A Decade After Katrina, 2 New Orleans Lawmakers Look Back
On Saturday, New Orleans observes the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The storm left behind unimaginable destruction as well as a complicated and emotional legacy with which survivors still grapple. CQ Roll Call met separately recently with Louisiana Reps. Steve Scalise, the House Republican whip, and his longtime friend Cedric L. Richmond, a Democrat, to talk about the impact of Katrina. Their recollections (both were state lawmakers at the time), edited for length and organized for chronology, are part of a series on the storm 218 will publish this week.
Saturday, Aug. 27
Two days before the storm.
Richmond: Look, people didn’t leave. I thought [then-Mayor Ray Nagin’s] notice to leave was very, very weak. … [He] came on TV and said, “Look, all I can tell you is I’m sending my family out of town and you should do the same.” … [It] should have been something more along the lines of, “Get the hell out of the city.”
Scalise: I remember when the storm was coming. It first went to Florida, … everybody thought we’d dodged a bullet. … [Then] it turned around and came back. I remember just looking at it on the radar, how massive it was. You could tell this thing was gonna be a devastating storm.
Richmond: [Nagin] was on the same conference call I was on with [then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco], the National Guard, FEMA and others. … I put the phone on mute while I listened to the conference call, while I was across the street coaching Little League. Finally, when it was my turn to ask questions, … I said, “Governor, I’ve heard everything everybody said. I can hear the fear in your voice. I can hear ‘10,000 body bags.’ All I know is, I am convinced this is the one. But I have a problem.” And [the governor] said, “What?”
“My one problem is that there are a thousand people across the street from my house where I am right now playing Little League and none of them can hear what you’re saying. And there’s no sense of urgency anywhere.”
Sunday, Aug. 28
One day before the storm. With his family already evacuated, Richmond spent the final hours before the hurricane’s arrival packing up relatives’ houses. Scalise was en route to Houston with his wife, whom he’d just married three months earlier, to wait things out.
Scalise: It probably took 20 hours to get [to Houston]. The roads were packed with people. … When they said, “Evacuate,” unfortunately not everyone took that seriously, because there were other storms that dodged east at the last minute, but I mean, you could tell this was going to be a damaging storm, so when they said “Evacuate,” we got out.
Richmond: We got a text from Johnny Anderson, one of [Blanco’s] assistant chiefs of staff, [Saturday] night, saying, “The governor instructed me on Sunday morning to go from church to church to tell people to pray, pack and leave.” And that must have been 11 o’clock at night. I said, “Johnny, that’s great, but I’m going barroom to barroom, club to club, tonight, telling people to get out of town, because this is the big one.” … I drove around all day Sunday, and I would see people in the street. I would beg them to leave. And some of those people left. Some of them didn’t. Some of them called while they were stuck in their house, saying, “I didn’t listen to you, I need help.” And we’d send the National Guard, Coast Guard to help them evacuate.
Scalise: There was some numbness. For so long we were hearing about the big one and people don’t think the big one’s ever going to come. Frankly, most people did evacuate, I think well over 70 percent, maybe 80 percent.
Richmond: I don’t think that part was really ever explained, that people were so used to dodging the big one and there was never a real sense of urgency spread over the city to get people to leave.
Monday, Aug. 29.
The storm arrived. Scalise and his wife were with cousins in Houston, while Richmond and his dog were at the Baton Rouge home of his friend and colleague, state Rep. Avon Honey. Scalise returned to New Orleans by the week’s end, working remotely in the meantime to gather information for constituents. Richmond was back in the city the very next day.
Scalise: I remember the first day after the storm hit, when you were trying to get results of the flooding but nobody knew exactly what was going on. We had conference calls with state police and the governor’s office, Homeland Security. … I still have the notes from that first call, and I remember the state police telling us that the Twin Span Bridge was out, which is Interstate 10 … literally lanes of Interstate 10 that covered Lake Pontchartrain got picked up by the storm surge [and] were gone. That was the first update where you realized, “This is major devastation.” This isn’t “a few houses got water.”
