I love New Orleans. I always have.
Now of course things are not so easy in the Big Easy.
When I checked into my downtown hotel the Saturday before Katrina struck, I remember asking the guy behind the counter if the hotel had an emergency generator. He seemed surprised by the question.
I pointed out since the lobby of the hotel started on the 11th floor, he’d be thinking about it as he climbed up 11 stories of stairs to go to work. He mumbled something about the whole shopping area and hotel having a generator.
He was wrong. And he was gone 48 hours later as I slogged my way up 42 flights of stairs to get to my room after the storm. As the hotel ceased to function, so did the city around it.
From bad to worse
For the next five days I did the same climb, up and down. Bathing in water I had dutifully filled in the bathtub before the storm. Flashlights and glow sticks provided the light. But nothing cooled the air. Sweat poured from me as I sat down to recover from the vertical commute.
That was Monday, the day Katrina hit, and I thought it was bad.
Compared to what was to come, it was paradise.
Tuesday the levees gave way.
The city was drowning. I heard reports of water rising so fast that people had fled to their attics, and then kicked their ways onto the roof. I couldn’t believe it. But, it was true.
And so began a string of days I would never have believed if someone had told me, and every bit of it was true.
Many people here were doing what they could never have imagined doing only days before.
When I first saw looting I thought it was strange; later I thought it was necessary.
When I saw my first body lying on the street I thought that was strange, that too would change.
By midweek New Orleans seemed to be up for grabs. The water was still rising. Fires burned and the convention center now rivaled the Super Dome for Hell on earth.
Images seared in memory
What I saw inside and outside of that nearly mile long building will remain with me a long time, even after reporting from Iraq, Bosnia, Somalia, East Timor, Sierra Leone, etc.
Most interviews left me speechless and in tears; people died even as I tried to report their plight. I’ve never felt so helpless. I lost my objectivity and when the military finally arrived days later, I lost my temper.
What happened there should never have happened. Had I not seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it.
That much is true of so much after Katrina.