Thursday, September 15, 2005

Hell On Earth

If you haven't already read this gripping account in today's Washington Post, by all means, please do. It gives a chilling account of what went on at the New Orleans Convention Center in the days after Hurricane Katrina hit the city. You need to read the whole story, but here are some excerpts.

First, there was some form of law enforcement involved in the form of the Louisiana National Guard that was in the center. But they refused to intervene:

That futility was symbolized by the presence in the convention center for three of the most chaotic days of at least 250 armed troops from the Louisiana National Guard. They were camped out in a huge exhibition hall separated from the crowd by a wall, and used their trucks as a barricade when they were afraid the crowd would break in.

The troops were never deployed to restore order and eventually withdrew, despite the pleas of the convention center's management. Louisiana Guard commanders said their units' mission was not to secure the facility, and soldiers on the scene feared inciting further bloodshed if they had intervened. "We didn't want another Kent State," said Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, commander of the active-duty military forces responding to Katrina. "They weren't trained for crowd control."

Then there was the problem of mixing housing developments that in put warring gangs together:

In more than 70 interviews, with both military and law enforcement officials -- who were themselves sometimes inside the center -- and with many of the survivors who suffered over the course of several nights, a chilling portrait emerges of anarchy and violence, exacerbated by young men from rival housing projects -- Magnolia, St. Bernard, Iberville, Calliope.

"Everywhere I went, I saw people with guns in their hands," said Troy Harris, 18. "They were putting guns to people's heads."

Recounting their pleas for milk for their babies, for food, for protection, many survivors described the same sense of bewilderment and anger -- broadcast, surreally, on live television. "This is America," one woman shouted into the TV cameras. What she meant was, this is not supposed to happen here.


A gang broke into the locked alcohol storage areas and suddenly had 50 cases of hard liquor and 200 cases of beer. And before long, there were scenes of gangsters, drunk, groping after young girls -- and those scenes not far from the ones of women in corners, balled up, praying all frozen with a Hobson's choice: the gangsters, or the floodwaters.

Then there is this horrible account of the abuse of power:

That same day, the New Orleans police made a dramatic entrance. Sgt. Hans Ganthier and 12 other New Orleans SWAT team members entered the center, M-4 commando rifles at the ready. Prayers had been answered -- only it was a rescue mission of a different purpose.

A Jefferson Parish police deputy had appealed to SWAT team Capt. Jeff Winn for help in bringing out his wife and a female relative from the center. "He knew they were there and was hearing nightmarish stories," said Ganthier, who declined to identify the officer for security reasons.

Winn approved the mission.

When the SWAT team entered at 11 a.m., the Jefferson Parish officer called out his wife's name. She heard him, and along with the relative rushed to his side. The SWAT team put the women in the middle of the team, then backed out the door.

Once it became clear that the SWAT team had come with the single goal of rescuing two white women, anger exploded.

"Racists!" one man cried out.

"Some people were upset we weren't rescuing them," said Ganthier. "It's hard to leave people behind like that, but we were aiding an officer."

Finally, the images of death and quite possibly murder:

Three days after the evacuation, Staff Sgt. Juan Almonte, a medic with the 82nd Airborne Division, slipped past a caution sign and through a ripped metal door, bracing himself for the task ahead -- to "bag" the bodies still inside the convention center.

Inside the food-service area near Hall A, sitting slumped in a black wheelchair, was a woman of about 60 in a hospital gown. A man in a shirt and jogging pants lay curled up on the concrete floor next to her, his hand over his face.

To Almonte's right down a wide hallway, a large man -- the medic guessed he was at least 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds -- lay with his arms over his head and knees bent. Another woman in hospital scrubs lay a few feet from him, next to aluminum cans and trays with stained but elegant white dinner menus.

Around the bodies were pools of dried blood. Looking closer, he noted swelling and abrasions on the corpses. He stared at what he found next. On the gray, soiled floor several feet from the dead lay a pair of shiny brass knuckles.

"My perception was that they were beaten to death," he said last week. "Absolutely, they were killed."

I don't have much to say about this. I mean, it kind of takes your breath away. Maybe I will have something more to say later, but for now I just sit in dumbfounded silence.


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