Katrina: a cameraman's journal in NOLA, part 3

Image: Ronald McDonald appears to have lost his home in the storm, too. BB reader David Brown says, "My girlfriend is in Biloxi doing relief work with HandsonUSA, and a young photographer accompanied a trip she took with some nurses trip to East Biloxi to give folks tetanus shots — those too poor to evacuate, some whose cars were washed away by Katrina. All they have left are half-destroyed houses; no way to get to relief supplies, so some relief must come to them." Link

Part three of a personal diary maintained by a friend who's a television cameraman working in the K-Hole:

It's September 13th and things have started to move here in New Orleans. Much of the water has dropped in the heavily flooded poorer neighborhoods, and most buildings appear to have been searched for survivors. Finding the dead will be time consuming, it requires breaking into some homes, and many have extra security, steel bars and doors.

Since the arrival of thousands of police, it's felt like an armed camp, but that seems to have diminished as military commanders have ordered troops to shoulder their assault rifles, remove the ammo clips, or store their M-16's out of view. It makes a difference. The local and federal cops that traveled here have partially disarmed as well. It's probably to the disappointment of some officers who really enjoyed brandishing a shotgun or semi-automatic handgun at a stranger – such as a black male.

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the local constable on the Crystal City Connection (a bridge on US 90) for increasing my heart-rate about 400% last week. We were approaching a check-point and apparently he mistook 2 carloads of exhausted network news crews in late model rental cars for Bloods and Crips exporting jewelry or looted expensive electronics. After brandishing his sidearm for several moments and a lecture about driving too fast (?????) we were free to depart the area.

The change is instantly noticeable late at night. Last night, as we drove a good portion of the city around 10pm, there were virtually none of these local cops….the ones that drove in from places like Deerfield Township, Ohio or Douglas County, Colorado. The streets are much calmer. There's a logical explanation for the transformation. Carnival Cruise Lines has brought in what looks like a large party ship, and it is open only (as I understand it) to visiting cops, official workers or local cops who've lost their homes. We should all appreciate the charity shown to the N.O. cops, most of whom have lost houses and even family members. But, it must be some scene on board, what with all that great food, beer, and maybe even a little bit of Las Vegas style entertainment. It's keeping almost all of them off the street after sundown, so there is definitely something doing. You do see NYPD patrolling fairly late, they have 300 officers and from the moment they got here, they've been serious about doing a good job. It's must be a cathartic assignment – 9/11 and all.

I drove much of the Ninth ward yesterday. It was a sobering view of poverty in the inner city. I can't imagine what it must be like to be sitting in the Astrodome having watched the flood waters inundate this sad portion of a great American city. I honestly don't know what the authorities will decide to do, or what they should do. There are so many pathetic little shacks with a putrid water line nearly up to the roof. The saddest thing for the former residents would be to see it all gentrified – rebuilt….just not for them. Where are all the General Marshalls when we need them?

I spent a lot of time yesterday with the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin. I just don't know what to make of this guy. I don't know anything about him, but I do know that he has done a complete turnaround from his previous and well publicized criticism of our dear Administration. To hear him talk today – he is George W's biggest fan. You are not going to hear one nasty word come out of his mouth as pertains to Mr. Bush. He wants to see his city rebuilt…..and they have hit him over the head with one big-ass shovel…….

The streets are New Orleans are largely secured by the National Guard and active duty troops. The have taken control and they are good. They know what to do and they are respectful and efficient. The soldiers have an almost familial charm about them – as though every single one could be your kid, or your neighbor's. Even before my weeks in Iraq, I've always admired their professionalism and the seriousness with which they approach any task.

Yesterday, I met the army captain in charge of a huge part of the downtown area. He's 82nd Airborne – a quiet, charming and seemingly well educated young officer. When he talks, you can sense his awe for the suffering that occurred in his operational area which includes the Superdome and the Convention Center. We talked for a while, and he is seriously troubled by what has transpired here. He can't reconcile the violence and inhumanity that took place in those buildings. There were armed bands of gang-bangers snatching victims in the hallway and bringing them back to Hall "E" to be raped or even killed. His task now is to remove debris, mountains of it, and sanitize the facility, which is being done by crews in white moon-suits. Many of his troops are just back from Iraq, and some of them have told me that they find this assignment more disturbing than what they endured in that sad part of the world. From what I've seen, we should be proud of these guys. They are our sons and daughters and they are doing what they are paid to do. And we don't pay them much to do it.

I was also impressed with one part of FEMA that definitely works. There are existing contracts between FEMA and various larger fire departments to provide urban search and swift water rescue teams to respond to disasters such as this one. These firefighters have been working non-stop saving lives since they got here. Initially, they used boats, but now move house to house by foot. They were some of the first to respond to N.O., flown in by the Air Force. The Army, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard chopper crews, should also be recognized for the relentless task of plucking victims from their homes. If the system fell apart, it was by no fault of these first responders. We should remember that the bulk of the criticism has not been about their lack of response, but the shear lack of planning. Just like corporate America, if police or fire resources are squandered, blame the management.

Once again, I made the mistake of watching television, this time CNN. Paula Zahn was interviewing a California Highway Patrol captain describing the disaster scene in the French Quarter. It must have been tough duty wandering those dangerous narrow streets searching for all those starving, dehydrated survivors…..NOT!!! The French Quarter is substantially intact, almost no flooding, minor looting, and lots of residents hanging around, sweeping the streets, drinking, and even a few playing music. That didn't stop Paula from asking the tough questions. "How many people did you encounter today in your search for survivors?"….. The captain said the number was around 30.

What he didn't tell you is that these are some of the luckiest residents in New Orleans. This was purely an opportunity for him to appear on network television and make it appear that they are doing something worthwhile, worth the tens of thousands of dollars we are paying him and his large group of colleagues to be here. It was a great way for him to wave the flag and show the public and his superiors, that they are doing something. The only problem is that it was deceptive — and ultimately, dishonest.

And then there is Fox News. Man, do I even want to go here. It's as though the hurricane was just another round of WWF Smackdown. When I watch Fox, I always feel as if they are describing some sporting event. The reporter I watched should be sent back to elementary school under some provision of "No child left behind". In his standup, he used words that don't even exist…. "hurricanic" or something like that. His hair was great though, that sort of bad-boy flippy frosty kind of thing – like the guy on Extreme Home Makeover which I'd like to point out, is entertainment. I turned it off, feeling as if I was a participant in something that was nearly disrespectful to the dead.

I think that I will be out of here tomorrow afternoon. You can really burn out covering something like this. I hope that if you have gotten anything out of what I've written, it is to scrutinize where you get your information. Even great newspapers like the New York Times have been known to make things up. It's a tough dilemma, one I whine about all the time. We all see things through different eyes.

I don't claim to be an exclusive source of accurate information, I'm just writing about what I've seen. Someone else might see what I've seen in a completely different light. I do regret that since I won't be here – I won't know what is true or truly distorted or what's pretend. Quite the dilemma. Goodbye New Orleans….hello NPR.


A cameraman's journal in NOLA

A TV cameraman's diary, part two.