jackie's brother Kerwin and his family are safe at a shelter in Lafayette. Kerwin had decided to ride out the storm on the third floor of his friend Bryan's house. We all begged him to evacuate with his wife Faith and their 2 little kids, but he insisted on staying. There were lots of others in the house also, Bryan's wife and children and I think a grandchild, along with Faith's brother who is disabled and uses a wheelchair. The hurricane blew over New Orleans and the house withstood the winds, but then the storm surge came - a 20-foot high wall of water - and suddenly they were in flood water ON THE THIRD FLOOR. Bryan had spent the night putting together a makeshift raft, just in case there was street flooding. This ended up being their way out. Kerwin and Bryan put people on the raft and floated it out of the house and swam beside it, pushing it along. At some point they were able to get to Bryan's boat and some got out that way. They had to make several trips to get everyone out. There were snakes, rats and alligators in the water. For blocks, there were people calling out for help in their flooded homes. Once Kerwin and Bryan got everyone from the house onto higher ground out of the flood water, they went back and got Bryan's boat and started rescuing people from their homes. They made 7 more trips back and forth with the raft and boat and saved a lot of people, most of them elderly. Faith said that each time they went back, she was terrified she would never see them again.
Faith was later interviewed on CNN and this is how we got word that they were safe. A friend in another state saw the report, recognized Faith and called Shawn here in Opelousas. The raft itself was kept at CNN headquarters to become part of their archives.
My heart goes out to my cousins. I wish they had not had to go through this terrible ordeal. But then I can't help wondering what would have happened to all of those people Kerwin and Bryan saved if they had evacuated on Sunday as we all begged them to.
Some years ago, a hurricane evacuation plan was proposed for New Orleans and the surrounding suburban parishes. The idea was to have everyone in Orleans parish (that's the city itself) sit still while the suburban parishes evacuated first. In other words, get the majority of the white citizens out before beginning to evacuate the majority of the black citizens. This plan was rejected as overtly racist (I think this happened under Marc Morial's administration). To my knowledge, no official evacuation plan was ever agreed upon by the three parishes that would be using the same roads to get out. But what actually happened when Katrina was bearing down was that this racist plan was put into effect. Jefferson parish - the suburb west of New Orleans -- announced a mandatory evacuation on Saturday morning at 8:00. St Bernard parish - to the east of us -ordered its residents out at 12 noon. The mayor of New Orleans - and yes he is black - waited until 4 pm on Saturday to order the mandatory evacuation of our city. He hemmed and hawed all day, saying he had not made up his little mind about evacuation - but meanwhile people like us who had the means to get out had already started making their own decisions about leaving. I don't believe for one moment that the mayor was struggling with weather projections to make up his mind. He was just following the racist plan that representatives of the suburban parishes had proposed years before.
Next, our mayor did something that I would equate with a war crime for which he ought to be tried in some international court. He announced that the superdome would be the only shelter, and that it would be open only to people with special needs. Only people with disabilities, illnesses and other special needs would be allowed in the superdome. Others would be turned away. This left thousands of poor people without any means of getting to safety. Something like 40% of our residents are poor, making for a raw number of around 200,000 people. Many had no means of evacuating.
His next crime: Once looting started (the authorities are using that word, when some people were just trying to get food, water, baby formula, shoes, etc) - anyway, once order broke down, the mayor ordered the 1500 police officers conducting search and rescue in the neighborhoods to suspend life-saving operations and go after looters. Property was valued over life.
Later, he began to see what he had wrought and became hysterical - cursing Bush for FEMA's failings. For this he has apologized and kissed up. He has not apologized to our citizens however. At one point, Mayor Nagin ended up at the convention center where there were 20,000 evacuees with no way out, with no water, food, or sanitation. People were dying, there was chaos and panic. This location is near the Mississippi River, so Nagin told the people who were able to walk to start marching toward the Miss River bridge and cross over to the other side. Most of the sections of the west bank that were closest to the bridge were high and dry at that point. And then, I'm not sure who it was that opposed that plan, one of the mayors of a town on the other side of the river, I'm told - but from somewhere the word came that the west bank of the river did not want the New Orleans evacuees on their side of the river. It is my understanding that armed National Guardsmen were posted on the bridge to keep people from crossing. This is so inhuman that I pray it is not true - that it is a wild rumor.
Shawn got a cell phone call from one of his friends whose brother was trapped in New Orleans. Once the water receded some, he and others started walking west, and then at some point they came upon an abandoned US mail truck. The young man started the truck somehow and loaded people into it. He drove to Jefferson parish where rescue operations were still going on. The women and children who rode in on the mail truck were evacuated by airplane. All of the men were arrested and jailed as looters. They were heroes, really, but for our authorities it's a matter of property over life, black life anyway, and so to the police they were criminals.
A friend of Jackie's who evacuated to Atlanta called today. The friend's brother had also been stranded in New Orleans in the rising water. He was driving his father's truck, trying to get out, and was stopped by the police. He did not have his drivers license on him and so the police confiscated the truck and sent him walking. He walked when he could and swam when he had to and finally got to high ground. Once there he commandeered an abandoned van, got it started, picked up as many people as the van could hold, and drove all the way to Tennessee. His sister says that when he called this morning, he was dehydrated and delirious.
Earlier this year, I read an article in Gambit (a New Orleans weekly) that warned that the reorganization of FEMA was a big problem. FEMA officials said that since their agency had been placed under the jurisdiction of Homeland Security, their response time was greatly slowed down. Whereas they previously were able to act independently and immediately to respond to crises, now they have to go through channels and get permission for everything they want to do from bureaucrats who have no experience or expertise in the field of emergency response.
