Tuesday, 13 Sep 2005
Robert LeBlanc spent last Wednesday in a boat, helping to pull people to safety. Here's some of what he has to say.
1.) We were in motor boats all day ferrying people back and forth approximately a mile and a half each way (from Carrolton down Airline Hwy to the Causeway overpass). Early in the day, we witnessed a black man in a boat with no motor paddling with a piece of lumber. He rescued people in the boat and paddled them to safety (a mile and a half). He then, amidst all of the boats with motors, turned around and paddled back out across the mile and a half stretch to do his part in getting more people out. He refused to give up or occupy any of the motored boat resources because he did not want to slow us down in our efforts. I saw him at about 5:00 p.m., paddling away from the rescue point back out into the neighborhoods with about a half mile until he got to the neighborhood, just two hours before nightfall. I am sure that his trip took at least an hour and a half each trip, and he was going back to get more people knowing that he'd run out of daylight. He did all of this with a two-by-four.
2.) One of the groups that we rescued were 50 people standing on the bridge that crosses over Airline Hwy just before getting to Carrolton Ave going toward downtown. Most of these people had been there, with no food, water, or anyplace to go since Monday morning (we got to them Wed afternoon) and surrounded by 10 feet of water all around them. There was one guy who had been there since the beginning, organizing people and helping more people to get to the bridge safely as more water rose on Wednesday morning. He did not leave the bridge until everyone got off safely, even deferring to people who had gotten to the bridge Wed a.m. and, although inconvenienced by loss of power and weather damage, did have the luxury of some food and some water as late as Tuesday evening. This guy waited on the bridge until dusk, and was one of the last boats out that night. He could have easily not made it out that night and been stranded on the bridge alone.
3.) The third story may be the most compelling. I will not mince words. This was in a really rough neighborhood and we came across five seemingly unsavory characters. One had scars from what seemed to be gunshot wounds. We found these guys at a two-story recreational complex, one of the only two-story buildings in the neighborhood. They broke into the center and tried to rustle as many people as possible from the neighborhood into the center. These guys stayed outside in the center all day, getting everyone out of the rec center onto boats. We approached them at approximately 6:30 p.m., obviously one of the last trips of the day, and they sent us further into the neighborhood to get more people out of homes and off rooftops instead of getting on themselves. This at the risk of their not getting out and having to stay in the water for an undetermined (you have to understand the uncertainly that all of the people in these accounts faced without having any info on the rescue efforts, how far or deep the flooding was, or where to go if they want to swim or walk out) amount of time. These five guys were on the last boat out of the neighborhood at sundown. They were incredibly grateful, mentioned numerous times 'God is going to bless y'all for this'. When we got them to the dock, they offered us an Allen Iverson jersey off of one of their backs as a gesture of gratitude, which was literally probably the most valuable possession among them all. Obviously, we declined, but I remain tremendously impacted by this gesture.
I don't know what to do with all of this, but I think we need to get this story out. Some of what is being portrayed among the media is happening and is terrible, but it is among a very small group of people, not the majority. They make it seem like New Orleans has somehow taken the atmosphere of the mobs in Mogadishu portrayed in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down," which is making volunteers (including us) more hesitant and rescue attempts more difficult. As a result, people are dying. My family has been volunteering at the shelters here in Houma and can count on one hand the number of people among thousands who have not said "Thank You." or "God Bless You." Their lives shattered and families torn apart, gracious just to have us serve them beans and rice.
If anything, these eight people's stories deserve to be told, so that people across the world will know what they really did in the midst of this devastation. So that it will not be assumed that they were looting hospitals, they were shooting at helicopters. It must be known that they, like many other people that we encountered, sacrificed themselves during all of this to help other people in more dire straits than their own.
Monday, 05 Sep 2005
Bill Whittle gets it exactly right. Christ, I wish I could write like this:
Only a few minutes ago, I had the delightful opportunity to read the comment of a fellow who said he wished that white, middle-class, racist, conservative cocksuckers like myself could have been herded into the Superdome Concentration Camp to see how much we like it. Absent, of course, was the fundamental truth of what he plainly does not have the eyes or the imagination to see, namely, that if the Superdome had been filled with white, middle-class, racist, conservative cocksuckers like myself, it would not have been a refinery of horror, but rather a citadel of hope and order and restraint and compassion.
