The day after the hurricane (Katrina), a reporter caught the atmosphere of high-spirited chaos at a Wal-Mart in the Lower Garden District. People were grabbing things as quickly as they could, smashing open jewelry cabinets and scooping up double-handfuls. One man packed his van so full of electronic equipment he could not close the rear doors. A teenage girl passed out, face down, and people stepped on her. A man stopped to roll her onto her back, and she vomited pink liquid. “This is f***ed up,” he said, and rolled her back on her stomach. An NBC correspondent filmed black, uniformed police officers strolling through the aisles, filling shopping carts.
Violence of all kinds quickly spread through the paralyzed city, where robbery, rape and even murder became routine. There were still thousands of people trapped on rooftops and in attics, but on Sept. 1, Mayor Ray Nagin called the entire police force off of rescue work and ordered it to secure the city. The response from the force? An estimated 200 officers just walked off the job. “They indicated that they had lost everything and didn’t feel that it was worth them going back to take fire from looters and losing their lives,” explained Henry Whitehorn, chief of the Louisiana State Police. Many disappeared without a word. Sheriff Harry Lee of Jefferson Parish in New Orleans also said his men were deserting. “They want to be with their families,” he said. “Well, I want to be with my family too, but you don’t quit in the middle of a crisis.”
Two police officers, including the department’s official spokesman Paul Accardo, committed suicide by shooting themselves in the head. The London Times estimated that one in five officers refused to work, and some of those who stayed on the job were useless. When Debbie Durso, a tourist from Washington, Michigan, asked a policeman for help he told her, “Go to hell — it’s every man for himself.”
Ged Scott, 36, of Liverpool, told BBC News what happened when a group of stranded British women shouted to police for help from the rooftop of a flooded hotel: “They [the officers] said to them, ‘Well, show us what you’ve got’ — doing signs for them to lift their T-shirts up. The girls said no, and they said ‘well fine,’ and motored off down the road in their motorboat. That’s the sort of help we had from the authorities.”
“No one anticipated the disintegration or the erosion of the civilian police force in New Orleans,” explained Lieutenant General Steven Blum of the National Guard. He said the city was operating on only one third of its pre-storm strength of 1,500 officers, and that the guard suddenly had to switch from rescue to law enforcement: “And that’s when we started flowing military police into the theater.”
New Orleans has had only black mayors since 1978, and has spent decades making the police force as black as possible. It established a city-residency requirement for officers to keep suburban whites from applying for jobs, and lowered recruitment standards so blacks could pass them. Katrina blew away any pretence that the force was competent (see next story).
(On September 5, exactly a week after the hurricane, Mayor Ray Nagin offered to pay for the entire police force, firefighters, and city emergency workers to go on five-day vacations — with their families — to Las Vegas or some other destination. He said there were enough National Guard in the city to maintain order, and that his men “have been through a lot.” He brushed off suggestions that this was dereliction of duty. He even asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to pay for the vacations, but FEMA refused. “We haven’t turned over control of the city,” a city spokesman explained. “We’re going to leave a skeleton force — about 20 percent of the department — for leadership and liaison with the troops while we get some rest.”)
Preparation for refugees was pitifully inadequate. By day, as many as 25,000 people sweltered in temperatures that rose into the 100s. Whatever order had been established soon melted away, and the stadium reverted to the jungle. Young men robbed and raped with impunity. Occasional gunshots panicked the crowd. At least one man committed suicide by throwing himself off a high deck and splattering onto the playing field. Bodies of the murdered, and of infants and the elderly who died of heat exhaustion began to accumulate. Six babies were born in the stadium. Charles Womack, a 30-year-old roofer, said he saw one man beaten to death, and was, himself beaten with a pipe. Crack addicts — who had brought their most valuable possession with them — smoked openly and fought over drugs.
A group of about 30 British students were among the very small number of whites in the stadium, where they spent four harrowing days. Jamie Trout, 22, an economics major, wrote that the scene “was like something out of Lord of the Flies,” with “people shouting racial abuse about us being white.” One night, word came that the power was failing, and that there was only ten minutes’ worth of gas for the generators. Zoe Smith, 21, from Hull, said they all feared for their lives: “All us girls sat in the middle while the boys sat on the outside, with chairs as protection,” she said. “We were absolutely terrified, the situation had descended into chaos, people were very hostile and the living conditions were horrendous.” She said that even during the day, “when we offered to help with the cleaning, the locals gave us abuse.”
Mr. Trout said the National Guard finally recognized how dangerous the threat was from blacks, and moved the British under guard to the basketball area, which was safer. “The army warned us to keep our bags close to us and to grip them tight,” he said, as they were escorted out. Twenty-year-old Jane Wheeldon credited one man in particular, Sgt. Garland Ogden, with getting the Britons safely out. “He went against a lot of rules to get us moved,” she said.
Australian tourists stuck in the Superdome had the same experience. Bud Hopes, a 32-year-old man from Kangaroo Point, Brisbane, took control and may have saved many lives. As the stadium reverted to anarchy, he realized whites were in danger, and gathered tourists together for safety. “There were 65 of us altogether so we were able to look after each other, especially the girls who were being grabbed and threatened,” said Mr. Hopes. They organized escorts for women who had to go to the toilet or for food, and set up a roster of men to stand guard while others slept. “We sat through the night just watching each other, not knowing if we would be alive in the morning,” Mr. Hopes said. “Ninety-eight percent of the people around the world are good,” he said; “in that place 98 per cent of the people were bad.”