Ahead of the storm

One Oak Park family's ordeal in leaving New Orleans

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By Stan West

It seems so surreal writing these words you read today about how last week my family and I fled like rats from a sewer people used to know as New Orleans. It's where jazz was born. There's half a million stories in the wretched city.

Here's ours.
Like everyone else on the Gulf Coast, we, too, knew that Hurricane Katrina was coming our way. Like most, we prayed for a glancing blow. And like some, we prepared for the worst. The main reason why my wife, Earlene and my twin sons, Amman and Jordan, risked it August 23 to drive from Oak Park to New Orleans was the boys' godmother, former Forest Park resident, Leucindia Reid, was aging and sick from dialysis and we felt we could convince her to evacuate if she saw us one last time.

It worked. On Friday, August 26, after I went online to file a couple of work assignments, we  loaded up our SUV with Popeye's Chicken and sodas and went to sit with Leucindia at her Ninth Ward home, just yards from a body of water bubbling under a bridge next to her shotgun shack. We talked about her granddaughters who live in Austin, and we talked about the impending hurricane. All Amman could talk about, though, was how he badly he wanted a cherry slush from Sonic. The closest one was 10 miles away in a place that would later make the news -- the city of Algiers that became a triage landing spot for evacuees. So we all went in the car and got Sonic treats, just like old times.

On Saturday we headed back to the Ninth Ward to do everything we could including packing her bags to get Leucindia to leave the next day. On the way there, we visited my childhood friend, Luther Gray's home. He lives in one of the outlying parishes that two years ago when I visited him, got overrun by so much river water during that hurricane, that baby gators and snakes from the nearby overflowing sewer squiggled down his streets. Today, Luther was nowhere to be found. The phone was off. Lights were off. Cars were gone. "It's a sign maybe we should go sooner than later," I told my wife. She feared for Leucindia. I feared for us. The boys feared for the folks in the Bayou.

We stopped off at a popular Vietnamese-Cajun soul food place and picked up tasty po'boys sandwiches, gumbo, greens, Cajun shrimp and Creole catfish for what we all knew would be the "last supper." We ate the best meal ever and convinced a reluctant Leucindia to leave with her niece, Clara, to their Houston relative's house.

Amman pressured his mom to leave before she was ready. He sensed danger and wanted to return to the French Quarter hotel where we stayed and now packed for the run for our lives early Sunday morning, but not before making one last run of Bourbon Street. With impending doom looming, we cherished these final memories.

At 5 a.m. Sunday morning, August 28, Leucindia and her family were on the road heading west and we were on the road headed north, albeit at a snail's pace; traffic moved at 5 mph for several hours as the three-lane highways clogged with tens of thousands of others fleeing. Late Sunday night, Leucindia made it to Houston safely. Monday morning, August 29, nearly 24 hours later, we finally pulled in to our Oak Park driveway.

That's about the time all hell broke loose back in New Orleans. A sea of suffering, wind, rain, pain, filth, feces, fear, fire, flood, poverty, race and recovery stormed; helicopters rescuing people from rooftops, tireless heroes in a new Ground Zero in a national tragedy and personal loss where administering the living, burying the dead and processing the haunting images is perhaps described best by rapper Kanye West who Sept. 2 told TV telethon viewers: "You see a black family; they (reporters) say they're looters.. You see a white family; they say they're looking for food. President Bush doesn't care about black people."

Again, I believe even Stevie Wonder can see the racial and political implications here. Others chime in. You want to look at BlackCommentator.com and see the discussion there. I've been talking with an Atlanta-based commentator named Bruce Dixon, who questions who will be allowed back in New Orleans, who will not and who will be allowed to rebuild and who will not?

New Orleans is 75 percent black (DC, too). "How can officials tell the difference between looters and citizens if both are black," is a question he raised. The fact I'm a reporter and I'm black and I was there makes it impossible for me not to inquire deeper into this subject. I'm going to take a couple days to review clips, online stuff, and newspaper reports and do a couple interviews for commentary on the medium and the message we're getting about looters, loss and life itself.
Another six hours and me and my family would have been unable to get out. My wife, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, is so rattled, she couldn't treat her patients yesterday. She sat in the parking lot of her hospital for two hours crying and then came back home after driving 90 minutes there and 90 minutes back. And she's a professional.

She's also a "professional paranoid" like you. I think you'd like Earlene. Anyway, she said "I could feel the pain of the families of those whose relatives were floating on the streets of New Orleans! The pain is overwhelming!" I think a large part of it is "survival guilt," a post-traumatic condition I've reported a lot on from refugee camps in Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Jordan, Colombia, Panama and the West Bank.

Last point. Officials tell displaced New Orleans citizens to "goacross the bridge" and when they get there, nothing and no one is there to help. No food. No water. No housing. No loud speaker. No leadership. This gets to your point. Is it me or is there a racial response to this tragedy? The answer is so obvious even Stevie Wonder sees it!

One of my students had a different point of view."As much as the suffering of the people during this hurricane, myself included, has been terrible for the people of New Orleans, it has also exposed a complex series of problems that have existed for hundreds of years.  These problems were nothing that anyone could have changed in 4 years, much less the period of time Mayor Nagin has been in office. Educate yourself.  Read more about New Orleans and Louisiana before you go around displaying your callous, crass ignorance." -Wesley Harris, refugee from the city of New Orleans

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