That has nothing to do with me being white. If the blacks and Hispanics and Jews and gays that I work with and associate with were there with me, it would have been that much better. That's because the people I associate with - my Tribe - consists not of blacks and whites and gays and Hispanics and Asians, but of individuals who do not rape, murder, or steal. My Tribe consists of people who know that sometimes bad things happen, and that these are an opportunity to show ourselves what we are made of. My people go into burning buildings. My Tribe consists of organizers and self-starters, proud and self-reliant people who do not need to be told what to do in a crisis. My Tribe is not fearless; they are something better. They are courageous. My Tribe is honorable, and decent, and kind, and inventive. My Tribe knows how to give orders, and how to follow them. My Tribe knows enough about how the world works to figure out ways to boil water, ration food, repair structures, build and maintain makeshift latrines, and care for the wounded and the dead with respect and compassion.
[...] My Tribe thinks that while you are born into a Tribe, you do not have to stay there. Good people can join bad Tribes, and bad people can choose good ones. My Tribe thinks you choose your Tribe. That, more than anything, is what makes my Tribe unique.
A small confession. Early in the crisis, I was watching Fox News as they waited with their cameras on a bit of elevated highway, one of those concrete islands in a sea of toxic muck. People - rather a lot of them - began to accumulate on the highway, mostly younger people with children, and mostly in pretty poor shape. Everybody needed water. One little girl looked like she was in real trouble.
I was playing a little game of 'what would I do' in my head. I was thinking that there was plenty of wood around, surely a cooking pot or two amid the rubble. I'd make a fire, boil some water, maybe gather up some of the debris and make a shelter from the sun. I'd visit with the people around me, see who was in the worst shape, and see that they got what care I could offer. In short, I'd act like a civilized human being.
But every person that I could see on that island was doing nothing. Most were just sitting in small groups, apart from one another. Some were wandering around, pretty much with nowhere to go. Hours passed. Nobody was building anything, at least not that I could see. They were just waiting, all of them.
What the fuck is the matter with you people? I asked myself.
It got worse. A few hours later I saw an interview with another woman who was waiting in the grass outside the Superdome. She was upset because an elderly person had died and her body was left in the open, still perched in her wheelchair. Not even her face was covered. I'm quoting from memory, but I remember she said something like "They treat dogs better then this. When a dog dies, they bury it".
"They bury it"? You know what four words rose to my lips? Bitch, grab a shovel!
You don't have a shovel? Grab a hubcap, a piece of wood, anything. Scrape a ditch a few inches down, lay this poor person in it and cover her with a fucking blanket. You can't dig? They at least cover her face, for chrissake. It's not like you're real busy at the moment, are you? What is your goddamn problem?
Of course, I know what her problem is. You do, to. Most of the people in New Orleans were not like this - they were able to help themselves, and help others, and to manage their burdens with dignity and compassion for one another. You don't see them on the news because they got out.
That small minority of able-bodied people left behind are, for the most part, not exactly the movers and shakers in this world. They are dependents. They will sit, and they will wait, and they will erupt with astonishing self-righteousness when they believe themselves neglected. They will turn on you in a moment, too, because they know they are entitled to your care, and they won't let you cheat them out of any of it. At their worst, there is not an ounce of gratitude or trust in them, only anger and indignation and suspicion.
I call this a confession because I feel guilty for pointing this out. I feel bad about hammering on anybody who had suffered so much, bad about assuming the worst in people I hardly know, bad about the good people there who were left helpless by factors beyond their control. I know that some of them are bad but most are good, just like everybody else.
But I also know that I am not like them, and I do not ever want to be among them. Self-righteousness, distrust, anger, indignation and suspicion go both ways.
Am I bad? Perhaps. This is how I felt while I watched from the comfort of my livingroom chair, and this is how I feel now, days later. If I'm wrong about this, well, OK, so I'm a bad guy. I accept your judgement.