Hurricane Betsy hit New Orleans 40 years ago -- September 9, 1965. The 9th ward was flooded, along with much of St Bernard parish. Mama, Joan and I had to get into the attic when the water rushed into the house. We had a little transistor radio with us and Mayor Schiro and various civil defense authorities were broadcasting all night. I remember that every time they handed Mayor Schiro the mike, he said "we gotta get to those people on Tennessee Street… gotta rescue those people from Tennessee Street…I want the people on Tennessee street to be brave…we're on the way to get you." At that time, everyone living on Tennessee street was white. There was not even a pretense that our government valued lives equally across color lines.
We spent that night in the attic and thankfully the water stopped rising before it got to us there. The next morning, we were rescued by 2 men in a small fishing boat. These were citizen volunteers who wanted to help. They were both white and they had come in from Jefferson parish which had not been flooded. They brought their boat into the 9th ward just to be of service to strangers. I'll never forget this and will always be grateful to these men whose names I don't even know. As I watched the coverage of hurricane Katrina, I thought of those men who came to help and kept wondering why there were no volunteers this time. Thousands of people in south Louisiana have boats, and we should have been seeing some of them among the rescuers. Soon I learned that such people were being turned away so that the official rescuers could handle (mishandle) the whole situation.
I missed 2 days of hurricane coverage because I got overwhelmed. But then I looked at the TV screen two days ago and saw that Jesse Jackson was getting people out on buses that he brought in. This is the kind of response that gives some hope to the people watching. Our friends in Selma called Friday to say that they had gotten 2 buses and needed some advice on the best route to take to avoid water and avoid being turned away by authorities. I was sorry to have to say I had no idea and no way of getting that information.
Last night I heard that Charmaine Nevelle had gotten a bus and was driving it into the city herself to rescue people. But then Ted called from the road and told me the real story. When the water came into Charmaine's 9th ward neighborhood, Charmaine and her neighbors got everyone into the neighborhood school for shelter. They were there for days with no food or water. The experience was horrible. Charmaine was attacked by some thug in the shelter. When helicopters started flying overhead, they thought they would be rescued, but the helicopters just flew over them, look down at them and kept going. After this happened repeatedly over a period of days, some of the men who had guns shot at the helicopters as they disappeared in the distance, leaving the people to die like rats. I watched the reports on TV of rescuers being shot at and it made no sense to me. Now I get it. Days passed and it became clear that they would not be rescued. Charmaine says she stole a bus. She had never driven a bus, but figured it out, loaded the people on and drove them to safety. She is a heroic person.
People are still being evacuated from New Orleans. Aaron Broussard, the mayor of Kenner (in Jefferson parish, where the airport is) has announced that he is letting the people who live there back in tomorrow so that they can check on their homes. The governor has asked him to wait until everyone is out of New Orleans before letting people in because Kenner is the evacuation route and she doesn't want the roads clogged by people trying to get in while rescuers are still getting people out who've been stranded for A WHOLE WEEK. Mayor Broussard is refusing to defer to the governor's wishes and says he intends to go ahead with his plan. His people are worried about their property, he says. I have compassion for those people too, but let's worry about property later on after everyone is evacuated. We'll have to wait and see what tomorrow brings.
Monday, September 5, 2005
Ted and I will be going to Selma, Alabama this week. Some friends have found us a place. The folks there are getting set up to do some relief work -- helping people find housing etc, so I will probably be volunteering with them. Once I get there I'll find out more and let you know what kind of help is needed.
We love you
Tuesday, September 6, 2005
It looks like we won't be leaving for Selma until probably next Sunday or Monday. But meanwhile, the folks there are already working to house people. The group is 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement -- this is the group Ted has been working with for many years.
Contact Tarana Burke 334-875-9264 or 334-327-8538
They are all working hard to get people into decent living situations so they'll be able to let you know what's needed right away.
I wish I knew of some way people could help Louisiana folks too, but the relief effort here is so pitiful that I wouldn't know what to recommend. The Red Cross is only providing shelters and emergency medical. FEMA has turned all of us down for any assistance and today they opened their Louisiana disaster offices in Shreveport and Monroe, 2 cities in the northern end of the state, hours away from where the shelters are located. We're doing OK personally but just incredulous about how the government is going about doing things here. These people must go!
Thanks for all you're doing.
Wednesday, September 7, 2005
We have not heard from Robert King, but it's next to impossible to hear from anyone in the 504 area code. Those cell phones are just not working or sometimes they work for outgoing calls to other area codes only.
There was an announcement in the paper today that FEMA was issuing $2000 debit cards. Jackie's brother spent hours in line for one at the Cajun Dome in Lafayette, only to be told that shelter residents would be issued cards before people -- like him -- who are being sheltered in private homes. I just heard on CNN that thousands at the Astrodome lined up for the rumored cards for hours only to find out that they were only being registered with FEMA -- something most of them said they had already done. They were irate. I've been trying to write another email about this but have not had time yet, but there needs to be some kind of outcry about how people are being treated. Some have received assistance and moved out of shelters into apartments or trailers, but thousands in shelters are not getting timely help, even though it is available.
Yesterday Jackie and I gave some people a ride from the bank to the Cajun Dome and guess what was set up outside -- Halliburton tents with stacks and stacks of supplies. So they are apparently FEMA's first customers, making millions dollars, or mega PR points off this tragedy -- probably both.
And last night a news program that Ursula saw reported that FEMA kicked a large group of evacuees out of a hotel so they could use it for their own staff. The people had no place to go.
Will write more later.