Richmond: I was on the ground the next day with water and supplies. … I didn’t go in with any entourage. I didn’t go in with any security. It was me, another councilman named Oliver Thomas, we just went. We went to Walmart and loaded up on water and goods and other things, and we went into a community and gave it out. People couldn’t get out of their communities, didn’t know where they were taking people. It was just a mess.
Scalise: I went and found a wireless network somewhere and emailed out the results of that first update, and then that was when we started doing daily email updates where I emailed whatever I found out. … I was just taking notes wherever I could, and just trying to get information out to whoever I could get it to. … The Internet hadn’t developed to the point where social media was really prevalent, so email was the main form of communication and most people didn’t even have access to email, in the city for sure: There was no power for three weeks.
In the days and weeks that followed, confusion and chaos reigned in the ruined city.
Richmond: It took several days for the government to figure out what to do with people. … [They] just started putting people on planes, sending them all over the country. And I will tell you what my most vivid memory is coming to the airport and looking at all these people in line to get on planes, military planes, and people asking the armed servicemen, “Where are we going?” [and getting the answer,] “I don’t know, just stay in the line. We’re getting you out of here.” And people couldn’t ask questions. People didn’t have any input. They just put people on planes and spread ‘em out all over the country, from Utah to Atlanta to Houston and Dallas, all of those had really big shelters.
I remember one lady in line crying, saying, “Cedric, I have family in Shreveport, I don’t need to go to Utah. And if I stay in this line, they’re gonna make me go to Utah.” And I remember taking her out of that line and getting her on a [Louisiana Legislative] Black Caucus bus and sending her on up to Shreveport.
Scalise: Clearly the city did not have an adequate evacuation plan for people who couldn’t evacuate — for instance, backup relief shelters. … You look at the Superdome, which was probably one of the first true symbols of devastation. The roof of the dome is all torn to pieces. … It was not an evacuation center, yet 10,000 people showed up, all huddled together. They weren’t equipped to feed people, the plumbing was even out.
Richmond: I was chair of the [Louisiana Legislative] Black Caucus. I remember my first news conference, it was at the emergency center in Baton Rouge, and I [said] we were bringing busses down to New Orleans, we were gonna start getting people on our own, we’re not gonna wait for government, and I remember closing the press conference with: “And by the way: will you please stop referring to people as refugees? They’re American citizens who pay taxes who work every day who are displaced, they are not refugees.”
Scalise: I wanted the military in New Orleans. Literally five, six days after, I wanted to see a stronger military presence because the police structure was decimated. I remember one time calling the White House and asking if they would send the military in, and they said, “We can’t do that because the governor won’t let us.” I asked, “Is there someone else we can ask?” They said, “No, you can’t.”
Richmond: The manner in which they treated victims … is astonishing, and I will remember to this day people waiting in the airport for over a day, almost two days, to get evacuated out. There was not a bathroom … not anything. And they were just so quick to treat and call people as acting not civilized, but you put 5,000 people at an airport and you don’t give them a restroom, you don’t give them water, you’re asking for disaster. … The military treated them like it was their fault that they were there.
Scalise: There was the day we were trying to find the mayor to try to get more military assets into the city … me and [former Rep.] Curt Weldon [R-Pa.], the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, we got some state troopers … we went to City Hall [and] the sheriff said he’s over at the Hyatt Regency.
So you look at the Hyatt Regency and like half the windows are blown out, it’s just in disarray … the power’s out, there’s one elevator that was working … you’re just looking at this, going, “What happened?’” Eventually we found somebody that said he was down in this kind of conference room … and they have candles, literally candles, lighting this room. When the mayor came in, I mean, he was just a shell of the guy that you knew. … We were talking to him and the police pulled him out, whispered something to him, and he comes back in just with this blank stare.
I had heard they told him a police officer just killed himself.
On Wednesday, read Scalise’s and Richmond’s reflections on the aftermath of the storm, and how two men who lived through the same event walked away with such different experiences.