Sunday, 04 Sep 2005
Most of my friends from my college days live on the West Coast now, somewhere near the big fault lines that run through California. A few years back I tried to get them minimally prepared for the earthquake that they will eventually face there, even going so far as to ship out a couple of home-made disaster kits. The kits were appreciated but largely ignored. I'll bet money, real money, that there is not one working battery left in any of those boxes right now.
I'm right, aren't I? You guys suck.
Hopefully Katrina has been a bit of a wake-up call. Preparedness is not really about kits and gadgets, anyway - it's about, you know, actually dealing with the threat in a serious way. I'll get into the details of what you should have on hand in a moment. I want to deal with the most important thing first.
I know what your earthquake plan looks like - it's the same one that everybody has. You'll be at home and there will be a terrible rumbling and shaking. You and your loved ones will be uninjured, because, after all, you live in one of the safer areas. In the morning you'll look out over the damaged city and you'll decide to leave. You might be able to drive out, but absent that, you'll just walk a couple of miles to safety. A liter of water and a peanut butter sandwich and you're good to go, right?
Let's imagine you have to walk just one mile to safety. Let's imagine that most of the people within a one-mile radius of that same safe place, where ever that might be, are walking there too. That's about three square miles, kids.
How many tens of thousands of people live within three square miles of your home? Where, exactly, are you going? What do you expect to find when you get there?
What if this happens while your elderly parents are visiting? What if your neighbor broke his leg, or his back? What if you did?
Basically, your plan has been reduced to two steps: either we'll be able to drive out and everything is fine, or we are in serious fucking trouble. That's the reality of your situation. So let's all pull up our big-girl panties and deal with it now, shall we?
Everybody's situation is different - preparing for tornadoes is different than for ice storms, which is different than hurricanes. The comments which follow apply to a typical California earthquake, a big one, bad enough that you are not driving out anytime soon and help is days away.
Assume power is out, cell phones and landlines are out, gas service is out. No hope of police or fire or ambulance. No driving anywhere, at least not for a while, maybe not at all. Any stores within walking distance of you are within walking distance of a lot of other people, too - and they are already empty.
Hadj and Ron - your houses will likely be largely intact, so long as the hillsides hold up. Bill, you're in a much more urban area, right? Fire and looting are going to become real complications as time goes on. Walking out, fast, would probably be a good fucking idea. If you are injured, you'll have some real problems, bud - you won't be able to call for help, remember? Do you have a neighbor who will look after you? (Someone besides Eric, who might kill you and eat you before day three is out)?
Stacey - you're near the beach, right? You might be doing a replay of what just happened in Biloxi. I don't know what an earthquake will do to the water out your way, or what warning you might have. Lucky for you, you're better at this stuff than I am, so you know what to do, but please, finish your preparations now if you haven't already.
Sitting tight is the best option, if you can do it. If you have a mostly-intact house in a nice neighborhood, your shelter needs are met perfectly, so long as you remain unthreatened by fire or looting. If your house is unsafe, you'll need to carry your gear to secure place. If you are injured or have injured members of your party, you're going to need some really good friends to help you do it. You should not count on being able to remain in one place for the duration of the crisis. Everybody wants to sit tight, but not everybody has that option. Plan on being able to move when the time comes, either to evacuate yourselves or to find safety from some emergent threat.
Tarps and blankets are a hell of a lot better than nothing. When you have to move, good backpacks and sturdy shoes will be worth their weight in gold.
Once you have a secure place to hang out - a roof over your head, adequate physical security, and a soft place to lay down - your primary interests include water, food, light, and communication. If you have to care for an elderly person or a child, you'll need to factor in their needs as well. At a minimum, their presence will sharply restrict your mobility. This is a big deal.
Don't forget to bring your medications. Insulin, if you need it, must be kept cool.
Water is critical, and I strongly advise an aggressive, multi-source solution to the problem of securing it. Putting aside a few cases of the spring water that they sell at the grocery store is a great idea, but they are hard to carry and you can't really store enough. You will be sharing water with others. You'll need a lot of it, a minimum of one gallon per person per day. That's like forty pounds of water each, for a five day supply.
A portable MSR water filter is a damn fine idea, limited only by expense and by the effort required to generate water by the gallon. The use of bleach or iodine is the best and cheapest way to disinfect large amounts of water, but, unlike the filter, it will not protect you from chemical contaminants. Boiling water will kill germs too, but it can require a lot of fuel. If you have all of these methods at your disposal you have the best chance of having adequate water available.
