Story Circle Network

Catastrophe, Survival, and Recovery: Stories from the Storms

Underwater City: The Big Easy Becomes Difficult
Shawn Alladio, New Orleans - Orleans Parish 9th Ward

"The color of our condition isn't important, what matters is the color of one's heart."

Our nation watched with curiosity as the word 'hurricane' began to emerge from the Bahamas, a tropical storm with promise. Our nightmare began before we realized full potential, the trackline was heading for the warm waters of the Gulf. Politically and naturally a collision course for disaster was about to unfold.

The hurricane affected 90,000 square miles, comparable in size to Europe, the main focus was on our celebrity of cities, the place where anything goes, New Orleans, it became our disaster darling. This city was bolstered below sea level by a series of levees to hold back the surrounding Mississippi and Lake Ponchatrain waters. Hurricane Katrina swung just enough to spare New Orleans but annihilated Biloxi and Gulfport into sheer debris piles. Hurricane Katrina wasn't promise enough of tragedy, soon a combination of consequences piled up and burst. People had stayed, but now we unleashed against ourselves, a compound of disasters mixed with the combination of soiled waters and sad stories.

Soon, I was on a plane, drove in a truck for 7 hours, gathering gear, making phone calls, heading to the strike zone of unknown collisions between nature and nightmares. Man and the world were showing their worst. Our government seemed frozen at responding, it was a defeat before it was announced. Shameful choices, a disgrace the world was watching. It was eerie driving into New Orleans with no electricity late at night, watching the shadows move like the Night of the Living Dead, I didn't stop and I was momentarily lost, but not forgotten in my mission. No panic, just trying to set my bearings of north to south and adjust my settling fatigue. I arrived at the safe zone where all the water safety teams were deployed it was simply a surreal path. Outside the boundary it was a cloak of fear, that anything goes and we were prey when we were trying to save. I was listening to the stories from the Urban Search and Rescue Teams, nothing was as it appeared, safety was temporary, nobody knew what to expect.

Heading over the bridge, looking down upon New Orleans proper, the wasted dome loomed, helicopters checked airspace, emergency vehicles with strobes were everywhere, coming head on into my lane. It was normal to have no rules, total intensity, lights flashing, chaos and an eerie feeling of panic and aggressive excitement kicked into full throttle. I drove slower and slower as I gawked at the stripped dome, the military influence of the National Guard, streets turned to sewers, looted debris strewn like dead bodies, and yes, dead bodies.

Dazed people dazed, walked nowhere, pushing a confused dog in a cart, scrounging amongst the discarded loot, shuffling on the interstate, it was the only dry ground. Abandoned and destroyed cars littered the freeway dry zones, but below in the city I was looking upon, bodies waded through mired water and the cars...everwhere were cars and submerged buildings. It collected in my psyche like a calculator, I began to count the acreage, multiply the damage and quickly I accessed the scope. I understood what was coming, mold, homes collapsing, more danger later than now, the emotional suicide people were already committing, numb, lost and separated. Beloved pets watching for hope, people waiting for rescue, some hiding, many betrayed.

Too many weapons, I saw men strapped with so much firepower, I wondered when it is enough? Transport of holdouts was not dignified. Animals left behind, people died inside with guilt to leave them, begging their rescuers, and getting arrested for trying to feed them before they left. I looked at it all and saw the suffering. The rescuers suffered, some of the support services with weapons glorified in the freedom to exalt power, it was just too much for me at times. So I focused on observing, learning, and evaluating so I could be the voice for those who could not see what was happening all around me, to save myself amongst sadness.

I watched dogs eating dogs, and starvation, desperation and longing, animals desperate for love, for rescue and my heart just collapsed. But I did not cry, I would save that for later when I could be weak. Mr. Petrie was a 'holdout', I think the only reason he left his house on Desire Street was because I did not have a police officer on board with a weapon, and I gave him my word. We took him to his family far away from here, into safety. But he had to leave his dog. And when we left, I saw into this man's soul, the love that was deeply suffering, and I magnified that by hundreds, by thousands and I understood.

I went back home to California and turned right around. I was going to get Akita for him. And I did, with help from my brother, from Menlo Park Task Force 3, from God and the mystery of things unanswered. This time we moved for more and repeated the gift. There are many angels, the Cooksey's of the Friendly Yamaha dealership opened their doors every evening, we reunited families and loved ones there in Baton Rouge. Their Waverunners became our Ark, there was joy on those trips, and the work was good. Nobody will ever know the Cooksey's story, but I will, I will always remember the kindness, because it is a strong form of uncommon love.

Rita just arrived. Three million people are on the move. I feel the compression of this wall of humanity seeking higher ground. I don't know what to say, as I remember all the eyes, the expressions and the exact moment of a lifetime frozen in each passing second of working in New Orleans, the Orleans Parish, the 9th ward and being a witness for those would never know the smell of that water, the texture of suffering and the loss of dignity that passed me painfully in slow motion.

Last updated: 09/26/05