Learning from the Storms
Struggling with luggage outside the Union Passenger Terminal (UPT), 66-year-old Geraldine Bush recalls the end of her career as a doorman at the Wyndham Canal Place hotel.
“I retired the night of [Hurricane] Katrina,” Bush says.
She and members of her family soon found themselves among the desperate masses of the New Orleans Morial Convention Center.
She recalls how she and others hid from New Orleans police officers who angrily ordered crowds of evacuees to leave the city.
Sept. 5, 2008, almost three years to the day after the last Katrina evacuee had left the Convention Center, Mrs. Bush returned home after fleeing Hurricane Gustav.
She and her brother, Henry Charles, 68, took the city-assisted evacuation train to Memphis, Tenn.
Now, they’re back home, threading their way through armed National Guard troops, police and Red Cross workers at the UPT.
Her brother is in poor health but looks tall and dignified in a white dress shirt. He stops often to catch his breath in the morning heat.
She carries her bags and his luggage. She stops almost as often as he does, shifting the weight of the bags from one hand to another.
No private cars are allowed to approach the UPT; the entrances are reserved for city-assisted evacuees returning on buses from North Louisiana shelters. So, Mrs. Bush and her brother walk to a car in a parking lot several long blocks away.
Every now and again, she looks back to urges him on: “Come on, Henry!”
They reach Loyola Avenue.
An NOPD officer stops traffic for the brother and sister.
They struggle past circles of bored-looking cops and troops. The terminal behind the elderly pair is thick with young volunteers, eager to help folks like the Bushes. Somehow, the senior citizens escaped unnoticed.
Mayor Ray Nagin didn’t want New Orleans evacuees to return so soon. The storm left downed trees and power lines, citywide. There are no grocery stores or pharmacies open, Nagin says.
Hospitals are struggling to reopen. A dusk-to-dawn curfew is still in effect. Guard patrols and police are roaming the city, on the lookout for looters.
Undaunted by the cautionary tales of post-storm conditions, especially widespread power outages, she says, “I got candles.”
Then she turns around.
Her brother is still across the street, sitting on the bumper of a parked truck, trying to catch his breath. He holds a white handkerchief in his right hand.
“Come on, Henry,” she says.
In the parking lot, Mrs. Bush is reunited with her sister, Cleo Lewis, 62, a former teacher and insulin-dependent diabetic.
After evacuating for Katrina, Lewis fell ill and required surgery. She spent more than two and half years convalescing in Lakeland, Tenn. She returned home to New Orleans – just in time to evacuate for Gustav. Now she too is home, again.
“I’m grateful,” Lewis smiles.
She says she wants to thank the mayor, the City Council and all the volunteers who made the Gustav evacuation possible. She gently suggests improvements for the storm next time – such as convening emergency planners with special-needs evacuees.
What about the New Orleans Police Department? How did the officers on the force – much criticized for its conduct and handling of Katrina – carry themselves during Gustav?
“New Orleans Police were New Orleans’ finest!” Mrs. Bush says. “This time, you saw their human side.”
“And last time?” someone asks.
“Last time, you saw their survival side,” she says evenly.
Another woman drives up and joins the sisters. The three hug, laugh and playfully compare NOPD’s hurricane experience to – motherhood. “Katrina was their first ‘baby,’” Mrs. Bush says of NOPD. The other women nod, adding that a mother’s first child is always the most difficult to raise.
“[Police] were telling us to – ‘get out of town!’” Mrs. Bush says, recalling her Katrina experience.
“Gustav was [NOPD’s] second child– and your second child is always easier,” Mrs. Lewis says. The other women nod in agreement.
“And you don’t want a third child!” the women laugh, referring to Hurricane Ike.
They pile into a car and drive off, cheerfully.
November is a time for elections, Thanksgiving, and – thankfully – the official end of hurricane season (Nov. 30).
New Orleans received high marks for its first test since Hurricane Katrina, according to a post-Gustav poll by The Kaiser Family Foundation.
In fact, 57 percent of Americans surveyed, said the federal government should continue funding the city’s recovery.
Locally, crime consistently polls higher as the top public concern. But for mass action, hurricanes trump crime. World support for New Orleans’ will wane, if we don’t do something about our violent crime.
The Web site for Foreign Policy magazine recently listed New Orleans as the “most deadly” city in the nation, and one of five world “murder capitals” – notorious for “brutal, homicidal violence.”
We consistently lead the nation in per capita homicides and the world is beginning to notice our shocking indifference.
We express more alarm over a televised “cone of uncertainty” for the Gulf of Mexico than the almost nightly images of bright police markers at shooting scenes.
Most of the victims are somehow anonymous, misspent lives of inner-city youths, caught up in the drug games and quickly dispatched to funeral homes or prisons.
All were children once.
Meanwhile, more than 600 days have passed since Mayor Ray Nagin promised angry marchers outside City Hall that he would end the city’s chronically high murder rate.
Yet, violence continues.
New Orleans Police are entering their fourth year under Chief Warren Riley this month. The cops seem to be able to catch armed thugs; they just don’t seem to be able to stop them, one reporter noted recently.
On Nov. 30, exactly six months remain until the start of Nagin’s last hurricane season as mayor.
During Gustav, Nagin showed a flash of the leadership style New Orleans needs for both hurricanes and the violent crime crisis.
As Gustav approached, he not only called for a mandatory evacuation, but an unprecedented “suspension” of all tourist-related activities and the closing of hotels. For this town, that is serious.
But it’s getting late for the mayor. His term is almost over.
With a new district attorney, New Orleans may have its last best chance to keep crime from strangling the recovery. The top prosecutor’s top priority should be unifying estranged community activists and law enforcement, behind short-, medium- and long-term goals.
Outside audits of NOPD crime statistics would be a great place to start, according to a 1998 recommendation of the city Office Municipal Investigation.
As for the next hurricane evacuation, a more humanitarian approach is needed. Helping ailing and elderly evacuees with their luggage is a good way for volunteers, cops or anyone else to say welcome home.