Avoid cheap filters, especially the 'drink through a straw' type. They are crap. You need to generate real pressure to properly filter meaningful quantities of water, far more than you can produce with your mouth. You need lots of surface area in the filter elements, too. Those little pocket-sized devices are toys. The MSR filters are the only ones I trust.
If you are in the midst of one of California's periodic droughts, you can find usable water in household hot water heaters, swimming pools, even toilet tanks. You will need plastic bottles to store and carry water, and more bottles to give away. Remember those cases of spring water? Even the empties are worth a lot. (Did I mention those backpacks?)
Think two kinds - the kind that stores well, is good for you, is easy to carry, and has to be cooked, and the kind that stores well, is good for you, is easy to carry, and doesn't have to be cooked. A case of powerbars, per person, will go a long way. Peanut butter, MREs, tuna in pouches? Sure. If you can cook, dry things like pasta, rice, soup mix, and - I kid you not - spam will be very welcome. Use your imagination. I don't care what you decide to eat - just get some, now, and have it available, enough to cover you all for five days. Don't forget the instant coffee or tea. We're not barbarians.
You can cook at home on a portable propane stove, if you were smart enough to stockpile a case of the cylinders, too. They don't last long. A better choice is a multi-fuel stove that can run even on gasoline and is easy to carry if you have to leave - just remember you cannot use it indoors without poisoning yourself with the fumes. And if you have to leave, don't forget to bring at least one pot to cook in.
Cooking food is strictly optional, so long other food and water purification methods are available. This is not about comfort, just survival.
Hurricane lanterns are an excellent choice. Stock up on purified paraffin fuel, use vegetable oil or (if you are outdoors) motor oil in a pinch. LED flashlights last much longer than traditional ones. Get the kind that accept lithium batteries - they are expensive, but they have a ten-year storage life. If you use regular batteries, you MUST replace them periodically or you will have nothing. Do NOT store batteries inside your light for long periods, they will eventualy corrode and ruin it.
A working transistor radio is essential - you will want to know what the hell is going on, and where to go for help. Battery-powered radios are good, hand-cranks are better, and the fancy versions can even charge your other batteries for you. Don't forget that car radios work fine, and a car battery can power a radio forever so long as you don't leave any of the lights on.
Talk-about radios are lifesavers if your party has to move or search. Whistles are a good bet, too, and are more likely to actually work when you need them. Hang on to your cell phone - it may start to work at any time.
Weapons are a necessity in an urban crisis. Don't kid yourself.
First-aid gear is not worth much if you don't know how to use it. Get what you know how to use, and, for goodness sake, at least learn the basics. Splinting and bandaging are not rocket science, and people get hurt with surprising ease. At a bare minimum, a big tube of antibiotic goo is essential.
You ought to have some basic gear in your car. What if the earthquake hits while you are at work, or driving around? Think about it. I'm willing to guess that you will make a heroic effort to return home to your loved ones, so give yourself a fighting chance. At a minimum, I'd suggest a pair of good walking shoes, a poncho, a couple liters of water, some power bars, and a bag to carry them in. For each of you.
Cigarette lighters are obviously handy, but here's a little-known tip - the common kind, that have the little wheel that you roll with your thumb? They die the instant they get wet. Even if just your thumb is wet, you'll try it once and find it's useless until it's been dried. The push-button piezo kind are much better. You can submerge them, then just shake them out, blow the watter out of them and they light right up.
If you have more money than time, here's your shopping list:
1) 1 case of 1-liter bottles of water, per person.
2) Bleach (fresh), or water purification tabs (fresh), or an iodine kit (lasts forever).
3) One or both: a good MSR water filter and a multi-fuel stove, plus pot and lid.
4) A good pair of walking shoes and a decent backpack.
5) Blankets, a tarp or two, and first aid supplies, if you don't have them already.
6) Hurricane lamps, parrifin lamp fuel, one full-sized LED light for each person, and litium batteries for the lights.
7) Handcrank or transistor radio with fresh batteries. A pair of talk-abouts and batteries for them, too.
