Four years ago, on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I sat with Patricia Thomas. Greg Palast and I had just helped her break into her home in the Lafitte Projects. She had been locked out for a year. She showed us her former home, her belongings scattered everywhere, and wrestled out endless stories of post-Katrina life: how she struggled to find shelter over the last year, how they came and put bars on her doors and windows and locked her out, how it was “man made.”
I picked up a photo of her at Mardi Gras, taken a few years earlier, and compared it to what she looked like now. In the picture her hair was longer, her face younger, her smile deeper. Now her arms were wasted and thin, her eyes sunken into her face, and her bottom front teeth were gone. On most days, she told me, she wore her dead mother’s dentures, but today she had forgotten to put them in. Her own teeth broke off when escaping the rising waters. She had fallen face first onto the concrete slab that was her front porch. The very spot where we were sitting was where it had happened. Over my left shoulder, running the length of the building, was a scar, a stain from the water line.
August in Louisiana is unbearably hot for a Northern boy. Beads of sweat poured from my face, down my neck. Patricia went inside, found an old roll of paper towels in a kitchen cabinet and brought me one. The quilted paper had a kitschy design — a giant heart with words that said, “Home Sweet Home.”
I looked at her and wondered how this could happen in my country.
A few weeks before, I was in Mexico City with Palast covering the Presidential Election. A presidency had been stolen. People were on the streets screaming “Vota por Vota, Casilla por Casilla!” Count the votes! “Vote by Vote, box by box!” I had seen the aftermath of a massacre in a small village outside Mexico City. I had seen people from all over the country rise up in anger taking to the streets. I had seen the Zapatistas march and Subcomandante Marcos himself flanked by young women acting as a protective barrier. I had seen the house where Trotsky was stabbed in the back of the head with an ice pick.
When I finally left Mexico City, I remember being deeply confused. The kind of confusion that tears at the soul and has the ability to completely dismantle any preconceived notions of how to view the world. I was inspired to see so many people fighting for democracy, and yet a deep depression sunk in as the plane took off. I knew their efforts would not matter. I had seen the American ‘consultants’, the DC hacks, in the offices of the ruling party and I knew it was over.
Now, here I was — back home in the United States — outside a decimated house near the levees, trying to understand why a New Orleans native, Brod Bagert, was calling a friend who worked with the fire department. Brod was asking his old friend what the number “5″ below the giant orange spray-painted X on the front of the house meant. But Brod already knew what it meant.
Here I was watching Brod, one year later, trying to convince himself that what had happened to his neighbors didn’t actually happen. After many long days of hearing countless horrifying stories and walking through miles of destruction, I now stood next to a grown man who was desperately trying to lie to himself simply because the alternative was too painful. I couldn’t hold back the tears. It was the first, and only, time in my professional life that I had to walk away from an interview. I hid out behind a smashed up, rotted out BMW and cried.
After a few minutes I returned to Brod. He hung up the phone, looked at Palast and me, and slowly choked, “Five people died here.”
He finally gave in to what had happened here: the sprayed “9-16″ above that X meant that those five bodies had been left to decompose for nearly 19 days before being discovered by rescue crews.
Brod rubbed his eyes and we went inside the house. His fathomless sadness hardened into anger. We walked through a sand dune littered with toys into what was once the living room. I tried not to imagine the mom and dad and kids as water crushed them against the ceiling; as they clawed for one more breath.
Brod took us down the street to his home, that is, the sticks that were left of his home. He was breathing hard, he was shaking. “Old ladies watched the water come up to their nose, over their eyes and they drowned in houses just like this, in this neighborhood, because of reckless negligence that is unanswered for.”
I think back now, to those words, spoken four years ago and wonder if it will ever be answered.
We then met Stephen Smith. He worked at the Marriott hotel, but had no car and no way to get out when the Mayor said to get out. Stephen pulled a dozen neighbors to a bridge over the rising water for four days as helicopters whirled overhead. Four days in the humid sun. No food. An old man gave his grandchildren his only bottle of water; then the old man died of dehydration. Stephen now works in a grocery store in Houston where FEMA ultimately dumped him. His kids live in Baton Rouge.
The next day Palast and I drove up to Baton Rouge to confront the company that was contracted to come up with an evacuation plan for the City of New Orleans. They had refused all of our interview requests, so we showed up at their offices to request a copy of the plan in person. We were quickly thrown out, they threatened to call security. They knew what we knew: There was no plan.
We drove out to the town of Baker. There, we surreptitiously passed through a security checkpoint before funneling into a massive FEMA trailer park. Here we met Pamela Lewis who told us her story of escaping the flood. Despite having MS, she pushed a boat with her 86-year-old mother, other relatives and neighbors through the streets of New Orleans. When she got to a bridge, armed men yelled at her, called her a nigger, and commanded her to turn around. They didn’t want a boat full of black people coming into their neighborhood. She then managed to make it to the Superdome where she was sprayed down by hoses, tossed on a bus, and then told to pay a fare and get off. She had no idea where she was.
We finished filming. Pamela stood in front of the car next to her trailer, and I locked eyes with her. I put the car in reverse and backed out, leaving her there, alone, not knowing what she was going to do with her life.
We drove back to New Orleans, passing an Exxon Oil Refinery — the only thing near Pamela’s trailer park. Several weeks later, at the request of Exxon, Homeland Security would file a criminal complaint against me and Palast under the anti-terrorism PATRIOT Act for filming “critical infrastructure.” The only thing critical about that refinery was the pollution it was spewing near what had become a refugee camp.
Five years have gone by and it is rare if a week passes that I don’t think of New Orleans. Nearly two thousand people lost their lives. An entire city was decimated. People were killed by the very police officers who were supposed to be protecting them. Hundreds of thousands lost their homes and livelihoods. To this day there are some still living in FEMA trailers. Patricia died a few years back in a horrible car accident; Lafitte, her home, has since been demolished.
My job was to go, to report, and then go home. My job was to leave Patricia, Pamela, Brod and countless others whom I had encountered, behind — to place them in a compartment in my mind, and to move on to the next story. Yet I never quite managed to do that with New Orleans. Maybe it was easier for me to cope in places like Mexico, but New Orleans was America. It happened in my country. All of the people I met in New Orleans — their images, their words — have, over the years, crystallized into a vivid sense of disenchantment with the romantic narrative of America I was taught as a child.
I sit here now, thumb through my old notebook that is labeled in black marker “NOLA” and find the paper towel Patricia gave me. It still reads, next to that big, faded heart, “Home Sweet Home.”