To Protect Through Fear

Organization was key to the sandbagging effortsThe call came at 1:30 in the morning–from a friend in distress. Earlier in the evening we had developed a plan. Anyone could see by that point that the six days of sandbagging would not pay off. He was to box a few valuables tonight to facilitate the move in the morning. The city had been telling the residents they still had a day or so, and the water was clearly visible, still below the berm upon which the sandbag levee sat. No imminent danger, so I went to sleep not expecting to be called, though I had told my friend not to hesitate to do so.

Unfortunately, the city had decided in an extemporaneous panic to evacuate everyone at 1:30 a.m., giving them a half hour to leave everything behind to flee. The police were adamant: “You only had five minutes left five minutes ago.” We stayed two hours under the threat of arrest with a dozen officers milling outside the house while we packed. We watched, while we loaded boxes of photo albums, computers, and artwork into trucks, the other neighbors rousted, fearful, leaving in the prescribed half-hour, abandoning everything to the flood. Meanwhile, the water remained below the berm upon which the levee sat. In the morning, the water still remained low, though surely enough, by early afternoon, the street was flooded.

Because I experienced Katrina firsthand, I was asked to write an essay comparing this flood, and the response to it, to the flooding after Katrina, and the fiasco that followed.

Instead, I will offer advice.

Katrina came with little warning. The evacuation order was ignored by many, those who could not leave and those who did not want to leave. I was among the latter. In a few cases, not mine, good citizens refused to leave even to the point of armed standoff with police. Thankfully.

When the winds subsided and the water began to fill the city, there was an urgent need to rescue the people who could not leave. Those who stayed were the first responders. In fact, by the time the authorities arrived back in the city, the citizens who had stayed had already cleared the streets of debris, and were already rescuing people with their own boats. The authorities quickly moved them out to set up their own rescue operations, described by many as “totally inept.”

I don’t want to lapse into anecdote, but here I cannot resist. As I was riding my bicycle, I stumbled across a line of official Department of Wildlife and Fisheries trucks, each towing a flatboat. The line was blocks long, literally fading into the distance. I rode up to the first truck of the armada. The leader got out of his truck holding a map of my city. He had only been to the French Quarter before, never anywhere else in New Orleans. “You’re in the Quarter now,” I said, pointing at a sidewalk littered with beer cans and plastic cups. He recognized the signs. He was lost and not sure where his forces were even supposed to be. I pointed to a spot on the map and told him that people I knew were rescuing others and using the expressway ramp as a boat ramp. He should join their effort.

He was skeptical, not sure if that was his spot. It seemed so as not to step on each other’s toes, each enforcement division had been given their own turf. As they u-turned in a very organized manner, I wondered, if they had had so much trouble following a street map while on the street, how they would fare in the miles and miles of flooded parts of the city. I asked him if he wanted me to come along as a guide. He thought about it, then: it’s not allowed, he said.

It is very difficult for me to write about these things without bitterness.

In the aftermath of Katrina, citizens with boats drove from all over the country to help the rescue effort. Most were turned away at the city gates, or were marginalized. Yet the effort caught both the public imagination and the political one. Other citizens, as mentioned, cleared the city streets within a day or so, before even the National Guard arrived, allowing the flow of traffic without which the rescue effort would have been a disaster unto itself. The first road cut through the fallen trees led from the downtown to the only operating hospital left for many many miles.

During this flood, I watched a similar phenomenon as the nation’s imagination was swept away by the efforts of the volunteers sandbagging. People came from all over to lend a hand. Even the President thanked them, and to the volunteers was attributed the best of what makes the American People the greatest ever seen.

It was only on-the-scene, out of the light of the cameras, that those same people could have been swept away without a murmur.

I wonder what that 1:30 a.m. call would have been if our leadership had been as resourceful, and as community-minded as the citizens themselves. What if the police, after an emergency meeting with the council and the mayor, had handled the evacuation in a different way? What if they had awoken a few neighbors, and begun to ask for volunteers to help wake others? What if the police, with their radios and up-to-date information, had been trained to organize and facilitate, in addition “to protect and to serve?” What if the city had brought in expert advice in the form of engineers (who certainly would volunteer their efforts), and the police had utilized them to monitor the water level, and sound an alarm if things began to move more quickly than anticipated. What if the police had begun to organize the neighbors into groups, some to wake others, some to write down lists of people in the area who were infirmed or especially needy, some to call friends with trucks and boxes. What if the police had organized the neighborhood, instead of disbanding it?

Could we train police to do this? Why not? They had done it with the sandbagging effort. Why is it that in this great country, where self-reliance, hard work, and sacrifice are of paramount importance, why is it that in this same country fear and control are used as weapons to bend people to authority? I was told, many times both here and after Katrina, that it was for my own good. “Its too risky.” Yet I for one am perfectly willing to take on some risk to save my community. I do not expect the police to shoulder the entire load. The place I would look for expert help willing to risk everything in the best spirit of America is not in the government, at least, not only there. The government’s role should be to facilitate the use of these wonderful resources that are already here and aching to help any way they can.

We the people are not criminals for wanting to help protect what is ours. I am willing to brave a few floodwaters (and unfortunately some police) to help my neighbor. So let me!

My promised advice is this: in order to protect and to serve our communities, our leaders should first get to know them. The government at all levels should learn to coordinate, not just among themselves, but the efforts of the citizenry, a vast resource of know-how and can-do that is largely ignored. The sandbagging efforts should be a wake up call. We should look at that effort, how it was organized and facilitated, and extend that mode of thought to other aspects of dealing with natural disasters.