8) A case of powerbars, each, and some sort of food which will keep for years.
9) A real weapon - a shotgun is ideal - and whatever medical gear you can manage. Don't forget your prescription meds and a few piezo lighters.
10) Duplicate whatever you are going to need for the trunk of your car. Don't forget a good map or even a GPS (should still work, so long as the batteries are fresh).
11) Paperwork. You know the drill - medical records, insurance papers, all that stuff you don't have handy now. Don't expect it to be there when you get back.
Just stop procrastinating and do it. Thousands of unprepared people died horribly this week, and every one of them thought they could away with it. Just like you.
Bleach, like iodine, kills germs. It has no effect on chemical contaminants.
Bleach works best of the water is clear - suspended particles of organic matter can protect the germs and render your efforts ineffective. Filter your water as best you can. Strain it through a wadded-up tee shirt if that's all you've got.
Add 1/8 teaspoon of bleach to a gallon of water (twice that it the water is really rank). That's not very much. Put the lid loosely on your container and shake it, allowing the bleach-water to contact the underside of the lid and the threads. You have to kill the bugs there, too.
Wait half an hour, and then your water is safe to drink. Do not forget about wetting the threads. Do not forget to wait.
These same general instructions apply to the use of other chemical methods, such as iodine and commercial water purification tablets.
Saturday, 03 Sep 2005
There is a palpable sense of relief in the air. The supplies are finally getting though, and the buses are bringing the long-suffering residents of the New Orleans 'shelters' to a place of safety and calm. Things are getting better now.
It would be a mistake to believe that the worst is over. Personally, I think the worst of this will come in about three days, when a large-scale effort is underway to recover the dead.
People were shocked to see a refugee crisis and third-world living conditions in America. They are not going to be any less shocked by photos of hundreds of drowned families, bloated by the heat, which will become common soon.
In particular, I would warn the finger-pointers that their time might be just about up.
The narrative is already there; Bush worsened the storm by not signing the Kyoto treaty, weakened the city's defenses by cutting the funding for the levees, played golf why the city drowned; he drew off the National Guard, leaving the states helpless to act on their own; he ruined FEMA with his incompetence, and prevented a timely federal response. He did it because he does not care about blacks or about blue states, and because his oil buddies and Haliburton cronies would enjoy the chance to profiteer at the nations expense.
This is slander, easily debunked by not so easily dismissed. But it sure looks good now, as the crisis is winding down, to point fingers and score those essential political points.
It will not look so good as the rest of this catastrophe unfolds and the ugly remains of the storm are unveiled. We will be a nation in mourning, a nation grown serious by the magnitude of our loss. The pundits with their weaseling insinuations and their cheap political theater will find that their act no longer amuses us. Like hungry lawyers handing out their cards at a funeral, their naked self-interest will become both obvious and offensive.
The democrats had the good sense not to politicize 9/11, at least not while the wounds were still raw. They knew better, because they knew the damage they could to their themselves if they lowered the level of debate while the nation still grieved. If they have any sense at all, they will knock this crap off before the next act unfolds. If they don't (or worse, if they can't) they will only prove themselves inadequate to the task ahead.
The wall which failed, flooding the city, was recently renovated and was unaffected by any budget cuts. The federal response to this crisis set a record for both speed and strength, far outstripping their previous performance after other major storms. More importantly, the responsibility for the first days of natural disaster like this is always the responsibility of the cities and the states - they know this, and their disaster plans reflect this. Finally, the federal response was not diminished by our overseas commitments - in fact, because of increased homeland security concerns, we have a larger number of available assets in reserve than we normally do.
Here's a nice rule of thumb: imagine this storm hit in 1999 instead of 2005. Imagine we had a Andrew-level response from the feds, which took nine days, and imagine that Bill Clinton was running the show. See that your comment still applies.
If you want to assign blame, make sure you can back it up. I'll always listen to reason, but I have little tolerance now for self-serving political rhetoric.
Thursday, 01 Sep 2005
As the Katrina disaster continues to unfold along the Gulf Coast, many of us are going to be surprised by what we find. Third-world conditions are a sudden reality in the heart of a once-thriving city, and diseases you've only seen in travel guides are going to be making headlines soon. People will begin dying, right now, simply for lack of clean water. (I kid you not - I am certain than many elderly people have already died for less than that).
