IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Hitchhiking from squalor to anywhere else

Beleaguered New Orleans residents seek their own way out of a battered city.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The woman and child walked toward the interstate exit ramp. She held his hand and he held a box of Scooby-Doo cereal. "Granny," he said, "where are we going?"

Adrienne Picou didn't know the answer. The noon sun beat down on the ghostly and littered streets of New Orleans on Friday, as she tried to think. Houston is over there and Baton Rouge is up there. She and the boy would hitchhike. In a way they were twice homeless: first from the floods and then from the dire conditions of the city Convention Center, which they endured for three days along with thousands of people until Picou had enough.

An hour earlier, she had walked out of the mammoth and filthy shelter with $7 in her purse, three bottles of water and a 6-year-old grandson. "Let's sit down a minute, buddy," said Picou, 46, breathing heavily. They found shade beneath the freeway's scaffolding. Picou was wearing the same skirt and blouse she wore wading through waist-high water four days before.

"Please pardon our smell," she said. Eddie, a first-grader when there was such a thing as a school to go to, was wearing a red Spider-Man T-shirt. Near the collar, his grandmother had written in ballpoint pen, "Eddie Picou, DOB 10/9/98." "I put that on so they could at least identify who he was," Picou said, and she began to weep.

Attempting their own escape
Friday was another day of false hope for tens of thousands of New Orleans residents waiting for relief from the outside world. Some, like Picou, decided to choose one hell over another by trying their own luck at getting out of New Orleans.

Choppers filled the sky overhead, and smoke billowed from a nearby fire. The only vehicles on the empty roads were carrying soldiers in camouflage. A soldier with a shotgun stood guard as a milk truck was unloaded. Even climbing up to the open interstate to wait for a passing car was impossible because of police barricades.

Picou kept walking. Every block or so there were encampments of people waiting for a way out of town. Picou passed one contingent of 14 people trying to get to Texas. They, too, had given up hope on the buses that were supposed to rescue them and waited for a relative from Texas. The dazed group was gathered beneath the freeway's pilings. Picou made her move.

"There's not too many of us," she said, holding Eddie's hand. "Just me and him."

Sorry, already full, she was told.

Frustration at broken promises
Life here right now is a mixture of cut-throat survivalism and inexplicable kindness. As Picou and Eddie walked away, a man with a shopping cart full of orange juice rolled up and offered a gallon. "Drink it," he said. Looted or not, it was sweet and delicious.

Picou and Eddy backtracked to Annunciation Street. Picou, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, stared warily at the looming Convention Center, a quarter-mile away. She could not go back. Inside, there was darkness, filth and debilitating rumors that help was on the way. The buses were always on the way.

"They told us, 'push back all the chairs and the buses will be here,' or, 'everyone get in line and the buses will be here,' " Picou said. "They never came. We were like animals. Some buses came, but they were for the Hilton evacuees."

Inside the Convention Center, Eddy slept on her chest because she didn't want him on the dirty floor.

A frantic search and constant fear
Earlier in the night there had been a stampede in a darkened stairwell, set off by a rumor that the buses were here. Picou slipped and fell, losing one of her shoes. Before that, the parents of a little girl searched frantically for their daughter, who was missing in the crowds of thousands inside.

"Picture it," Picou said. "It's dark. The mother is running down the hall, calling 'Jada, Jada, where are you?' Then the father is calling out, 'Jada, come on baby.' I thought that father would go crazy and I can still hear his voice."

Now out in the bright sunshine, free from the Convention Center, Picou was already worried about nightfall. Two men were shouting at each other 100 yards away.

"Don't call me 'dog.' I don't know you," a man was screaming at the other. The helicopters cut through the sky. Someone in a nearby encampment said the choppers carried medical supplies.

A man in the Texas group was in a wheelchair, baking in the sun as the group debated returning to the Convention Center. Picou held her dead cell phone. Eddie used a pen to work a word puzzle on the back of his Scooby Doo box. Someone walked by and asked where they were headed.

"Me and my granny is trying to get to Whatchmacallit, Texas," Eddie said.

"I need to figure out what we are gonna do before dark," Picou said, taking a sip of water. Her hands were trembling. If she could have one wish, she said: "I would like to have all my people in a safe place. All the people in the Convention Center in a safe spot. All the people in New Orleans in a safe spot."

Her voice softened. "And I would like a cup of ice."