It's Up to Us
Adapted from "The Real Heroes and Sheroes of New Orleans" by Lorrie Beth Slonsky and Larry Bradshaw. Original story appeared in the Socialist Worker.
The sixth strongest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded, Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast region in August, 2005. In the city of New Orleans alone, the failure of the levee system caused 80 percent of the city to flood. Families were trapped in attics and on roofs in sweltering heat for over one week in some places. The injustices of poverty, racism and political corruption were well documented in the region before Katrina hit. There were also concerns about environmental injustice given that the coastal wetlands and bayous which provided a buffer against surges brought on by hurricanes had been carved up to create shipping canals for the many industries in the region, especially the oil refineries. These canals destroyed the natural protection the people in the region once had. While the news focused on the people stranded on rooftops and the slow response of government agencies, there was another story to the disaster that most cameras did not show: the story of people coming together and working together. Lorrie Beth Slonsky and Larry Bradshaw were two medical workers trapped in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. This is what they witnessed:
"What you did not see on television were the real heroes and sheroes of the hurricane relief effort: the working class of New Orleans. The maintenance workers who used a forklift to carry the sick and disabled. The engineers who rigged, nurtured and kept the generators running. The electricians who improvised thick extension cords stretching over blocks to share the little electricity we had in order to free cars stuck on rooftop parking lots. Nurses who took over for mechanical ventilators and spent many hours on end manually forcing air into the lungs of unconscious patients to keep them alive. Doormen who rescued folks stuck in elevators. Refinery workers who broke into boat yards, 'stealing' boats to rescue their neighbors clinging to their roofs in flood waters. Mechanics who helped hotwire any car that could be found to ferry people out of the city. And the food service workers who scoured the commercial kitchens, improvising communal meals for hundreds of those stranded."
Lorrie Beth and Larry helped organize a group of several hundred stranded survivors. Their first camp was broken up by police at gunpoint. Then they were told that busses were waiting in the neighboring town of Gretna to transport survivors to safety. When they tried to cross the bridge to Gretna, the Gretna police blocked their way at gunpoint and forced them to walk in the sweltering heat back into the ruins of New Orleans. So they found an area beneath an overpass and began building yet another camp.
"Our little encampment began to blossom. Someone 'stole' a water delivery truck and brought it up to us. An Army truck lost a couple of pallets of C-rations on a tight turn and we ferried the food back to our camp in shopping carts.
Now—secure with these two necessities, food and water—cooperation, community and imagination flowered. We organized a clean-up and hung garbage bags from the rebar poles. We made beds from wood pallets and cardboard. We designated a storm drain as the bathroom, and the kids built an elaborate enclosure for privacy out of plastic, broken umbrellas and other scraps. We even organized a food-recycling system where individuals could swap parts of C-rations (applesauce for babies and candies for kids).
This was something we saw repeatedly in the aftermath of Katrina. When individuals had to fight to find food or water, it meant looking out for yourself. You had to do whatever it took to find water for your kids or food for your parents. But when these basic needs were met, people began to look out for each other, working together and constructing a community."
The devastation and injustice of Hurricane Katrina showed us many things. Including what we are capable of when we rely on our strengths and look out for one another.