It's human nature - a good part of human nature - to be surprised, and then angry, and then to ask "how did this happen"? If we ask the right questions, find the right answers, and then follow through with what we learn, we will continually adapt and survive. If we fail to adapt and reduce our efforts to simple finger-pointing, then we will only get slapped by events again.
I'd like to take a moment to cut through some of the crap, and point out some of the real stuff, at least as I see it.
Let's dispense with the crap first. One friend of mine suggested that people must be crazy to rebuild a place like New Orleans, or even to live in it to begin with. After all, this everybody knew this disaster was only a matter of time.
My friend lives in San Francisco.
Nobody lives without risk. Let's toss that one into the dumpster, and we can follow it with the rest of the nonsense, too: this is not Bush's fault, it was not because of global warming, and even legendary corruption of New Orleans government played only a minor supporting role. Most of the victims are not responsible for their plight; they are coping as best they can, often showing the sort of heroism and concern for one another that we would expect of ourselves. They are in deep trouble now, simply because trouble is always a real possibility in this world. Too many of us forget that.
Shit happens. It's our responsibility to deal with.
Here's the first real lesson I learned from this disaster. When the drainage canal failed and water began to quietly flood the city, the power was already out, and communications were down. Most people did not know the waters were coming as darkness fell. Surprised as they waited in their single-story houses, they retreated upstairs into their attics, where they drowned as the waters topped their roofs. There may be thousands of bodies waiting there now.
Debris-laden current is deadly; I would not have ventured into it, either, especially with a child or a grandparent to care for, not unless I knew that my alternative was meet that water anyway. A two-dollar transistor radio would have saved my life.
Do you have one? Does it work?
That water has become a biohazard. It's essentially toxic now. Just having it splashed in your face a few times can be enough to make you deathly ill, and drinking it is certain to sicken you terribly. If you can keep yourself clean and if you have safe water to drink, you can avoid a crippling illness that will easily kill a child or an older person under these conditions. You can purify water with nothing more than a tee shirt and some bleach, if you have it available and you know how.
Do you? (No? What do you expect to do when the time comes, just visit google and look it up?)
People are wandering the streets, following rumors of rescue. Many are waiting at street corners for buses that will never come, while others have risked their lives to travel to the Superdome, only to be turned away. There is no instruction, no order. They have been left to themselves. Some are still waiting on their rooftops, in the summer sun. Everyone is going to get sick soon, certainly every child. A surprising number are out of insulin (diabetes is an incredibly common disease in this demographic). Insulin needs to be refrigerated, too. It's 90 degrees in the shade.
Can you manage for five days on your own - no store, no phone, no help? Can you care for the people close to you? Could you do it right now?
When's the last time you took a basic first aid course?
There were once neighborhoods in New Orleans you wouldn't visit at night. The entire city is dangerous now. This one surprised even me:
Managers at a nursing home were prepared to cope with the power outages and had enough food for days, but then the looting began. The home's bus driver was forced to surrender the vehicle to carjackers.
Can you protect yourself and the members of your group? Do you imagine that you would never have to?
I'm willing to bet there is not one flashlight in twenty that works right now in New Orleans. Most lights are only good for a few hours before the batteries are gone, and there have been many hours of darkness. A good LED light will run a hundred hours or more, and a simple oil lamp, far safer and more reliable than any candle, will run all day on vegetable oil, even motor oil in a pinch. Handheld talk-about radios - the $20 modern versions of walkie-talkies - are like gold right now. Basic camping gear - a cook stove, a sleeping pad, a box of Powerbars - what do you imagine people would give for this stuff now?
What do you have? Does it work?
I'd like to offer a simple proposal - nobody is allowed to blame the government, or the police, or the victims for being unprepared for this crisis unless they themselves are prepared to care for their own families under similar circumstances.
It's not their job. It's yours.
CNN reports from the Convention Center, "used as a secondary shelter when the Louisiana Superdome was overwhelmed":
"There are multiple people dying at the convention center," he said. "There was an old woman, dead in a wheelchair with a blanket draped over her, pushed up against a wall. Horrible, horrible conditions.